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Wildlife Films: Seeing But Not Always Believing

Cheetahs walk across a savannah at the Mashatu game reserve in Botswana.
Cameron Spencer
Getty Images Europe
Cheetahs walk across a savannah at the Mashatu game reserve in Botswana.

Wildlife documentaries come with the promise that what you're seeing and hearing is genuine -- but that's not always the case, according to a new book by a veteran environmental filmmaker.

In Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom, Chris Palmer exposes some of the dirty secrets behind nature documentaries, like manufactured sounds and staged animal fights.

Palmer tells Weekend Edition host Liane Hansen that after 30 years in the business, he had become haunted by what he had seen and felt the need for transparency.

"I've seen a lot of good things, a lot of great films," he says. "But I've also seen animal abuse, animal harassment, audience deception, the demonization of animals, like in Shark Week [and] Uncut and Untamed," shows which he says carry an anti-conservation message.

Palmer is guilty of deception himself. While working on an IMAX film about wolves, the film team found it was too hard to get shots of roaming wolves, so it went to a game farm and rented them.

Palmer tells Hansen that his wife was outraged when she learned that the sound of water dripping off the paws of a grizzly bear in one of his films was actually the sound of an assistant ruffling his hand and elbow in a water basin.

"He recorded those water sounds and then cleverly match[ed] it to the video that we shot with a long lens," he says.

The sound of an eagle's wings beating as it takes off majestically from the top of a mountain? "That sound will invariably be made by an umbrella opening and closing," Palmer says.

The sounds are often made up in the studio because it isn't possible to record them in the wild.

"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 says. "You wouldn't be responsible anyway. You'd be harassing the bear and bothering it and habituating it."

Whenever a film shows a close-up of a big animal like a bear, Palmer says, the viewer should be on alert: Chances are high that the animal came from a game farm or has been trained.

"When it plunges its head into the entrails of a dead elk … it could be there are M&Ms that have been put into the … elk so that the animal feed on it," he says. "It could be that it's been made hungry. It could be that behind the cameraman there's a trainer giving it signals."

Short Cuts For 'Money Shots'

Palmer says wildlife filmmakers are trained to look for the "money shot," a dramatic scene of predation or copulation, for example.

'[You] can't go on a shoot and come back without a money shot if you want to be hired again," he says. "If you want to continue in this business, you have to get dramatic footage."

Years ago, filmmakers had budgets that allowed them to go out into the wild for three months. These days it's more like three days, Palmer says, so they take short cuts.

His colleagues have not been particularly happy about the book.

"They feel like I'm a magician giving away the trade secrets, which I am doing," he says.

A Trade-Off For Ethics

By bringing the deception to the attention of the public, Palmer hopes pressure will be put on networks to do a better job of monitoring what's going on when their films are being made.

"I'm launching a campaign around my book to try and clean up wildlife filmmaking. We have to have better ethics," he says. "New filmmakers coming into the business need to be trained in ethical filmmaking."

Filmmakers should look at this as a challenge to come up with innovative and fresh ways to be entertaining and ethically correct, he says.

"We need to show respect for wildlife. We need to leave it alone. … For the most part, we need to leave them in peace and film them from a distance."

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NPR Staff
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