Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom by Chris Palmer

Bonnie and I are devoted fans of PBS Nature, and in the past we have watched National Geographic Specials, Audubon Television Specials, and anything with the BBC's David Attenborough. I remember as a kid watching Wild Kingdom with zookeeper Marlon Perkins, which at the time fit well with Tarzan and Jungle Jim on Saturday afternoons. Like many people, we are fascinated by the images of animals in their natural habitats and appreciate the patience and dedication of nature filmmakers. And we sometimes wonder how they got their shots.

How the filmmakers get their incredible shots and whether they act honestly and ethically in doing so is the subject of Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom by Chris Palmer. The author has been in the nature film business since the 1970s, working for the National Audubon Society (he produced several of their most hotly-debated films), Disney, Animal Planet, TBS, PBS, and IMAX. He's been in the field and in the production studios and knows intimately how the films are made, and he has some regrets, for over time he's learned firsthand how lusting for the shot leads filmmakers to dishonesty.

Here are some of the problems that Palmer sees:

  • Getting too close to their subjects, causing animals to alter their behaviors and sometimes endangering both animals and production crews.
  • Baiting animals to get them to appear for the cameras.
  • Putting rival animals into enclosures to force confrontations.
  • Using trained animals as stand-ins for wild animals.
  • Editing and narrating films to make animals seem human-like.
  • Sequencing films to tell unnatural animal stories.

These have always been problems, as the history of the wildlife film goes back to the works of Martin and Osa Johnson, which featured killing dangerous animals baited to attack the safari-loving couple. Palmer indicates that through the decades of the twentieth century the ethics of nature filming was debated and the industry had become generally more trustworthy, until the proliferation of cable networks began clamoring for exciting, low-budget nature entertainment. He points specifically at the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and even National Geographic for producing action-packed programs that mistreat and misrepresent animals.

Palmer believes there is room to debate some issues, particularly merging shots from several wildlife observations to tell a clear, true-to-life story. Also, he argues that showing captive animals nesting is often better than risking disturbing the nests of wild animals who might subsequently fail to raise their young.

Shooting in the Wild is an engaging book by a filmmaker with a strong point of view about the impact of his industry on wildlife conservation. It should interest many animal lovers. More libraries should add it to their collections.

Palmer, Chris. Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. Sierra Club Books, 2010. ISBN 9781578051489.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't mind some of his ideas--if the filmmakers made it clear that is what they are doing. So if the program started with a disclaimer like "some shots are composites" or "to avoid disturbing nests in the wild . . ." But leading the viewer to believe that everything they see is "nature in the wild, undisturbed by the filmmaker" is a disservice.

ricklibrarian said...

That's pretty much Palmer's position. He praises the latest big BBC series for having postscripted "How we got the shot" briefs. But I noticed that Discovery and PBS usually don't show them.