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Television & Film

Cue the Animals

How Did They Get That Shot?

By Sally Acharya

A sea lion approaches the camera during production on the IMAX film Under the Sea 3D.

A sea lion approaches the camera during production on the IMAX film Under the Sea 3D. (Photo: Michele Hall/

You turn on the television and seem to get a glimpse into the secret lives of bears. Deep in the woods, a bear is scavenging in the carcass of a deer. She seems eager to enjoy her feast. The camera in the wildlife documentary zooms in for a close-up.

The animal turns, rises, and bares her fangs in a heart-stopping snarl. Watching on television, you’re fascinated. What an amazing image to capture! How many weeks or months were spent in the wild, battling the elements, braving danger, waiting for that moment?

Warning: If you don’t want to be disappointed, don’t read any farther. The photographer’s secret isn’t just patience. It may also involve jelly beans.

Wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer lets the public in on the secrets of the trade in a book released this spring, Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom.

It’s an outgrowth of his teaching approach in his classes and at the School of Communication’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking, where students learn to make films that focus attention on the conservation of the natural world.

An environmental documentary is, at its heart, an ethical endeavor. It’s also entertainment, of course, or it wouldn’t succeed. But unlike narrative filmmakers, documentarians have to come to terms with what Palmer calls the “unspoken promise” made to viewers: that what is shown on the screen really happened.

When an action hero leaps a chasm or escapes a fireball, no one is surprised that visual trickery is involved. “But when you make a documentary,” Palmer says, “there’s an understanding between the director, producer, and audience, that what’s there is real.”

But that’s not always the case. “The bottom line is there is so much deception,” Palmer says.

When his students go into the real world of wildlife filmmaking—much of which is produced in Washington, D.C., often called the capital of documentary filmmaking—they’ll face a form of pressure familiar to Palmer. In a field increasingly dominated by what he calls “Fang TV and Nature Porn,” the main goal of many shows is simply to get the audience’s heart racing with stories of “killer” beasts.

Even in the most scientifically focused projects, tight budgets and schedules can mean the pressure is on to “get a shot quickly.” If that means stuffing a deer carcass with jelly beans, bringing in a trained bear to fish them out, and then getting it to snarl at the camera on cue, that’s more efficient and cost-effective than waiting weeks or months for the “money shot.”

Palmer tells of the filmmaker who placed a rattlesnake in a mouse cage to ensure it would smell like a mouse and be tantalizing to a king snake, who then obligingly devoured it on film. A great image, and not untrue to life—snakes do eat other snakes—but also not quite what it seemed.

Shots are sometimes staged on created sets. The famed director David Attenborough defended his use of staging in nature films—filming scorpions, for instance, in a studio with a painted sunset and Styrofoam clouds—in the most practical of terms.

Palmer quotes Attenborough as saying. “If you say, ‘I wish to explain how scorpions copulate, because it’s very interesting,’ then you have to do that as clearly as you can. It may involve getting them to do it on glass, so that you can see underneath. It will certainly involve getting an adult male scorpion and an adult female scorpion together. What it does not involve is sitting around in the Mojave Desert for nine months, waiting for some scorpions to copulate by your feet.”

Many of the best wildlife filmmakers do, indeed, spend months in the wild waiting for a shot. That’s what was done for the BBC’s Planet Earth. The hugely popular show proved that conscientious filmmaking could also be a ratings grabber.

But blue-chip wildlife programs spend about $1 million per hour of film. Most filmmakers don’t have that luxury, and have to balance their desire to tell an interesting and scientifically accurate story with the realities of funding and the challenges of getting shots.

Get the Money Shot

Palmer has produced hundreds of hours of television and IMAX films, including Whales, India: Kingdom of the Tiger, Dolphins, Wolves, Coral Reef Adventure, and Bears. He is distinguished film producer in residence at the School of Communication, where he founded the Center for Environmental Filmmaking.

In his book and classroom, Palmer uses his own experiences with ethical gray areas to illustrate the real-life challenges faced by filmmakers. In the IMAX film Whales, Palmer and the film crew were scrupulous about scientific accuracy, but they were also out to create an exciting piece of cinema. They needed a story, and a good story needs a narrative arc: a hero or heroine presented with a difficult task, facing obstacles, and finally winning against the odds.

So the film introduced a humpback mother they called Misty and her calf, Echo, who set out on a 3,000 mile journey from Hawaii to Alaska. It’s true that whales make such journeys, and that they face the precise dangers described in the film, such as accidental collisions with boats.

