Wildlife Documentaries: A Call for Change

Posted: December 9, 2011 by Becky in Becky
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Written by Becky Hutchens

It is not uncommon for wildlife documentary filmmakers to stage animal encounters, behaviors, and other “natural” scenarios for their films. The problem is that filmmakers do not readily share the fact that they use staged footage, which causes the audience to form misconceptions of nature.

A major publication that takes a look at this issue is Chris Palmer’s Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. This book is partly a written confession by Palmer and is also a piece of writing that is calling for a change. In it, Palmer explains that some filmmakers commonly deceive the audience by including faked scenarios or staged scenes (Palmer, Shooting). Some of these movies have disclaimers at the very end of the credits, but, as Palmer says in an interview on ABC News, “but who reads the credits” (Deception)?

Palmer, who has made some well-known IMAX wildlife documentaries and other films that have been aired on a variety of popular nature channels such as Discovery, PBS, Animal Planet, and Travel Channel (Media 2-3), admits to staging scenes in his own films: from sounds of bears playing in the water being made in a studio by recording human hands splashing in a bucket to placing a whale skull from a person’s collection at the bottom of the sea to encouraging predators to eat a dead animal carcass by placing pieces of candy inside, Palmer has contributed his own share to deceiving audiences. He even used tame, game farm wolves for the entire IMAX film Wolves, and the two whales named Misty and Echo in the film Whales were actually shots of many different whales given the same name for the purposes of the documentary (Deception).

Other examples:

  • Some filmmakers admit to using fake animals that are “3-D special effects that apparently were so realistic that zoologists couldn’t tell them apart” (Dargis).
  • Some documentaries that are about birds use a technique in which birds were raised as hatchlings by the camera crew in order to take advantage of imprinting, a behavior in which young birds will follow their “mothers” everywhere (Davies; Palotta).

By spreading awareness of this problem, I hope to inform the thousands of viewers of wildlife documentaries that what they see might not be what really is. I also hope to call out those filmmakers who manipulate wildlife and their environments and force them to be accountable. The people I surveyed all grew up loving these wildlife films and grew up with certain ideas of nature. I want them to think critically and know that the reality of nature cannot properly be understood from just these wildlife documentaries.

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