Wildlife Documentary Deception

Great. CNN and NBC weren’t enough: now we can’t trust the National Geographic channel and Animal Planet.

Chris Palmer, a veteran wildlife photographer, recently went on NPR to talk about his new book. In Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom, Palmer reveals the secrets of his trade, which apparently include renting trained animals when the ones in the wild won’t cooperate and putting M&M’s in the carcasses of prey, so the predators eat with gusto. He also expound on the use of a sound-effects technician to simulate sounds of animals breathing, chewing, drinking and flying. “You can’t get close enough to a bear to record his breath or his splashing in the water. If you got that close, you’d be in great danger,” he told NPR.

Although Palmer attributes the increase in the use of staged and fake footage in nature films to tighter budgets and shooting schedules, surely we had an inkling that this went on from the very beginning. The inventor of the form, Walt Disney, used animals as documentary actors in movies like “The Incredible Journey,” and I always assumed that Disney’s “true life adventure” nature films like “Jungle Cat” and “The Living Desert” included staged scenes, including battles between animals that were far from spontaneous.

Disney, however, is in the entertainment business. When wildlife documentaries announce themselves as real, they should be real, and if the producers staged sequences, rented animals, or used M&M’s, they have an ethical obligation to tell the audience. This goes for sounds as well. After all, there are people who think big snakes make the roaring sound the CGI villain makes in “Anaconda”; the fake sounds in nature films mislead many more. Real life footage is supposed to teach us something, not stuff our heads full of more misinformation.

That’s the job of CNN and NBC.

There is a lot of amazing wildlife footage that is not staged; the question now, in light of Palmer’s book, is how we are supposed to identify the fakes. The sound effects are a good clue. I will say this: if I find out that the story of Christian the lion was faked, I’m going to be angry.

But there is always “the battle at Kruger.”

[Thanks to Lauren Larson for the tip.]

7 thoughts on “Wildlife Documentary Deception

  1. As I said in the post, I’ve always assumed it. But the high-end providers are still held to a higher standard. I would like to know, for example, how much of “Life” is real. The documentary claims it all is.

  2. My favorite example of this sort of thing is Disney’s White Wilderness, which had vivid photography of lemmings committing mass suicide by jumping off of cliffs to drown in the water below. The problem is that, contrary to myth, lemmings don’t really do this. Lemmings do undertake massive migrations across land and water, and some members of the herd do drown in rough water or get jostled off the sides of cliffs, but there’s no such thing as a lemming march into the sea. So how did the Disney crew manage to film one? Let’s just say PETA would not be happy…

    • Great example (damn–I wish I had thought of it!) —I remember the sequence, and vaguely remember a pre-internet, pre-cable scandal about it that Disney quickly stomped out. That bit is also an example of how such distortions can create myths for generations. Most people still think lemmings do this, and Walt shares the blame. Thanks for the memories….

  3. Interesting that you twice single out CNN and NBC for less-than-accurate information, yet neglect to name the network that most consistently manipulates information to espouse their version of reality, FOX News, with the ironic moniker “Fair and Balanced.”

    • It’s not interesting, because it’s not true. Read the blog—Fox News gets as much criticism here as any of the rest. However, it does not manipulate news “most consistently”—only a devoted and biased liberal could possibly believe that. And unlike the other manipulating networks (except for the openly Left-slanted MSNBC), Fox is up front with its conservative tilt. Everyone knows, and has for years, that “fair and balanced” is an intentional finger in the eye of the mainstream media, which is seldom balanced; Fox was created to aid balance by providing a conservative perspective. You apparently missed that memo. And the past year was filled with stories that the public would have never found out about at all without Fox’s diligence—ACORN, the New Black Panthers, Van Jones, and others—all of which were initially buried by the supposedly “fair” networks, all of which they ultimately covered and admitted that they were late to the party. How anyone could watch those media outlets try to blame Sarah Palin and other conservatives for the Tucson shootings and argue with a straight face that they are unbiased compared to Fox is testimony to human delusion. THAT is interesting.

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