In 2002 when The Blue Planet was released in the US, I was given the chance to introduce a screening of one episode at a meeting of international diplomats at the United Nations In New York. They had gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. I began by saying that I thought the biggest weasel word in televison was "reality". It had come, I claimed, to mean the exact opposite. Reality shows were all too often staged, exaggerated or manipulated. But my genre, natural history films, as exemplified by The Blue Planet, now that was real reality programme making.
So how do I feel now, twelve years later? Times change, technology moves on. I do wonder if we have become victims of our own successes. We've managed to show remarkable animal behaviors in progressively more and more detail, from all the angles, in ultra slow motion, in light levels so low the animals involved were barely visible to the naked eye. Each natural history series has striven to improve on its predecessors. But there is a limit to the number of genuinely new, visually exciting stories that a programme researcher can uncover. Sure there are one offs witnessed by pure fluke and happenstance. That witness was simply in the right place at the right time. But relying on that happening in front of your cameras to fill your show just isn't feasible. So we look to different ways of telling our natural history stories, returning to scenarios we may have visited but filming them in a different way. Sometimes out of absolute necessity that entails a higher degree of control of the chosen subjects in front of the lens. You're never going to make a film about the life of field voles by simply walking into a field and looking for them. They have to be brought into the controlled environment of a filming set, the design and building of which is a real skill. My caveat is that while filming, we have to be aware and guard against coming to demand a performance rather than a behavior from our subjects. The former stresses, the latter comes naturally. And welfare of the talent is paramount.
Film makers happily accept that we've always indulged in alteration of the absolute truth. Putting our smaller subjects in sets; using habituated animals; cutting one predation event from several filmed at different times or different locations; playing with the time line so that hours of action are condensed into minutes. We think of those not as deception but as necessities or acceptable editing practice. I feel that's fair enough and broadly defensible.
I prefer to work with wild animals rather than tame or habituated ones. I like them big because frankly they're easier to focus on, and you meet them in the great outdoors. But animals have different personalities, they change as you spend time in their company. A polar bear with her cubs whom I first encounter on the sea ice on Monday is wary, ill at ease, and I have to stay so far away that the family are dots through the lens. But after four days of patiently hanging out with them, I'm accepted within 50 metres, she shows me suckling and playing. I'm now working with effectively a habituated animal. Filming from a vehicle in an African game park actually improves the film maker's chances, for the animals are habituated to people on wheels rather than on foot.
Where issues arise is when in the script the subject becomes a "hero", and the animals are imbued with very human emotions, with words put into their jaws and beaks. Then I feel we're moving into rather more contentious fields. When the story becomes overly elaborate, or too many layers of image are built up in post production, then we lose something significant from the integrity of what we're trying to bring to the screen. Animals are fascinating enough without adding fanciful details about their true nature, and to indulge in excessive anthropomorphism is effectively to disrespect your subject - and also to woefully underestimate the intelligence of whoever's watching.
The digital (r)evolution is throwing us new ways to show and interpret the natural world, our films have a global market place that's expanding incessantly. Television has met Hollywood but it's often not the most comfortable of natural couplings. I believe that we as documentary makers in general and natural history commissioners and producers in particular have a responsibility to lead by some kind of example. Blurring the edges of truth with overly elaborate recreations doesn't help viewers re-establish that human bond with the natural world which has always been important, and which I think is going to be utterly essential in the coming years. Only by rediscovering that are we going to foster a new understanding between us and the planet.
Doug Allan is a wildlife and documentary film maker. He's currently presenting In the Company of Giants in venues around UK. dougallan.com has details.