Editorial – The Real Deal vs. Simulated Wildness

If I were a public relations professional working for the natural history community - broadcasters and filmmakers alike - I'd be doing my utmost to keep Wild Care's guidelines for animal filming out of the public eye....
August 1, 1998

If I were a public relations professional working for the natural history community – broadcasters and filmmakers alike – I’d be doing my utmost to keep Wild Care’s guidelines for animal filming out of the public eye.

Those guidelines, proposed by Scandinature’s Bo Landin at the last Wildscreen, will be up for ratification at this year’s event in Bristol. Participants at Jackson Hole and Wildlife Europe adopted the policy last year, as did the members of IAWF (International Association of Wildlife Filmmakers). The idea is to have producers and broadcasters agree to standards so that the industry can police itself.

Within industry circles, the guidelines can be considered comprehensive and conscientious, even commendable. The spirit behind the policy, after all, is to protect the interests of the animals, the habitats and the crew.

But give this list to your average tv-watcher, and they’re going to feel duped.

The code outlines veterinary care, grooming and ‘adequate rest periods’ for animals brought ‘on set.’ It makes statements such as ‘professionally trained animals will be safer and more economical in the long run.’ Given the race to build brands on this genre all over the world, it might not be in the best interests of anyone in the business to have this news public. Only earlier this summer did Carlton get a public blasting when The Guardian pointed out deviations from the truth in The Connection, an award-winning film at that.

Sure, an insider knows it’s common practice to use trained animals on closed sets, perhaps even setting up artificial prey/predator relationships in order to ensure drama on film. But the much-touted universal appeal of natural history stems largely from a belief on the part of the audience that they are viewing real wild animals in real wild situations and, damn, aren’t those filmmakers clever to have managed to get this?

In this issue’s profile on Scandinature (pg. 16), Landin is letting the cat of the bag to his own detriment when he says ‘We [the filmmakers] all know we took the car out and walked a few yards from the car in eight cases out of ten – and we have all the tourists standing behind our back, especially in Africa.’ But he goes on to add that it’s the responsibility of the broadcaster to be more honest with the audience, to accurately identify what’s being shown.

And he’s right. The laws of supply and demand apply here as they do everywhere else, and it’s the broadcasters who have the cash. If it’s the commissioner who’s demanding that the films conform to classic dramatic structure, that the animals follow a script rather than their instincts, that the kill be the focal point of the film whether it’s natural or not, then it will be the broadcasters who will owe viewers an explanation if the switchboard ever lights up with calls from angry, disillusioned, cable-paying customers.

Mary Ellen Armstrong, Editor

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.