Life After Attenborough

There is a disturbance in the waters at the BBC Natural History Unit (NHU). David Attenborough, the beloved stalwart of quality wildlife programming, is now 87 years old. Confronted by his impending retirement, the BBC are having to look for new ways to approach this reliable, yet slightly jaded, genre of documentary. And so far, the results have been mixed.

Traditionally, the BBC formula for wildlife film has relied heavily on Attenborough-esque presenters talking softly and articulately about the film subjects. Known in the trade as the expository mode of documentary, the cameras explicitly capture natural scenes, embellished by informative narration. However, not only is the iconic face of this mode now approaching retirement, but there is a grumbling sense that ‘we’ve seen it all before’. The time is ripe to shake up the natural history documentary form.

The BBC has approached this challenge in a number of differing, experimental ways. We have, for example, the interactive Spy in the…, shows , whilst at the other end of the spectrum, the heavily dramatised Hidden Kingdoms series. But has either approach proven successful enough to rival the mighty Attenborough-fronted success of series such as Planet EarthLife and more recently, Africa?

Spy in the… programmes are part of the BBC Wildlife Specials series that aims to approach filming nature in innovative ways. In the case of Penguin: spy on the ice and Dolphin: spy in the pod, the filmmakers utilise remote controlled, camera-laden ‘spy creatures.’  Supposedly, the facsimile creatures infiltrate the animal communities to intimately reveal their communications and interactions. However, the format doesn’t quite work. Too much time is spent filming the spy creatures and not enough on the true animals. As a result, we feel less like we are spying on the pod, and more like we are spying on the robotic creature-camera hybrids.

The footage captured by the spy creatures is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a little shaky, and is only used sparingly to supplement the film shot using more conventional techniques. As a result, the programme feels more like a gimmick than truly educational or inspiring. However, the premise is not an entire failure; the ‘home-made’ feel to the spy camera footage does inject a sense of intimacy into the film. And there is something quite endearing about a robotic dolphin zipping through the waves with its adoptive pod. Perhaps not quite the finished article, but a promising step in a fresh direction.

Hidden Kingdoms represents an entirely contrasting approach to reviving the genre. For this series, the BBC has embraced the modern penchant for grand, cinematic camerawork. In episode one, we observe the exhilarating tales of the survival of tiny African mammals as they race against flames, battle fearsome rattlesnakes and struggle to stay afloat in raging torrents of floodwater. There is no questioning the quality of the camerawork—some of the images would not look out of place in a Hollywood fiction film. Indeed, many have asked whether Hidden Kingdoms strays too far from the truth to be classed as a true documentary series. In reality, the elephant shrew was racing against digitally superimposed flames, the mouse never met the rattlesnake that he appeared to battle and the floodwater rained from the hand of the filmmaker. The question is, does this devalue Hidden Kingdoms?

In my opinion, it does not. Hidden Kingdoms is riveting viewing, representing nature at its most dramatic and interesting. Every constructed scene remains true to biological behaviours known to occur in the wild. Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Media Show,’ Wendy Darke, the head of the BBC NHU, reminded listeners that if all the filming had been purely natural “most of the exciting drama would be missed. It is a constant challenge,” Darke continues, “to attempt to bring these wildlife stories into the mainstream.”

However, detractors argue that viewers may believe the footage to be real, and therefore feel deceived upon discovery that many of the scenes are manipulated. I believe, however, that so long as the BBC are upfront about the techniques used to create the show—clearly indicating the precise relation between what is being shown and the truth – then Hidden Kingdoms is a legitimate form of educational entertainment.

Both Spy in the… and Hidden Kingdoms are valiant attempts to update natural history documentary. Although neither approach feels entirely successful, the fact that the BBC are actively seeking new and innovative ways to broadcast wildlife science can only be a good thing. Moving forward, it will be important for broadcasting companies to continue experimenting with new approaches, in order to strike a clear balance between truth and drama. There is life after Attenborough. We’ve just got to find it.

