Faking it? Wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer publishes 'Shooting in the Wild' to reveal all
The following is an edited excerpt from an article by Daniel de Vise published in the Washington Post, Wednesday, September 22, 2010
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Environmental Film Maker, Chris Palmer 63, has written a confessional for an entire industry. "Shooting in the Wild," published this year, exposes the unpleasant secrets of environmental filmmaking: manufactured sounds, staged fights, wild animals that aren't quite wild filmed in nature that isn't entirely natural. Nature documentaries "carry the promise of authenticity." Nature filmmakers profess to present animal life as it is lived, untouched by mankind. Yet human fingerprints are everywhere.
Nature is frequently boring. Wild animals prefer not to be seen
Palmer's book underscores the fundamental challenge of wildlife filmmaking: Nature is frequently boring. Wild animals prefer not to be seen."If you sit in the wild and watch wildlife, nothing happens for a very long time," said Maggie Burnette Stogner, an environmental filmmaker who works with Palmer on the American University faculty. "That's mostly what happens in wildlife."
Nature footage is hard-earned. A crew might spend six weeks in discomfort and tedium for a few moments of dramatic cinema. Certain shots -- animal births, or predators seizing prey -- are difficult to capture by chance. So some filmmakers set them up.
The lemmings that plunge to their deaths in the 1958 Disney documentary "White Wilderness" were hurled ingloriously to their doom by members of the crew, as a Canadian documentary revealed. Palmer writes that Marlin Perkins, host of television's "Wild Kingdom," was known to bait animals into combat and to film captive beasts deposited into the wild, and that the avian stars of the 2001 film "Winged Migration" were trained to fly around cameras.
Erik Nelson, a prolific environmental filmmaker in Los Angeles, finds "a sort of sanctimonious smugness to his book that sets my teeth on edge." Nelson is a glancing target in Palmer's book; the author portrays Nelson's eight-part television series "The Grizzly Man Diaries" as "sensational" and lambastes the animal-attack genre that Nelson helped to create. Nelson, in turn, asserts that Palmer has seldom actually shot a nature film -- most of Palmer's credits have come in the comparatively detached role of executive producer. He terms Palmer's ethics crusade "a giant nothingburger of an issue." (Palmer says he has been "deeply involved" in all of his films.)
"If there is an ethical beacon that guides the wildlife channels, it is the quest for realism."
Programmers say they condone the use of captive animals as stand-ins for wildlife, and contrived meetings between species, as long as all involved are acting naturally and the viewer is seeing things that might actually happen in nature
Palmer disapproves. In his book, he proposes that every nature film might open with a disclaimer on the screen that says something like, "All the scenes in this film are real and not staged," or, more probably, "Some of the scenes depicted in this film were shot with tame, captive animals." Not likely, say industry colleagues. Who wants to watch a tame nature film?
Read the full article from the Washington Post here