Essay- ‘How can wildlife filmmaking have an impact on nature and can nature have an impact on wildlife filmmaking?’

How can wildlife filmmaking have an impact on nature and can nature have an impact on wildlife filmmaking?

by Arianne Kenworthy

Ocean Giants (BBC), The Great Barrier Reef (BBC) and Frozen Planet (BBC): just some of the many wildlife documentaries, which have peppered British schedules in 2011. Seemingly part of the diet of hungry television consumers, these programmes make nature accessible to all, from the wildest waves to the most deserted arctic deserts. However, what impact do they have on the worlds they portray and how can the natural world affect their production?

This essay discusses how wildlife documentaries can have both a positive and negative effect on nature. It will look at the conservation awareness many bring to viewers, the increase in tourism they can lead to, the method of story telling and the staging of natural events. Linking to this, it will then look at how the unpredictability of nature can have a restrictive impact on the production of wildlife filmmaking. It will then come to a conclusion about how nature and filmmaking go hand in hand when it comes to them having an impact on each other.

Firstly, conservation; a word clearly associated with the environment and a factor present in a considerable amount of wildlife programming. This indicates a positive effect they can have on the natural world. Some filmmakers are reluctant to discuss it in fear it is “boring, worrying and depressing to the public” (Boswell, 1982: 222) and could impact the viewing figures needed to ensure their survival in the multi-channel environment.  However, others feel that it is important to include it within wildlife films as it is a major part of nature and people should be aware of the issues. I spoke to wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer who agrees with this and says that:

“Wildlife films are exploiting a resource to benefit the producer/network financially. They have an obligation, in my opinion, to give something back, and to preserve the resource they are exploiting for future generations to enjoy. [It is] very important, otherwise viewers may not learn the importance of conservation and their responsibilities in that area.”

One documentary film, which clearly focuses upon a severe conservational issue, is the 2009 film The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos). Through secret filming, viewers are shown the shocking and brutal nature of the Japanese dolphin hunting culture as local fisherman herd bottlenose dolphins into a cove in Taiji. Some are selected by dolphin trainers from across the globe whilst the remaining are mercilessly slaughtered and have their meat sold. According to filmmaker Kevin Railsback,

“…Once these issues are brought out into the open through the colourful, graphic images that film footage can provide, more people are alerted to these problems giving them the opportunity to get involved in a positive constructive way”     (2011)

The compelling images of the crimson, bloodstained waters in The Cove seemingly made people more aware of the severity of the issue and provoked them to take action, as an online petition now has around 400,000 signatures. The website of the film itself encourages viewers to write to authoritative people such as the Prime Minister to help make a difference and also claims that “Under intense pressure, Taiji called for a temporary ban on killing bottlenoses dolphins in 2009” (Takepart, 2009). This reinforces the idea that some wildlife programmes can have a positive impact on nature as they can lead to things being done to help with environmental issues.

One the other hand, sometimes filmmakers can inadvertently cause problems for nature whilst trying to convey conservation. I recently spoke to Doug Allen, a cameraman whose credits include Frozen Planet, who highlighted the idea that documentaries can often lead to an increase in the number of tourists visiting the places depicted,

“What often happens is that with these wildlife documentaries is that people see them and want to go and see these things for themselves for the first time and you can end up with too many visitors and it can end up being spoiled. So many places in the world which now get huge numbers of tourists, you wonder if no one knew about them then people wouldn’t visit them and therefore they might be better protected.”

Frozen Planet, for example, is the BBC’s most recent ‘blue chip’ wildlife series, which explores the opposite ends of the Earth: the Arctic and Antarctic. With an undertone of the ever-increasing global issue of climate change and even an episode about it, the programme uses stunning cinematography and music to provoke emotion and inspire viewers to take action as they are shown what they will soon lose. However, it was recently reported that whilst it was being broadcast there was a 300 percent increase in the number of people wanting to visit Antarctica. Travel agencies were inundated with phone calls as “Britons seek to swap their living rooms for the trip of a lifetime to the White Continent” (The Telegraph, 2011).

According to Preston-Whyte et al, “The very fragility of arid environments and their ‘extreme’ nature is one of the factors that attracts tourists to visit them… tourists may want to observe the unique plants and animals that have evolved to cope with such extreme conditions” (2006: 132). The severe conditions of the Poles and the animals battling to survive is arguably appealing to people. As a result, whilst the programme makers seemingly set out to show the beauty of the world and show people the tragedy of it’s loss, to some extent they appear to be advertising the places instead and unintentionally causing problems. For example, animal species that are not used to human contact may be disturbed and this could impact on their breeding cycles. This implies that whilst attempting to have a positive effect, documentaries can have negative secondary impacts upon nature.

