Some thoughts published in 1998/1999 (and some ideas are valid also today)
In natural history filmmaking there are two important groups of players; the first group contains the filmmakers with story telling skills and a good knowledge about cinematography and the craft. The second group consists of biologists, anthropologists and scientists in general. David Attenborough and others building the BBC natural history unit created the classical so-called “blue chip” natural history business. Then (in the 50’s) and later on, the British school of natural history filmmaking has been based on a scientific approach, with filmmakers, directors, writers, and camera people having an academic background. Films have focused on sequences explaining animal behavior. Places and people (anthropology – ethnography) has played a minor role. Most films shot on African savannas never showed a single person. This genre still dominates the world of natural history films.
This classical approach to documentary filmmaking didn’t usually include people who came out of the classical film schools, with knowledge and experience of feature film productions, script writing (story telling) and working with people (and emotions). There has even been a rivalry between these groups. Classical documentary filmmakers most often have a social pathos and an interest in human stories. These ideas were almost never asked for in natural history productions.I have been an advocate for merging the two schools.
Since the early 80’s I have argued that we could produce better films, more interesting films and come up with more stories (even on the sharks…) if we allowed ourselves to build the stories on human interaction with nature. After all, this is how we all relate to nature, wherever we live in the world. For many years my views where regarded as “impossible” and I felt like the clown at international (natural history) fora. Then suddenly, a few years ago, it all changed and commissioning editors (having seen the same lions fight or predate over and over again) started to ask for new ideas. “Bring us the storytellers”, they said, “the people with passion and fresh views of the world”. This marked a great new beginning for a lot of filmmakers, and the market suddenly attracted classical documentary filmmakers, even people from the world of fiction film. “Hollywood” became part of the natural history world, both behind and in front of the camera.
Yes, films suddenly looked different, but quite often we saw the same old wolf story, but now told with a new (actors) voice and often presented as a piece of adventure where the presenter “risk their life” to get close to the predators. Because still, the large warm blooded and fury animals – more often than not the predators – the killers – where prime targets for the stories. An endless row of new films about lions and tigers saw the market, but so did films about the new “pop-cats” like snow leopard and puma. The crews seemed to move in hoards, from one place to the next (not unlike new crews moving from press conference to press conference, from catastrophe to another).
But it should be said that the changing market is also reflected in the fact that a film festival like Wildscreen in the UK has (this year) introduced a new category “Man and Nature”. In their argumentation for the category they note that new talent often approach natural history topics through stories about people. The pre-selection jury has also noted, with satisfaction, that this category has attracted some new talented filmmakers with a new – and needed – approach to wildlife filmmaking.
The niche market created new demands for films aimed at a specific audience. And with the demography for channels like Discovery came the need for more films with a dramatic, not to say violent content. Ratings show that the largest audiences are sitting in front of violent (some would call it dramatic) films with a predator-prey drama. They consume films about the human warfare, great outdoor adventure (high risk) and fictional stories that make you “scream”. As filmmakers we are pushed more and more into a corner where commissioning editors still ask for “the stories”, but at the end of the day still favor the films that bring out the same old “blood and teeth”.
And if not violent, sex in any form also seems to make for good television. And with more and more inexperienced filmmakers working in the genre we have an increased risk that animals are harmed in the making of these films. Tame or controlled animals are being used to create scenes that are almost impossible to produce in the wild. Etichs and morals are not always a part of these filmmakers vocabulary. They feel “forced” to do what they do, just to get the commission to produce a film.
I believe that the meeting of natural history filmmakers and skillful classical documentary filmmakers or people with experience from the world of feature films, will results in great new films. New approaches, including human stories and stories of places near and far, will deliver new films – even about sharks and lions – to the TV world. But all these films need the support of responsible and knowledgeable biologists or scientists who can point in the direction of new information.
And above all we need script writers who don’t write “and the red sun sets” as we see the same old image end the film, or a narrator saying “and four geese fly away” as we see the four geese fly away. Invite skillful drama writers to set up the plot and build on it. There are reasons why millions of people flock at the cinema every week, and there is a reason why some films carry all the way to the “corners” of the world – across national and cultural borders.