People and Nature
- Natural history documentaries are a globally important source of information about wildlife, conservation and environmental issues, and they are the closest many will get to seeing featured animals and their behaviour in the wild. They are entertainment, certainly, but may also inform people’s knowledge of the natural world and influence their ideas on conservation of species and habitats. We locate our perspective in the existing literature analysing wildlife documentary making and its effects.
- We argue that a conspicuous pre‐occupation with the ‘personalisation’ of individual animals and the injection of false jeopardy in recent wildlife documentaries leads to significant misinformation and creates problems for public understanding of wider conservation.
- We illustrate our point by detailing episodes from the BBC natural history series Dynasties, discussing personalisation, anthropomorphism and the use of jeopardy to gain emotive impact and audience engagement. We find that narratives are framed around a single individual, that ‘stories’ are framed as soap operas, that jeopardy is emphasised throughout and that animals are endowed with the capacity to be aware of, and work towards, the dynasties of the title.
- With conservation increasingly relying on public support, we argue that it is important that people are presented with factually correct information, and portraying wild animals as soap opera style characters is neither honest nor helpful.
A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.
Natural history documentaries are a globally significant source of public information about conservation (Dingwall & Aldridge, 2006). The BBC’s Natural History Unit has a particularly stellar international reputation for natural history film‐making, but has been criticised for ignoring the plights of many of the species they feature (e.g. Monbiot, 2018), for giving the impression that wild places are solely for nature, and for neglecting the presence of people in many habitats (Sandbrook & Adams, 2013). After the Second World War, wildlife films took on a more scientific character, diverging from the pre‐war sensationalist and cinematic style of people like Martin and Osa Johnson, but despite this shift in tone, wildlife documentaries still have a major aim of being popular rather than strictly factual (Brockington, 2009).
There is also increasing attention being paid to the importance of assessing the impact of such documentaries and the form of their narratives (e.g. Jones et al., 2019). Here, we argue that a conspicuous pre‐occupation with the ‘personalisation’ of individual animals and the heavy use of a largely constructed or exaggerated ‘jeopardy’ misinform viewers and may ultimately create problems for conservation by giving the public a distorted view of wildlife and therefore a weak base on which to form opinions about how conservation should be pursued.
While anthropomorphism may in some circumstances enable people to relate more easily to wildlife and conservation issues, film‐makers and scientists who may contribute to documentaries do need to ensure that excessive anthropomorphism that may mislead or distort reality is avoided. The possible problems with these narrative approaches, underpinned by anthropomorphism, are exemplified by the popular BBC wildlife documentary series Dynasties. First broadcast in 2018, Dynasties was presented an exceptionally anthropomorphic depiction of natural history and therefore provides an ideal case study to examine the problems of this approach.
Before going further with the analysis of the messages conveyed by this series, it is worth placing it in the context of the origins and evolution of wildlife documentaries. Their development, conventions and techniques were the subject of Mitman’s detailed study Reel Nature (Mitman, 1999) and Bousé’s Wildlife Film (Bousé, 2000), along with Brockington’s Celebrity and the Environment. Fame, Wealth and Power in Conservation (Brockington, 2009), which looks particularly at the role of celebrity. Celebrity is very relevant here because of the influence of Sir David Attenborough, the presenter of Dynasties, in informing and influencing people’s views on wildlife and the environment (Revell, 2020).
The advent of the natural history or wildlife film came in the early 20th century with the filming of lion or other hunts in East Africa. It is hard to identify the first such film, but certainly one of the earliest was made by a cameraman, Cherry Kearton, who accompanied the hunting expedition led by Theodore Roosevelt (the former American President) in 1909–10. The film of the expedition was released by Motion Pictures Patent Company in on 18 April 1910. It was a failure with the public, with no live hunting scenes and no live film of lions. Mitman says the message that came over from the failure seemed to be that ‘audiences craved drama over authenticity’ (Mitman, 1999). Further films in the 1920s were more successful, with the appeal of these early attempts to film animals in the wild leading to the development of a wildlife film industry based largely on dangerous or charismatic megafauna in the wild both to entertain and, sometimes, to educate; not that different from aspects of the Dynasties series which is the focus here. Similarly, as films were produced to meet audience interest, conventions of editing together sequences filmed at different times, using forms of artifice (including filming captive animals as though they were wild) and constructing stories from disparate films sequences developed. Even though filming technology, sound recording techniques and the ability to get cameras into positions to film wild animals in close up have advanced hugely since the early films, at times fakery or artifice in terms of cutting together unrelated sequences to make a narrative is still heavily used. In Dynasties (see below) there are clear examples of shots cut together to create sequences that may not have happened in real life. An example of an older Attenborough‐fronted documentary using fakery that was unacknowledged in the film but later revealed was the filming of polar bears in a zoo amid fake snow which purported to show a polar bear giving birth in the wild in the BBC’s Frozen Planet in December 2011 (Independent, 2011). Horak has warned that few documentaries are now “strictly documents of animal activity, but are artificial constructs… Narrators state flatly that filmmakers have waited patiently in the jungle for years in order to ‘capture’ an animal on film. Directors, however, spend much more time in the studio and in the editing room than on location…[which] helps to create an artificial ‘emotional’ relationship to animals…nature filmmakers produce at very high shooting ratios, then construct specific events through editing, utilizing images which may indeed have no spatial and temporal relationship to each other and may involve dozens of animals, rather than the one example ostensibly being depicted” (Horak, 2006). Bousé (2000) also argues that methods used in shooting and editing together disparate pieces of film to create supposedly continuous action sequences, with close‐ups and an accompanying script, are intended to prompt a sense of intimacy and create more of an emotional bond between viewer and animal. Anthropomorphism may be an important part of this in stressing individuality and personality through artifice and narration. This is an analysis that is very relevant to the final versions of the Dynasties episodes reviewed here.
We should clarify that we are not arguing that anthropomorphism is in itself a bad thing. The rejection of all human‐like traits in animals, or ‘anthropodenial’ as Frans de Waal has dubbed it (Waal, 2017), is clearly misguided. It is where the tendency to portray animals as humans is taken to extremes that it may have a distorting effect on public understanding of human–wildlife relations (especially when the real humans in the landscapes are ignored), and therefore undermine the understanding of the aims of conservation.
The BBC wildlife documentary series Dynasties concentrated on ‘five of the world’s most celebrated, yet endangered animals’. It was narrated by Attenborough and aimed to tell the ‘true stories’ of the featured species: penguins; chimpanzees; lions; African wild dogs; and tigers. Each was shown ‘in a heroic struggle against rivals and against the forces of nature’ as ‘these families fight for their own survival and for the future of their dynasties’ (BBC, no date).
The title injected a note of anthropomorphism intended to pull in audiences. Producer and director Rosie Thomas explained that chimpanzee groups are “very political, and at times it’s a bit like watching a soap opera…Similar to politics, there are characters that you like, and ones you don’t like” (Archer, 2018). From the start, the programs assigned soap opera dynamics, political and human emotional characteristics to animals, built up through shot selection and scripting. It was an approach that worked; Dynasties gained a wide audience and attracted very positive reviews. Ed Cumming in the Independent, summed it up well: “It focuses on families, which is another way of saying that Attenborough & co are no longer even pretending not to be launching a direct assault on the heartstrings. The animal footage in these programmes has always been a distraction, but it’s a sumptuously shot high definition red herring…Human emotions are the reason we come back” (Cumming, 2018)….
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