MCAI Member and noted nature videographer, Richard Theiss (noted for his documentary, "Island of the Great White Shark") takes a critical look at a controversial new book about his specialty, "Shooting In The Wild: the ethics of wildlife filmmaking comes under scrutiny."
By Richard Theiss
Nature filmmaking is an important form of media arts, particularly in this day and age when environmental issues are becoming more and more the focus of politicians, policymakers and the general public. Nature films are visual literature that typically have a position or point-of-view they wish to express - even the most matter-of-fact presentations are intended to get the viewer to understand something about the film's subject that perhaps they did not know or appreciate before. So, by design they have an agenda.
But with that agenda comes an ethical responsibility toward accuracy and realism. And for the nature documentary filmmaker, who must contend with the logistical realities of the film process combined with the pressures of satisfying the demands of an entertainment media business, this ethical responsibility can sometimes be a challenge.
Shooting In The Wild (Sierra Club Books), written by veteran nature film producer Chris Palmer, takes an in-depth look at the world of wildlife filmmaking to expose the ethical dilemmas faced by filmmakers who manipulate, fabricate, and deceive - all in the name of presenting nature "realistically." The book has been generating a fair amount of media buzz with its recounting of staged animal sequences to coax certain behaviors, use of captive animals from animal farms or zoos, and even animal abuse - all for the sake of "getting the shot." In fact, ironically, while the book condemns over-sensationalism and attempts to establish a foundation for ethical responsibility in nature filmmaking, the majority of the media reporting has focused on the book being a tell-all expose that rips the mask of respectability off the nature filmmaker, showing them to be manipulative charlatans. Well, it makes for a good headline on the evening news, but I think it misses the point of Palmer's book.
The ethics of accuracy and realism exist throughout all forms of expression. We accept that fiction almost by definition is a manipulation or fabrication. And in non-fiction books and films, we accept fabricated dialog or scenes that convey the essence of historical truth. We even tolerate a measure of hyperbole from our leaders in their speeches and their political campaigns. Up to a point. . . and that's where the slippery slope of ethical responsibility versus manipulated fakery rears its head. Can a black and white line be drawn within what is often a subjective gray area?
This is what Palmer discusses in Shooting In The Wild by sighting many examples of nature filmmaking that deviate from precise realism: forced predations, unnaturally-induced animal behaviors, reproduced sounds, and even whether or not the use of music in a nature film is a manipulation of reality.
In describing a filmmaker's staged predation sequence between a king snake and a diamondback rattlesnake (as the intended prey), Palmer writes, "When the king snake ignored the rattlesnake, the filmmaker tried again and again to engage them in combat, with no success. Finally, a crewmate came up with an idea: he put the rattlesnake into an empty mouse cage for a day so it smelled like a mouse. Problem solved - the king snake soon seized and ate the rattler."
As engrossing as it is to read of these cinematic machinations, Palmer is not setting out to give nature filmmakers (or himself for that matter, as an accomplished producer of award-winning films) simply a black eye. Rather, he wants everyone, from viewers to filmmakers to network executives, to consider both the difficulty and importance in trying to find where one draws the line between truth and deception. It is an important topic to debate because nature films are too important of an educational resource to suffer from a lack of credibility with the audience.
As a filmmaker myself, I am continually having to make decisions as to how best to make my point, to fulfill my agenda as it were, without portraying animals in a false or deceptive light. Sometimes the decisions are dictated by the difficulty of the film process. Take sound for instance.
When I film underwater, it is virtually a silent world. Underwater camera housings often have hydrophones (underwater microphones) but the sounds they record are usually just the bubbles emanating from the cameraman's dive gear, which has nothing to do with what's going on in front of the camera. While topside, one can be filming an animal at a great distance, far beyond what the microphone can effectively pick up. So, a soundtrack is compiled after the fact using pre-recorded sounds or ones that are artificially produced. Palmer notes that opening and closing an umbrella can be a substitute sound source for an eagle's wings flapping. I often use sounds of splashing at a community pool for the sounds of sharks breaking the surface. Logistical necessity or deception?
Or what of the lush music scores that accompany many nature films? As a former composer, I greatly appreciate the power of music to support the visual image or the spoken word. We seem to have no qualms about the impact that music can have on the many non-nature films we watch - the ability to make us laugh, cry, or jump out of our seats - but is it right for a nature film? Reality dictates that there are no Aaron Copland-esque refrains heard when we stand before a panoramic view of the Sierras, so is the use of music, as some cynics would say, a manipulation of our feelings? A cheap deception meant to further the filmmaker's agenda? Well, perhaps someone did not get enough hugs as a child.
While the use of sound may not be the most egregious of manipulations, the issue of artificially-induced behaviors certainly is one that can take a filmmaker down the slippery slope. Take, for instance, the practice of baiting or chumming for sharks. Many shark programs have been criticized for favoring sensationalism over reality by providing food stimulus that provokes the shark to act in ways that are not natural, except perhaps in the most extreme and infrequent of situations. The shark's exaggerated behavior is then portrayed as the norm and the stereotypical image of the malevolent predator is, once again, perpetuated.
In my first shark documentary, Island of the Great Shark, I went to great pains to film white sharks acting in as natural of a behavior as possible. Rather than edit together a series of powerful scavenger attacks on floating bait that would present an image of a voracious, aggressive predator continually on the attack; I chose images that made up the vast majority of what actually occurred time and time again, that of a wary and cautious animal that would gracefully move through the water - investigating, curious, but not hell-bent on devouring everything in sight. It was my call to portray these animals based on both what I actually experienced and what I had learned from speaking with recognized shark experts. But it also meant that a portion of my potential audience would be disappointed because I chose not to support the pre-conceived stereotype.
In Shooting In The Wild, Chris Palmer goes beyond listing past sins by nature filmmakers caught up in the struggle to capture images by whatever means necessary (and some, like animal abuse or staged predations, are certainly inexcusable). Palmer broadens the discussion with recommendations that amount to a road map to ethical wildlife filming. One of his recommendations is for filmmakers to work closely with reputable scientists. I couldn't agree more, but it's not always easy to do so.
Programs are typically pitched to networks and that pitch must resonate with executives who are concerned with audience appeal and ratings. And sometimes these program pitches are ideas that were hatched by production company staff members who are not scientifically-trained or oriented at all but know what will catch the attention of the network's program developers. It is then, after they have sold their idea, that they look for someone - a scientist or other subject matter expert - who can provide some credibility to the project. This kind of approach, where one backs into the science, can lend itself to an ethical dilemma for the producer who finds himself stuck between the expectations for what has been sold and what the scientists say is the actual reality. Again, I have seen this many times in shark programs and it has made more than one qualified shark expert leery of working with filmmakers because of some preposterous film premise or because of how they themselves were represented in some prior film.
Palmer writes, "But while a good scientist-filmmaker relationship can be mutually beneficial, it's important to choose partners carefully. Before they begin, the parties need to agree on both the goals of the project and the most ethical way to accomplish them."
Shooting In The Wild is a fascinating book for all the interesting stories that Palmer tells and for his examination and recommendations on the ethical dilemma that nature filmmakers routinely face. I would recommend it to all who appreciate wildlife films - filmmakers, conservationists, and just viewers at large. It serves as a guide for how nature filmmakers should conduct themselves and for what viewers should come to expect from this unique entertainment genre.