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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Going for the Kill

Air Date: Week of

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We often have our views of nature shaped by the shrieks and growls of wildlife television. Producer Guy Hand spent some time with the producers of those films and found there's a fierce argument going on over whether the business needs more blood or more birdsong.


CURWOOD: For many of us, nature films on television are as close as we’re ever going to get to wild places like the Serengeti Plain, Denali National Park, or the Great Barrier Reef. We trust that the filmmakers who travel to these places will bring back an entertaining - and accurate - portrait of what they find. After all, we call them "documentaries." But, more and more, broadcasters are questioning whether a “faithful rendition” of nature is the best way to attract audiences. And filmmakers are left wondering how well their films really reflect nature. As producer Guy Hand found, the questions go to the very nature of nature television.


HAND: If you haven't noticed, it's a jungle in there. Your TV set harbors a certain feral element. From the old Disney to the new Discovery, from Wild Kingdom to Animal Planet, television and nature share a long relationship.


HAND: For decades, that relationship was built around big-budget wildlife films with pristine landscapes, grand music, and god-like narration.

ANNOUNCER: Mt. Rorima, the site of a legendary lost world of dinosaurs…

HAND: These are the films that follow lions across the African plain, elephants through the Thai jungle, or leopards over the Himalayas. And as cable networks multiplied, television's appetite for wildlife programming only grew.

ANNOUNCERS: Up next on Animal Planet…major funding for Nature…coming up next…in this episode of Croc Diaries…Wild Asia . . .

HAND: The Discovery Channel, National Geographic Explorer, and Animal Planet had joined PBS in putting out more nature shows than audiences had ever seen before.

LEITH: There was a big drive in the mid '90s, the late '90s to increase wildlife programming.

HAND: But Brian Leith, head of Grenada Wild, one of Britain's largest wildlife production units, says that led to problems.

LEITH: So it suddenly grew, it probably tripled, quadrupled the number of wildlife films being made over several years. And I think the viewers got fed up. If you suddenly quadruple the number of wildlife films being made, the quality inevitably drops.


Photographer Brad Markel (Photo: ©Guy Hand)

HAND: And that has delegates here, at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, worried. Every two years, producers, cinematographers, screenwriters and TV execs wander in from twenty-some countries to talk technique, pitch stories, and watch their compatriots' new films. But this year, they're also discussing production company closures and cancelled projects. The festival's first seminar sets the tone.

SPEAKER: Hi everybody. Welcome to Jackson Hole. Always great to be here. The title of this forum is “How to Stop Wild TV Going Extinct.” Subtitles I'd thought of might be “Reality Bites,” which it has over the last few years.

HAND: Its never been easy to attract audiences to natural history, to visually illustrate the grand flow of evolution, climate, or geology; to push rangy, unruly nature into the confines of a TV set. That's why nature films often fall back on the habits of Hollywood, substituting flash for substance, casting big animals in a kind of beastly melodrama.

ANNOUNCER: In these mountains, every step of every day is a struggle. Only the tough and the lucky endure…

HAND: These films focus on the visually dramatic and that predictably means "the kill." Cinematographers call it "the money shot."

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, the snow leopard will finish its kill, then it will disappear into the shadows, its mystery preserved until the chance comes to kill again.

HAND: Many filmmakers say this focus on "Fang Television" ignores nature's complexity, its long stretches of calm, its subtle interactions, its small creatures.

LINDEN: If a Martian came to Earth and was watching these films they'd say, “well, Earth is populated by four billion cheetahs and three billion tigers. And sharks are the only thing in the ocean.”

HAND: Eugene Linden has written several books on nature and animal behavior and spent the last few days judging films at the Jackson Hole festival. He and his fellow judges say that quick cuts and attention grabbing scenes can misrepresent the reality out there.

LINDEN: For those of us who've had the privilege to sort of be out in Africa or in Asia and out in nature, a lot of it is really quiet. The sort of rhythm of that is really a special thing. I think your pulse slows down. But given the frenetic pace that the broadcasters feel like “gotta keep the audience attention at any point, my God, they're going to switch the channel, stop him!”


