Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker

Translator: cj maxwell reviewer: denise rq when I first got into wildlife film-making in the early 1980s, I brought home a film on bears my colleagues and I had just completed to show my wife, gale.

Gale loved it. There was a particular scene in the film that she liked. It showed a grizzly bear on a mountainside, stepping through a stream. You could see the sunlight dappling on its back, and you could hear the water dripping off its paws.

Gale said to me, " how did you get that shot?" I said to her, " well, we were actually across a valley. We had a very powerful telescopic lens, and that's how we got the shot." she said to me, " well, how do you get the sound?" I said that I had a very talented sound guy, and he filled a bowl full of water, ruffled his hand and elbow in it, recorded the sounds, and then matched the sounds with the footage.

Gale said to me, " you mean, you cheated." (laughter) she couldn't believe I had done that. I brought home a science-based documentary, and she was expecting authenticity and truth; authenticity and truth. Many viewers like gale would be surprised if they knew how much fakery there is in wildlife films.

Fakery that goes beyond simple sound effects. Film producers routinely make-up fake stories, rent captive animals, and pretend they're wild, and use computer-generated imagery to spice up the footage.

Sadly, I have been guilty of all these audience deceptions. I am embarrassed at how long it took me to realize that they were wrong. In an imax film on whales, we followed a mother humpback and her calf.

We called them misty and echo as they went on their 3,000-mile migration from hawaii to their feeding grounds in alaska. The tension in the film mounts as the audience wonders, " will they get there?" they have to run a gauntlet of threats, entanglements with fishing nets, collisions with ships, attacks from killer whales.

Will they get there? Well, they do get there. The camera lingers on misty and echo as they arrive in alaskan waters. It's an emotional high point of the film and the music swells.

The only thing is it wasn't misty and echo. It was another humpback whale and calf. We meant well, of course we meant well; the film championed whale conservation.

We adhered carefully to the science and facts of whale migration. But the need for a dramatic story trumped the need for truth. That wasn't the only trick we pulled.

We showed an orca skull on the floor of the ocean. We showed close-ups of its teeth to indicate the threat to migrating humpbacks especially calves, from predatory orcas.

What we didn't mention is that we placed that orca skull there ourselves on the ocean floor. I've made many other mistakes. In an imax film on wolves, we showed close-ups of a wolf pack interacting in complex and subtle ways.

The film was designed to combat the misinformation campaigns of the raunching and hunting lobbies which depict wolves as vicious and blood-thirsty and fit only for destruction.

We wanted to show the relationships within a wolf pack and particularly wanted to show the important task, the communal task of raising a litter of pups.

We wanted to put the rich, social lives of wolves up on the screen. But. Filming the intimate lives of wolves is virtually impossible.

They do not tolerate the presence of people. So, we rented wolves. We rented wolves. The film came out. it went all over the country. I gave many talks about it, and at one of these talks, somebody in the audience put their hand up and said, " how did you get that amazing shot of the mother wolf in the den?" my heart sank.

Answering that question truthfully meant betraying trade secrets. I was reluctant to admit that the den where the mother wolf had suckled its newborn pups was artificial.

We had built it. I didn't want to admit the wolves we were using in this film were rented from a game farm. I was facing a moment of truth.

I decided to come clean and tell the truth. I told him the den was artificial, that we made it. I told them the wolves were rented.

Oh boy. I could just feel the disappointment in the audience. The excited mood in the theater suddenly deflated. They had watched the film assuming the wolves were wild and totally free roaming.

Why wouldn't they make that assumption? We had deliberately and intentionally, deliberately and intentionally, given that impression throughout the film. Audience deception is an important ethical issue in wildlife film making.

But it's not the only one. There's another one which is far more serious. One that i'm not guilty of, and it's animal harassment; animal harassment. Animal harassment has been pervasive in wildlife film making for decades.

It ranges from the relatively mild, getting too close and disturbing animals to the much more severe and dangerous, deliberately goading and harming them for the sake of entertainment. Today, with the race for ratings, this problem is only getting worse.

Let me give you two examples. Yukon men on the discovery channel is a popular reality series focused on the citizens of a town in central alaska.

The series depicts wolves as blood-thirsty dangerous predators besieging this town and threatening the safety of everyone in it. Early on, we see one of the main characters brutally killing a wolf with a semi-automatic assault rifle.

Yukon men does not show wolves as intelligent, as highly social, as caring parents. It shows them as menacing man-eaters; menacing man-eaters. In so doing, delivers a significant blow to wolf conservation efforts.

Rattlesnake republic on animal planet follows four teams of rattlesnake hunters in texas. In the promotional literature for this series, animal planet describes the rattlesnake as the " most dangerous predator, " " the most dangerous animal on the continent; " end quote.

Even though bites from rattlesnakes are very rare and only happen when the creature is extremely stressed, extremely provoked. The producers of this series deliberately antagonize and goad these snakes in order to build dramatic storylines and pump up the ratings.

This series represents animal cruelty, slaughter, and stigmatization as entertainment. There are many other programs like these. These programs teach people animals are vicious and violent, and that humans are justified in taking any means they want to subdue them.

Sadly, it's their very viciousness and violence that draws viewers and pumps up the network's ratings. We cannot, we should not allow the broadcasters to benefit, to profit from animal harassment.

In this critical time with the climate heating up and with biodiversity in steep decline, we need wildlife programs that advance conservation not encourage violence against animals.

This television world is driven by ratings so making a change here will not be easy. It will take the combined efforts of viewers, filmmakers, and most importantly, broadcasters to bring about a change in the ethics of how these wildlife films are made.

First, viewers; viewers must speak up. Reach out to the networks. Demand higher standards. We can change the ratings game simply by boycotting shows that use unethical practices. When I see a particularly egregious show, I tweet about it and use the hashtag # crueltyforratings; cruelty for ratings.

Second, filmmakers filmmakers must capture footage responsibly, reject cutting corners, and behave ethically. Filmmakers can also establish a relationship with scientists to make sure the content of these films is accurate and valid.

And finally, broadcasters. Broadcasters who commission, and fund, and air these programs must show greater moral leadership; greater moral leadership. At a minimum, broadcasters should do no harm. A task they are failing at spectacularly at the moment.

But their real calling should be more than that. It should be to live according to the inspiring and noble standards of their founders. That should be their real calling.

Broadcasters should mandate ethics training for their executives. They should place more emphasis on ethically produced programs. They should exercise more oversight of the contents to make sure the science and facts are accurate. Films are one of the greatest tools that we have for swaying public opinion.

Films can take viewers to see places they would otherwise never see. Films can inspire viewers to treat other inhabitants of our planet with more respect and dignity.

Films can even give us the opportunity to reverse the course of environmental destruction and improve the future for all life, all life, on this planet. But we the viewers, the filmmakers, the broadcasters are failing to seize this opportunity.

We must stop the audience deception. We must stop the animal harassment. We must live up to our responsibilities as stewards of this amazing planet.

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