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Are wildlife films really “nature documentaries”?

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... Wildlife documentary production companies committed money and complex logistical efforts to send teams of filmmakers to remote locations worldwide, capturing compelling footage of wild animals and, in so doing, transforming what wildlife films looked and felt like. 'British style' natural history documentaries and 'American style' wildlife films, despite their historical differences in storytelling and scientific content (Bousé, 1998), converged during this period on a shared subject matter, a distinct visual language of a spectacular nature, a rhetoric of unobtrusiveness and even some of the same filmmakers and footage. They also shared the strategy of prominently showcasing their on-location behind-the-scenes material in making-of documentaries (MODs). ...
... While there is no discipline-independent or consistent definition of the complex concept of authenticity, with respect to wildlife filmmaking it has generally referred to films that show nature accurately or as it 'really is'; much scholarship focuses on the ways that wildlife films misrepresent, stage or otherwise 'fake' their footage. Scholarly critics of certain narrative practices or filmmaking techniques (such as anthropomorphism, staged interactions or composite animal characters) argue that they contribute to misrepresentations of nature (Bousé, 1998), while filmmakers have justified a variety of staging techniques to show a more 'real' nature than could be filmed otherwise (Mitman, 2009). Indeed, elsewhere in this special issue, conservation scholars argue that an anthropomorphised 'soap opera' portrayal of animals in jeopardy undermines the public understanding of conservation (Somerville et al., 2021). ...
... Indeed, elsewhere in this special issue, conservation scholars argue that an anthropomorphised 'soap opera' portrayal of animals in jeopardy undermines the public understanding of conservation (Somerville et al., 2021). Chris' periodization roughly maps unto early wildlife films of travelogue or hunting expeditions, which involved narratives of seeking out desired animals, especially big game (Mitman, 2009), followed by televised nature programming epitomized by the Disney True-Life Adventures which heavily anthropomorphized animal life (Bousé, 1998(Bousé, , 2000MacDonald, 2006), to more recent wildlife programming that positions human beings within a continuum of animal instincts and naturalizes certain social and gendered categories (Mills, 2013). However, the prestige of 21st-century blue-chip wildlife programming is linked to its claims of delivering authentic content, evidenced through behind-the-scenes footage of dedicated filmmakers facing the challenges of obtaining rare footage on location. ...
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Making‐of documentaries (MODs) for recent blue‐chip wildlife films are prominently featured as trailers, bonus features on DVD releases and websites, and televised segments within wildlife broadcasts. Prior research shows how MODs within mainstream cinema promote certain filmmakers as auteurs and as exceptional creative professionals. Earlier wildlife film MODs demonstrated filmmakers' mastery of nature and a licence to offer scientific knowledge, as well as many staging practices employed in wildlife filmmaking; this content moved to MODs as nature grew more pristine in wildlife films' main programming. Recent wildlife film MODs still celebrate filmmakers' professionalism and emphasize the remoteness of film locations, filmmakers' exceptional practical skills and scientific expertise under harsh conditions, and the technologies responsible for spectacular visuals. In the MOD for Chimpanzee (2012), these features work together to portray this wildlife species as challenging to locate and film in nature, accessible only by filmmakers with the right skills and technologies. I argue that current blue‐chip wildlife MODs are a performance of authentic, non‐interventionist filmmaking. Recent MODs increase viewers' behind‐the‐scenes access to filming conditions but have not disclosed certain staging practices such as the use of composite animal characters. Despite their prominence as marketing and peripheral material, MODs remain segregated from wildlife films' main programming. They contribute to a blue‐chip construction of nature as pristine and not inclusive of human beings, even though their expeditionary narratives show more complex human–nature interactions. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.
... However, critics have spoken out about misleading and unethical practices in the making of nature documentaries (Boswall, 1997;Bousé, 2000;Palmer, 2010Palmer, , 2015. Despite large general audiences and widespread use for educational purposes (Riley Koenig et al., 2018), little research has focused on the structure and history of these films or how they portray wildlife (Bousé, 1998). ...