But the whales filmed at the end, in Alaska, were not the same “Misty” and “Echo” filmed swimming off from Hawaii. For practical reasons, they simply couldn’t be. The invented story made the film more dramatic, served the cause of whale conservation, and painted an accurate picture of life among whales.

Yet Palmer found that when he told people the story behind the films, they were visibly disappointed. He realized that he’d let his audience down. It was as if he’d betrayed a trust. They didn’t think they were getting an invented story that showed a truth; they wanted to see the truth itself. He now believes that, if such devices as staging and trained animals must be used—which sometimes is the most practical and least invasive approach—the audience should be given the information in voice-overs or credits. A documentary filmmaker should educate as well as entertain, and finding subtle ways to share information with the audience about how a film was made is part of the job.

Fang TV and Wildlife Paparazzi

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by young filmmakers is the networks’ need to generate ratings, which often means hyped-up footage that portrays wildlife as dangerous and deadly.

“Networks are driven by money,” says Palmer. “When the head of a network is assessed by his or her board, do you think anyone asks, ‘What did you do for conservation?’ No, they demand profits.”

So instead of a balanced depiction of, say, ocean predators such as sharks or squid, filmmakers under pressure to capture heart-pounding footage may seed the water with bloody tidbits to incite man-made feeding frenzies.

There is also the growth in popularity of the charismatic, in-your-face host who grabs snakes, walks up to bears, and may even eat grubs by the handful. It’s gripping television, Palmer says, and some of these hosts are sincere conservationists who may be trained naturalists.

But in the pressure to grab viewers, they’ve set a trend of getting close to animals—stressing the animals, creating unreal scenarios, and putting themselves in danger—that is being emulated by lesser-skilled hosts in a slew of relatively cheap shows, and may also be tried by amateurs with video cameras for YouTube sites.

Easier Taught than Done

One of the goals of SOC’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking is to produce a generation of environmental filmmakers who are excellent craftspeople and also behave ethically in the field. Of course, notes Palmer, that’s easier taught than done.

“The reality is, you’re sent out and you get three days to get footage of certain animals doing certain things,” he says. “If you come back without footage you’re not going to get hired again. You’ve got to pay for your food, rent, mortgage. The pressure is immense.”

It’s a difficult balancing act, and one that has to be approached in both practical and ethical terms. Palmer proposes a plan for wildlife filmmaking reform modeled on the work of ethical filmmakers highlighted in his book. AU’s Larry Engel, for example, has managed to shoot in Antarctica without interfering with wildlife. It was harder, and took a lot of patience, but Engel won an Emmy for his work.

If pressure from ratings and networks has led to ethical lapses, he believes, it can also correct those lapses. “I hope the audience will become much more informed, and much more demanding of these films—that they’ll look at them and say, ‘Wait a minute. How did they get that shot? Was that really an animal caught in a storm, or was someone hosing it? When that character jumped in next to the mother and cub, was that a smart thing to do?’

By truth telling and providing ethical alternatives that work, Palmer hopes to generate a different kind of pressure—one that demands honesty between filmmakers and viewers and ethical practices in the field.

“Filmmakers have lots of pressure to get these incredible ‘money shots’ that will dazzle the audience. If they’re under pressure to behave honestly and authentically, and not to so sensationalize animals that they give the wrong impression, then we can have riveting television that also fights the good fight.”


On wildlife shows as reality TV

Wildlife documentaries, like all documentaries, are reality television, but in a good sense: they feed a hunger we have for a direct experience that isn’t always available to us. But more recently we’ve seen that devolve into an appetite for watching human beings do stupid, humiliating, and even dangerous things . . . As many producers see it, the public has seen so much that well-behaved wildlife films no longer cut it. —Shooting in the Wild

On digital manipulation

Audiences don’t realize the degree to which some wildlife films contain digitally manipulated images. They assume they’re watching authentic and natural images of wildlife behavior, but they may not be. Animals in herds can be multiplied, blood can be added, unsightly roads or people can be erased, and the gap between predator and prey can be reduced.—Shooting in the Wild

On sound

Getting a cameraman close enough to a bear or other wild animal to record those sounds is risky. The cameramen I work with use long telephoto lenses to get close to our subjects. Sounds are usually added in post-production . . . A person chomping on celery becomes a lion biting into a wildebeest, squeezing a rubber glove full of talcum powder doubles for footsteps in the snow, and flapping an umbrella suggests an eagle taking off. —Shooting in the Wild