A Natural Wildlife Documentary?

Image Credit: David d'O (via Flickr)

Image Credit: David d’O (via Flickr)

Deep in her burrow, a rock python coils her body around her precious eggs. It’s just one of the remarkable scenes captured in the BBC’s Africa series. This intimate, unique piece of wildlife filming is not as natural as it seems. This particular sequence was constructed in a filming nest especially constructed by the film crew. The artifice is admitted in the voiceover, a pivotal change in the BBC’s policy regarding controlled filming.

Though controlled filming isn’t a new phenomenon, a previous row over Frozen Planet appears to be responsible for the BBC’s change in stance. Africa will be a first; controlled sequences will be flagged up and interested viewers will be able to find out exactly how they were filmed on the website. These changes represent viewers desires to see only “real life” in documentaries.

Over eight million people watched the dramatic footage of a polar bear tending her new born cubs in the BBC’s 2011 series Frozen Planet. The footage showed tiny bears mewling at their mother in an underground snow cocoon.  But the scenes had not been filmed in the Arctic, but in a specially created den in a zoo in the Netherlands. The revelation ended up as headline news- viewers felt they had been deceived by the fake den made from plaster, wood, and artificial snow. The series was tainted by questions over mistrust, deception, and dishonesty.

The BBC defended the editorial decision not to give on air explanations of how sequences were filmed, believing it would dilute the viewing experience. The producers refuted the claims of deception, saying suitable information was published on the corresponding website. Yet, a year on it seems their views on what information should be provided in documentaries have changed.

The BBC states on its news website that it will ‘be clearer about wildlife footage on the Africa show’. James Honeyborne, Africa’s producer, told the Radio Times, that the public reaction to Frozen Planet has led to a feeling that it is “appropriate to be more explicit”. “We are doing it because we feel it is important to maintain trust and credibility with the audience”.

As well as the rock python shot, Africa includes other constructed scenes, including one involving a naked mole rat. James Honeyborne defends this move by saying, “What’s important to us is to be able to share great moments of animal nature, and some controlled filming allows us to do that”. Though controlled filming will still be used, it will be highlighted to the viewers – “We now know that the audience wants to know, and we don’t have a problem with it. We’re not embarrassed about it, we’re absolutely proud of it”.

The power of documentary film comes from the implicit trust that viewers are seeing real life events. This is particularly true in wildlife films, which claim to reveal the natural world. Without this trust, documentaries lose their power and relevance. Thus, we risk undermining the key aspects of a documentary by staging events, cherry-picking facts and bending the truth, producing a more dramatic narrative which supports the film’s rhetoric. The reaction to the Frozen Planet series is evidence of this; though the BBC did not lie at any point, the continuous footage and over-arching narrative implied that the shots in question were filmed in the wild. Despite being justified by the BBC, such practices might seem to contradict one of the organisations six key values: ‘Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest”.

But is implying, but at no point lying, dishonest? All documentaries are manipulated- it is impossible to be completely objective. Every camera angle, shot, edit is selected for a specific reason, but we have trust that the producers will depict real life as accurately as possible. We make demands on documentary filmmakers to portray events accurately and ‘truthfully’, while demanding that they are compelling, persuading and have the drama of Hollywood features. Controlled filming is a crucial part of meeting these demands, allowing filmmakers to showcase footage of events impossible to capture fully in the wild.

The BBC’s compromise between the desire to show dramatic scenes, without compromising journalistic integrity, is increased transparency. Including information and explanation must be jarring for filmmakers who aspire for their work to be as immersive and realistic as possible. However, such additions prevent damaging accusations of misleading audiences. They also educate the viewer in a whole new aspect of filming, providing an insight into the technologies and practices used. Thus the BBC should continue to bring footage of never-seen-before events to our screens without generating controversy and claims of fakery into the headlines.

Annie Mackinder is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication.
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6 comments

  1. Some of the best Nature documentaries have come from the BBC. At times, it seems difficult finding anything on par with what the Television network produces. The Planet Earth series and Frozen Planet are some of the best nature documentary series every made.
    That being said, the mainstream of today have a hard time sitting still with so many possibilites. When wildlife is “set up for the camera” I think its important to notice that the drama is there to hold the general public interested.
    It’s as much about viewer rating as it is about creating amazing tv-programmes.

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