HAND: But Derek Joubert and his wife Beverly, who have been shooting wildlife films in Africa for years, believe that big animals and big drama are essential to the genre.

JOUBERT: I don't have any qualms about doing a film about predators. The reason that we do films is to convince people to take care of nature, to take care of the wild places, look after the wildernesses. And frankly, if we can't take care of elephants and lions, the bugs and plants don't have a chance. So we use them as dramatic species to engage people in a story so they actually care.

HAND: Derek says there are different kinds of mega-fauna films, the good ones and the ones he calls "predator snuff films."

JOUBERT: Somebody in one of the panels at this Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival was proudly saying that he had fifty seconds of shark attack footage and he managed to turn it into a two hour film. I would never say that with a clear conscience and be able to sleep.

ANNOUNCER: With cameras rolling, a shark scientist went into the water for what he thought was a routine interview. Things went terribly wrong…

HAND: Phil Fairclough, vice president of production at the Discovery Channel, is that film's creator.

FAIRCLOUGH: In the course of making a program about bull sharks for Discovery Channel, we were present when a very unfortunate incident happened.

ANNOUNCER: The water was warm and clear [LAUGHTER].

FAIRCLOUGH: One of the scientists who was talking to our presenter was bitten by a shark, and in a few seconds he essentially lost his calf. I mean the shark came in, bit his calf off. And we at Discovery were faced with a dilemma. How do we use this? Do we use this? And I came up with the idea of essentially making a show about a bite and culminating in the bite.

ANNOUNCER: “Anatomy of a Shark Bite!”

HAND: Phil took less than a minute of tape and turned it into a two-hour show. To add scientific credibility, he built mechanical sharks and brought experts into the studio to re-create and examine the attack in detail. But, he says, to keep his target audience hooked, there also had to be lots of blood and what he calls a "festival of bites."

FAIRCLOUGH: Yeah, we had 296 bites, shark bites, you had a lot of bites. And of course if you're going to make a film, a two hour show called "Anatomy of a Shark Bite," per se you're going to have a lot of bites. You need to be able to analyze them. It's not to say they're not good TV either.

ANNOUNCER: The footage in its entirety is extremely graphic and we warn you, if you do not want to see the full reality of a shark bite on a human being, then look away now.

HAND: Discovery is well known for its yearly special called Shark Week. "Anatomy of a Shark Bite" was the highest rated Shark Week episode in the last 14 years.

FAIRCLOUGH: I think for us at Discovery, it was more a success in terms of defining a new way of, in an entertaining fashion, giving information about animals.

HAND: For many of the filmmakers at the festival, this new way sounds a lot like the worst habits of old, with a reality TV twist. But Phil Fairclough says he's just a broadcasting pragmatist.

FAIRCLOUGH: If wildlife is not to fall out of the schedules entirely, it has to compete. It has to be able to do as well as a reality programming. It has to do as well as Monster Garage. People in the wildlife industry need to learn the lessons of nature: adapt or die.

ANNOUNCERS: Pee-ew! Are you trying to tell me that I smell? Animal Planet's The Most Extreme is sniffing out the foulest odors in the animal kingdom. We're talking rancid, rotten, lethal smells. Who has the deadliest dung, the most vile vomit, and whose most hideous halitosis…

MOORE: What I want to do here, actually, I'm working on a grizzly bear film and what I need is just a couple of shots of elk as part of that.

HAND: The film festival is going on just down the road, but you get the impression that Shane Moore is happier here, in the pre-dawn glow of Teton National Park. He sets up his camera and tripod behind a pine, then scans the horizon for bugling elk.

MOORE: I think that at some basic level, everybody that's in the documentary field makes films because what they think is cool. They want other people to think it’s cool, as well. I think it really boils down to that. I love nature.



HAND: Shane has worked on over a hundred wildlife films, for PBS, National Geographic, Discovery, and the BBC. And he's also one more filmmaker worried about the future.