... Recently, filmmakers have taken greater liberties with artistic license. This has led some scholars to question whether wildlife films should even be classified as documentaries (Adcroft, 2010;Bousé, 1998). Pressures to compete with other programming for ratings has led to innovations in wildlife film (Kilborn, 2006). ...
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Primate nature documentaries have been popular with audiences since their inception in the early 1900s. Audiences trust primate documentaries, but scholars are concerned about how documentaries sometimes misrepresent primates. We provide an analysis of the history of primate documentaries, with a focus on how and why misrepresentation happens. We summarize why wildlife documentaries are important, and then we explain concerns over documentaries’ mischaracterization of nonhuman animals. Then, having viewed every available primate documentary ( n = 210), we provide the first scholarly attempt to (a) provide a big-picture view by collating and describing the subgenres that can be used to characterize primate documentaries, and (b) describe the historical development of these subgenres, from early sensationalized films to modern large-budget productions. This history describes the chronological development of the diversity of primate documentary subgenres and explains the misrepresentation of primates as the result of filmmaker goals across that historical development.
... Misleading techniques include staging scenes or creating "arrangements" (e.g., releasing a prey animal near a potential predator) (Attenborough 1961;Carrier 1996), misleading use of slow motion (Boswall 1986), using footage of captive animals as if depicting animals in the wild (Attenborough 1961), splicing together unrelated footage to create a plot or story, altering film footage in ways that distort reality (e.g., by erasing signs of humans to create an image of pristine nature) (Palmer 2015), or creating "composite characters" by combining characteristics of several animals (Bousé 2000). These practices have led some to doubt whether wildlife films should even be classified as documentaries (Bousé 1998). ...
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Documentaries are the primary means by which many people observe the behavior of wild primates. By influencing lay-person perceptions of wild primates, documentaries could impact viewer conservation-related beliefs and behaviors and, therefore, the well-being of wild primates. To investigate such portrayals, we examined documentaries depicting the four species that were most represented in documentaries: rhesus macaque, chimpanzee, ring-tailed lemur, and mountain gorilla. For each documentary, we continuously coded behavior, conducted scan samples of age-sex classes at 3-min intervals, and made ad libitum observations of inaccuracies and misleading content. We expected that representation of age-sex classes and activity budgets in documentaries would differ from those reported in the primary literature for the same species in the wild. In addition, we expected inaccurate depictions for every species. For ring-tailed lemurs, adult males were underrepresented in documentaries. For macaques, chimpanzees, and gorillas, representation of age-sex classes did not differ significantly from observations in the wild. Documentary depictions of activity budgets differed from researcher accounts of wild primate behavior for rhesus macaques, chimpanzees, and mountain gorillas, but not for ring-tailed lemurs. In general, documentaries overrepresented traveling and social behaviors such as play and grooming. Documentaries, especially docudramas, may have emphasized traveling because such footage allows storyline narration, whereas the emphasis on social behavior was likely due to the appeal of such footage to audiences. Inaccuracies were documented for all four species, with rhesus macaques having the most inaccuracies. We propose that primatologists have an ethical imperative to enhance the accuracy of primate portrayals to audiences.
... Indeed, portrayals of apparently healthy ecosystems risk contributing to extinction denialist rhetoric (Lees et al., 2020). These concerns over misrepresentation voiced in the media are not reserved to journalists alone but rather amplify the sentiments reflected among academics both on the topic of wider environmental portrayals (Louson, 2018), but also more specific treatment of species portrayals such as anthropomorphism and false narratives (Bousé, 1998;Somerville et al., 2021). Somerville et al. (2021) most recently outline examples of these falsified narratives in 2018's Dynasties, where frequently the framing of situations and the accompanying narratives, or 'storytelling', are at odds with the scientific evidence. ...