Daisy McInnerney is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.
Image Credit: Johann Edwin Heupel (via Flickr)

One comment

  1. I came across ‘Refractive Index’ quite by accident and have just read ‘Life After Attenborough’ and thought it raised some interesting questions. It is co-incidental that I did my Zoology degree at Imperial College and later worked freelance for ‘The B.B.C. Natural History Unit’ and was fortunate enough to film on several of the David Attenborough Series in the late 1970s and the 1980s. In my opinion, the most important thing about Attenborough is that although he hasn’t changed the presenter format substantially, he has always been instrumental in encouraging the development of sound and film techniques from the moment he came into broadcasting in the 1950s and without the budgets provided for his later programmes we may not have witnessed the progress in wildlife film-making that we see today. It is also worth mentioning that he hasn’t stood still during any part of his career and is presently extolling the virtues of films involving CGI and while he is able to achieve an audience there is no reason why he shouldn’t continue, although it is only realistic to say that a major 10 or 12 part series is a younger persons game on the basis of insurance alone and it is quite understandable that the B.B.C. are looking for new directions to take natural history film-making, even if as you claim, they haven’t quite got there yet.

    There is and always has been a misconception about the way in which some, but not all natural history films are made. Often filming is undertaken in places other than the wild. When I was working full time, nearly all cameramen pushed hard to film in the most natural of circumstances, but for some programmes there were budgetary constraints and it was not always possible to sit out for weeks on end and not achieve a close up that could easily have been done with a captive animal in less than ten minutes, because sometimes, without the close up, it is impossible to edit a sequence. Despite this, most of the larger animals, in particular mammals, were at that time filmed mostly in the wild – close ups and all. For me however, this was not an option because I specialised in filming invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians and with invertebrates in particular, behaviour isn’t very much different whether it is filmed on a set or in nature. Most invertebrates are extremely heat sensitive but will acclimatise to cold light sources and for depth of field reasons I would often put more light than was natural onto a subject, but when exposed correctly a viewer would not be aware of this. In fact very small creatures shot in available light might well prove to be unsuitable for transmission, so we have already moved one step from reality. I will use ants to give one clear example of the way things were done. I made several films that involved ants, some were filmed totally in the wild and others required internal nest sequences and these were all filmed in my studio or in a laboratory. For many years I looked after leaf-cutter ants at a University lab and became familiar with their behaviour both in the lab and in the wild and it would have been difficult to achiever deep underground nest sequences without either destroying the nest, or causing unnatural behaviour when digging deep into the underground structure. I dislike destroying things at the best of times and consequently these shots would have been done using a nest that had already been set up in a laboratory for research purposes. It was either that or no underground sequences at all. When I was most actively filming animals in different parts the world in the 1980s, behaviour was a key requirement and there might be 70 filming days available for a 50 minute programme with perhaps an additional twenty if things went badly wrong. Working by myself with a limited set up and perhaps one assistant I could achieve a great deal and was able to change position rapidly. Today set ups have become far more technical and often involve a lot more gear that is difficult to move quickly when things are suddenly happening. There are also more people working with less time on smaller budgets and so the emphasis has naturally moved towards sequences that contain less key behaviour. Often there are pretty pictures but with inevitably less content and sometimes with many more talking heads than most of us want to see. In some cases the natural progression has been to feature the gear rather than animal behaviour, especially if the results aren’t quite up to telling the story. It is just the obvious way to go, especially with young producers trying to make a name for themselves with the next new way of doing things. Nobody is at fault really – it is just the way budgets and the industry have moved. However, there is an up side, although it is now quite difficult to make money out of videoing natural history because so many people are attempting it, the business has opened up. The unions no longer dictate who can work and at what price and it is possible to get almost identical results with a standard SLR camera (using a quality lens) as it is working with the best gear available, although there aren’t quite the same options for high speed slow motion sequences at the lower end of the market, but images are improving all the time. This now makes film or video-making very democratic and a great many people do what I do – they put up short sequences on Youtube just for the fun of it. Some video makers aren’t very good, but at least they are having a go. Presently, the big hits are often achieved by recording less agreeable subject matter, but the medium is still in its infancy and things will improve. There is now so much information out there that young people using computers, are used to much more going on in far less time than the previous generation, and will consequently be unwilling to invest time in a fifty minute film, but they will watch a two minute sequence and get something out of it. Things are changing fast, and natural history film or video-making in the traditional sense could be taking a back seat sooner rather than later. There is no doubt that Attenborough was the right man in the right place at the right time, but post Attenborough the way we watch natural history might be very different from what we have become used to. Change is not always obviously for the better and it takes a little time to settle in, but at the very least novelty keeps things interesting – and we can’t ask for a lot more than that from moving pictures. When I was younger I thought that they might change the way that we looked after the planet, but that was altogether rather too hopeful.

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