MOORE: I realize that people aren't going to watch the same type of films year after year. We need to change. But I think that what really bothers me is it feels like, on some fundamental level, we've gone from an appreciation of wildlife to crossing a line of exploitation of wildlife. And I think there are a lot of people like me in the business that wouldn't ever consider doing that. That's not why we're in the business. And a lot of us are kind of wondering if we really have a place in it anymore.


HAND: Big bull elk are moving toward us, bugling as they walk. Shane looks through his eyepiece and begins to shoot.

MOORE: There's another guy coming in.


MOORE: If we get lucky just about the time the sun pops over the ridge, he'll be passing through here and we'll have steamy, back-lit bugling [LAUGHTER]. That's not asking for too much, is it?

HAND: But finding a place on TV, even with spectacular footage, might be asking too much. There's a growing list of creatures and habitats that broadcasters say won't work on modern American TV. Conservation stories don't work. Complex ecology doesn't work. Plants don't work. Birds don't work. And that worries BBC filmmaker Jeremy Bristow

BRISTOW: There's a limited criteria that's being applied that is a kind of a straight jacket beyond which there is a really fascinating and interesting world out there and a fascinating story that’s not being told.

ANNOUNCER: A chimpanzee and a gorilla.

HAND: Jeremy's film "Ape Hunters," a film that deals with complex conservation and cultural issues, has won numerous awards.

BRISTOW: And yet, strangely, no channel in North America has taken the film. I know people from the main channels have come up and judged it to win a competition or a festival. But they've said to me, “great film, but it's not for our audiences.” And well, that's really disappointing really.

HAND: Janet Han Vissering, senior vp at National Geographic TV, admits that conservation is a tough sell.

VISSERING: Conservation is a topic that, to be honest with you, a lot of people want to say that they're interested. They do want to say that it's something they want to watch, but in some of the shows we've put out about conservation, with a conservation undertone, it hasn't rated as high as some of our other wildlife programs.

LINDEN: National Geographic obviously has enormous expertise in putting this stuff on television.

HAND: Again, writer and festival judge Eugene Linden.

LINDEN: But research isn't perfect, nor is the research that National Geographic and others do about second-guessing what the audience is going to like and not like.

ANNOUNCER: And the winner is, that's a fantastic announcement, “Ape Hunters.”

HAND: The audience certainly seems to like the films that are being honored tonight at the festival's award ceremony.

ANNOUNCER: And the award goes to “My Halcyon River.”

HAND: But many of these award winners aren't likely to make it onto American TV screens. And that illustrates the stark divide between the kind of nature film that gets on the air and the kind that many filmmakers think they should be making.

ANNOUNCER: And the award goes to “The Cultured Ape.”

HAND: The highest award of the evening goes to “The Cultured Ape,” which is neither beastly melodrama nor nature turned reality TV. Eugene Linden and his fellow judges simply thought it the best natural history film of the festival.

LINDEN: But I'm sure many in the audience were shocked because it was a low budget film, it dealt with a very complicated subject that has a high intellectual content. It certainly was not breaking new ground in terms of cinematography or anything like that. But it was absolutely gripping.

GOODALL: You can sort of imagine a chimpanzee reaching out across this imaginary line that people used to believe divided us from the rest of the animal kingdom…

LINDEN: And I think it sends a wonderful message. I think it shows that you don't have to dumb it down. You don't have to oversimplify. You don't have to second-guess the attention span of the audience. You can make what you think is a good film and people will recognize that.

DIRECTOR: Ok, roll camera please


HAND: Just beyond our satellite dishes and cable connections, there's an amazing world chirping and churning away. TV has never been a perfect window on that world and some people say we shouldn't expect it to be. But there’s the sense among filmmakers here that more is at stake than entertainment; that an audience that doesn’t get to see the complexity and wonder they see in nature, may not be able to make as informed choices about the natural world. For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand.


[EARTHEAR: Sarah Peebles “Train Ride On Sobu Line” 108: WALKING THROUGH TOKYO AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY (Post Concrete – 2002)




Filmmakers for Conservation


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