Another issue linked to wildlife filmmaking is the staging of natural events as this can have both a positive and negative effect on nature and also demonstrates how nature can affect production. For example, documentary makers increasingly focus on the stories of individual animals to ensure that viewers ‘connect’ to the programme and continue watching to see what happens to them. An example of this is the 1998 documentary film ‘Whales: An Unforgettable Journey (dir. David Clark) which follows the lives of a pod of humpback whales as they make the perilous journey to Alaska and encounter a number of dangerous threats on the way.

However, sometimes it is not possible for the filmmaker to get all the footage they need to complete the story due to the unpredictability of the weather and the animals themselves. Doug Allen supports this idea, as being a cameraman himself, he is fully aware of the restrictions that nature can impose;

“You have to go away and get what you can and sometimes that means you come back with nothing because the animals didn’t turn up or they didn’t do what they wanted to.”

This often means that filmmakers resort to “making something “natural” happen artificially for the benefit of the camera” (Palmer, 2011:103) and this causes debate amongst professionals as to whether this is ethical. On one hand, many people think that it is unacceptable to manipulate the outcome of a natural event as it is unfair on the animals involved and Doug is no exception:

“I think it’s wrong, personally, especially when you’re talking about predator-prey relationships. It’s wrong when people start to play around with the outcome of that or start to play with an animal’s genuine fears     against another animal’s hunting instincts certainly for the sake of the camera.”

An article by Aufderheide, Jaszi and Chandra, provides a succinct example of when staging is used in this way. A filmmaker was trying to capture footage of an animal hunting a rabbit and was unaware that the hunter was breaking the rabbit’s legs so that they could get the footage they needed. When they found out, they still allowed them to do it again (2009). Arguably, this is an unethical side to the staging of events as it meant that one animal was severely disadvantaged. This demonstrates another negative effect that filmmaking can have on the natural world.

Likewise, it is also considered unfair for the viewers watching as very often it is not made clear that events have been set up and they are encouraged to think it is natural. A recent example of this is from Frozen Planet, as the BBC was accused of not making it obvious that part of it was filmed in a zoo. Complaints were made as it was not clear in the episode and they drew little attention to the notice on their website. Palmer states,

Frozen Planet is a documentary, not a movie. Viewers expect what they see to be genuine, authentic and truthful”  (2011). This supports the idea that it can be unfair to both the animals and viewers.

However, he also mentions that “the BBC was correct to film tiny polar bear cubs and their mother in a zoo”  (Palmer, 2011). On the other side of the argument, the staging of events can also be viewed as positive as it can mean that animals are not disturbed in the wild. This is supported by Doug Allen as in the interview he mentioned that,

“You can’t film small polar bear cubs…if you tried to do it in the wild you would almost certainly disturb the female. The female would leave the den and the cubs would die. So if you know that that’s likely to happen then a responsible filmmaker would say…is there a controlled environment where we can show this?”

This implies that on some occasions, staging events can be useful. Filmmakers are able to get the shots they need to tell their stories and conservational messages, benefitting nature in the long term and not affecting wild animals negatively during the filming.

In conclusion, it can be said that wildlife filmmaking and nature are mutually exclusive when it comes to the impact they have on each other. Whilst many wildlife films are providing viewers with access to places and animals and providing information about global threats, they are constantly challenged with the unpredictability of nature as they do so. In addition to this, nature is repeatedly challenged by wildlife filmmakers from a lack of privacy to the after affects of their films and yet they both rely on each other for their survival in an increasingly fragile world.



Boswall, J.. (1982). Wildlife Television: Towards 2001. Wildlife. 24 (6), 222-225.

Palmer, C (2011). Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. p103.

Preston-Whyte, R., Brooks, S. and Ellery, W.  (2006). Deserts and Savannah Regions. In: Gossling, S. and Michael Hall, C. Tourism and Global Environmental Change: Ecological, social, economic and political interrelationships. Oxon: Routledge. p128-142.


The Cove (2009) Directed by Louie Psihoyos [DVD] United Kingdom: Diamond Docs

Whales: An Unforgettable Journey (2002) Directed by David Clark. [DVD] United Kingdom: Sling Shot Entertainment

‘Winter’ (2011) Frozen Planet, BBC One, 23 November 2011. Television.


Aufderheide, P., Jaszi, P. and Chandra, M. . (2009). Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work. Available: Last accessed 16th Feb 2012.

Palmer, C. (2011). Did David Attenborough Behave Unethically. Available: Last accessed 16th Feb 2012.

Railsback, K. (2011). How Nature and Wildlife Filmmakers Can Save the Planet. Arts and Entertainment: Filmmaking and Film Editing Available: Last accessed 16th Feb 2012.

Starmer-Smith, C. . (2011). Frozen Planet: The Lure of the Antarctic. The Telegraph. Available: Last accessed 16th Feb 2012.

(2009). The Cove: Help Save Japan’s Dolphins. Available: Last accessed 16th Feb 2012.

(2009). What Can You Do?. Available: Last accessed 16th Feb 2012.


Chris Palmer- Available upon request

Doug Allen- Available upon request


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