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The greatest crises of our time are environmental. To combat the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation will require the actions of all members of society. However, despite widespread consensus from the scientific community that human actions are driving this rapid environmental degradation, it remains unclear whether and to what extent the public is receiving and engaging with conservation messages. Natural history films have been suggested as one possible medium for generating awareness of conservation issues en masse but some environmental advocates have criticised these shows for lacking strong, focused conservation messaging. This study quantifies audience engagement with conservation themes and species depicted on screen in two BBC natural history super productions (Blue Planet II and Seven Worlds, One Planet) and a stand‐alone documentary with an explicit focus on conservation (Extinction: The Facts) by using big data analyses of Wikipedia page views during and after broadcast of each show and causal impact analysis. Our results indicate that natural history films are more effective at generating species awareness than transmitting conservation messages, but that audience engagement generated by conservation‐focused documentaries can be comparable to that generated by entire film series focused on natural history. With the ultimate goal of contributing to long‐term behavioural change, our results suggest that natural history films have the potential to drive mass audience engagement with conservation themes through better collaboration between filmmakers, conservationists and conservation messaging researchers. Finally, this study underscores how big data approaches can quantify the effectiveness of conservation messages across different mediums. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.
... Bad science, pseudoscience and fake science [defined by Thaler and Schiffman (2015) as "unsound conclusions drawn from valid premises; sound conclusions drawn from invalid premises; and unsound conclusions drawn from invalid premises respectively"] can be pervasive and spread effectively, so that misinformation may remain as 'fact' within the public domain, despite being debunked by modern science (Flaherty, 2011;Godlee et al., 2011;Thaler and Shiffman, 2015). For example, the persistent myth of lemming suicide originated in a Disney natural history documentary film White Wilderness from 1958 (Bousé, 1998;Louson, 2018). Following the release of the Animal Planet 'documentary', Mermaids: The Body Found, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had to release a statement in 2012 reminding people that mermaids are not real, after they were inundated with calls asking for the truth about mermaids (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012; Spector, 2012; Thaler and Shiffman, 2015). ...
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Natural history documentary films can be a powerful tool for wildlife conservation, providing an accessible means to increase public knowledge of the natural world. There has been an increasing focus in documentary films on the threats to biodiversity in recent years that has positively aided conservation efforts. However, potential ethical and welfare implications of natural history film making are often overlooked. Here, we consider the design and impact of the narratives used and the filming methods employed in natural history film making and their potential implications for conservation. Although these programmes are often lauded for their cinematography, filming techniques and practices should satisfy high ethical standards and should be evaluated to assess disturbance caused to wildlife and any associated negative behavioural and physiological impacts. This evaluation should include the direct impact of the filming, as well as considering the risk of viewers replicating human-wildlife encounters they see on film. Trends towards the use of highly dramatized storytelling, anthropomorphism and the inclusion of inaccurate information should also be addressed. Although some production companies have filming guidelines in place, this is not standard industry practice. Natural history films are an important means of educating and enthusing people about nature and its conservation; however, it is vital that films are made responsibly. To facilitate this discussion, we propose recommendations, including standardised industry-wide guidelines, codes of conduct and independent ethical reviews, for natural history film makers to mitigate and avoid negative impacts.
... Further, if wild animals in their natural habitat are to be filmed, they "should not be frightened, corralled, chased or otherwise manipulated" [26]. Despite these examples being from half a century ago, revelations about wildlife documentary footage being staged persist [40], and thus they should be subject to the same regulations as other filmed media. ...
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Animals play a significant role in the production of film and television in Australia and globally. Given this, regulating and monitoring their welfare on- and off-set is imperative. We therefore aim to compare Australia’s state and territory-based legislation and regulation to those in the United States and the United Kingdom and assess regulations against the Five Domains Model of animal welfare. Historical examples of animal incidents in Australian film are used to illustrate potential deficiencies. We reviewed archived media for animal welfare incidents on and off production sets. We demonstrate a lack of uniformity, with 37.5% (3/8) of states and territories providing targeted Codes of Practice for animals in filmed media, and partially addressing behavioural interactions or mental state within the Five Domains Model. Three themes of welfare concerns were identified including incidents on-set, incidents off-set, and effects of portrayal on perception or ownership of specific species. This highlights the need for standardised national legislation and improved monitoring and regulation. Further research should quantify the number of animals used in productions, describe the type and duration of the work the animals undertake, investigate the frequency of animal welfare incidents, and explore alternative methods to the use of live animals in film and television.
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La obra divulgativa sobre biología de Jean Painlevé (1902-1989), cineasta y científico relacionado con el surrealismo, cuenta con decenas de películas y escritos. La historiografía del cine ha abordado este corpus desde la unicidad y la vanguardia de sus propuestas. Este artículo propone una definición conceptual del estilo de Painlevé, dentro del concepto de documental de naturaleza, llamándolo “documental surrealista de naturaleza”, tendencia que no se dio como un hecho aislado, sino como un movimiento de científicos cineastas, producido entre 1915 y 1940. Definir el documental surrealista de naturaleza es una forma de dar nombre a una corriente que, en la época de las vanguardias, encontró la belleza en la biología y adoptó técnicas cinematográficas rigurosas para compaginar la abstracción con la divulgación científica, como lo demuestra una aproximación analítica al trabajo más didáctico de Painlevé.
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This article focuses on a rewilding project in Santa Cruz, Argentina, that seeks to restore the Patagonian ecosystem through the active management of species, especially the cougar or puma. Highlighting the role that media technologies play, this work argues that camera traps and satellite collars employed to enact rewilding practices are also concerned with the management of people and their perceptions. Furthermore, the article suggests that the imaginaries sustaining these practices of conservation are predicated on controlling future animal behavior just as they are on preserving it, considering that this rewilding initiative seeks to habituate pumas to the presence of humans so that their bodies can be put to work in the service of ecotourism. In so doing, the modes of futuring enacted through this conservation continue to place wild animals as something to be looked-at, and nature as something that must be sold to be saved.
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This article examines the relationship between the production culture and storytelling practices of content producers for the National Geographic organization. Supplementing producer interviews with a textual and contextual analysis of National Geographic and the wildlife media it disseminates, this article suggests a number of political, economic and cultural factors that determine the focus of narratives created and disseminated by National Geographic across its many global media platforms.
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This study in visual communication is an examination of how visual images used in persuasive environmental media campaigns reflect the 'social construction of nature.' It focuses on films and videos related to the issue of wilderness preservation in America; it addresses the ways in which these portray wilderness as a visual entity, and points to implications for influencing attitudes, behavior, and policy. The study includes analyses of forty films which are categorized institutionally, according to the type of organization which produced them: (1) environmental advocacy groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, (2) government agencies, such as the National Park Service, and (3) private, run-for-profit corporations. The American landscape art tradition provides the aesthetic and historical context for the analysis of wilderness images in these films. The 'ways of seeing' constructed by nineteenth-century landscape paintings and photographs are reflected in the films' depictions of national parks, unprotected old-growth forests, and other wilderness environments. Studies in landscape art, as well as empirical research and landscape assessment theories, suggest several analytic categories applicable to these films, including various compositional devices ('Claudian' frames, recessive planes, 'prospect' and 'refuge' symbolism, etc), and compositional elements (snow-covered mountains, reflecting pools of water, carefully placed human figures, etc). These produce 'positive' landscape images, and encourage viewers' imaginative entry into them. The films rely heavily on visual contrasts between these 'positive' images and 'negative' images depicting technological incursion into wilderness (by modern day 'machines in the garden'--chainsaws, bulldozers, automobiles, motorhomes, etc), and other forms of human manipulation (stumps, clear-cuts, 'built' elements, pollution, etc). These contrasts are consistent with the ideological antinomies of American Western films (wilderness vs. civilization, nature vs. technology, etc), but are expressed in ways unique to these documentaries, using devices such as the 'paradise lost structure,' the 'montage of destruction,' etc. The films also exhibit ideological similarities and differences among their respective producing organizations. The U.S. Forest Service's films reveal affinities with those by private corporations, while the National Park Service's express concern with ecosystem preservation that is close in spirit to the concerns of environmental advocacy groups.
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Hediger reports field observations and experimental studies of the behavior of a wide variety of animals, from paramecium to elephants. Pertinent literature is reviewed. Among the chapters are: "The animal's daily life," "The animal and its enemies," "Flight and hypnosis" and discussions of social and maternal behavior, contrasting traits of wild and domestic animals, "animal psychology in the circus," training of animals and the expressions of animals. 198-item bibliography. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)