Overview – Surveying the Landscape: The times, they are a’ changing. Brendan Christie assembles a virtual round-table of experts in the field (sometimes literally) to find out whether the natural history genre is keeping up with t…

The digital age presents natural history filmmakers with a new canvas; a blank slate as inexplicable as the natural world itself once was. Wildlife films enjoy international acceptance, but the cost of this new electronic renaissance is putting the genre under...
August 1, 1998

The digital age presents natural history filmmakers with a new canvas; a blank slate as inexplicable as the natural world itself once was. Wildlife films enjoy international acceptance, but the cost of this new electronic renaissance is putting the genre under a microscope, questioning the direction and content of the next era of natural history.


One of the premier questions facing natural history producers is the future of blue-chip programming. Can this format, the one most viewers identify as the archetype of the genre, be in danger of going stale?

‘The traditional sort of narrative style,’ explains Keenan Smart, head of National Geographic’s natural history unit, ‘which was the only way things used to happen in the U.K. a few years ago, was where a scientist would walk on and gaze languidly through binoculars, and a voice-over would tell us what they were thinking or what they were seeing. Those days are really gone forever.’

Michael Allder, executive producer of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Nature of Things (now in its 39th year), agrees. ‘I think people are tuning out of a lot of factual programming, because it’s always being told in the same style. It has the same emphasis in how the story is being told, so it becomes almost like some sort of litany that’s repeated, and you don’t really connect with it anymore.’

Obviously, connecting with audiences is critical, as Darwinism also applies to broadcasters. Wildlife producers have come to understand this.

Nature has been on PBS since 1982, running in a Sunday primetime slot against some of the best television has to offer. Fred Kaufman, who has worked with the series since its genesis and who became executive producer in 1991, says that outshining the best of cable as well as network features, is no mean task. ‘I have to compete on that level. I can’t put in a soft blue-chip film. I have to present something that will have a rich and dramatic story to lure these folks back to public television.’

The drive for ratings has led many a commissioner to rely on the same group of photogenic animals: sharks, big cats and elephants. The question is: How long can you count on a finite cast of characters and limited scripts to keep viewers’ attention?

‘We have got to redouble our efforts to do more research and find unusual stories, to find the new science…’ warns the chairman of Bristol-based Green Umbrella, Peter Jones. ‘I would always emphasize the relationship we must continually develop with the scientific world so as to find those new stories. It’s when we slip back into repeating ourselves in this field that I think we will run into problems. When we’re content with telling stories based on the same group of charismatic animals, on the same set of great locations, I think we’re in trouble.’

‘I think people are still attracted to the big, sexy predators,’ observes Kaufman, ‘and they are still drawn to that kind of thing. Of course, you can only do so many of them. You can’t recycle these things every other year. I think that some of the blue chip films are just softer and weaker, and they’re not performing as well as we’d like. People love seeing people interacting with animals on screen. We know that. We know they like watching pet shows. We know they like watching shows that take place in a zoo, or an animal hospital. Those are doing quite well because, in some respect, they’re mini-soap operas or little dramas, and people can relate to them better because of the people who are in the films.’

The numbers back that proposition. In April, RealScreen canvassed a number of international broadcasters for the docs that were in their top-ten for viewer ratings. None would be classified as pure blue-chip docs. Almost half, however, featured some form of interaction between humans and nature.

That overly-simplistic formula for success, however, does tend to breed problems of its own, as it attracts non-traditional producers into the field for a share of the spotlight.

Caroline Underwood, a producer with CBC’s The Nature of Things, outlines the problem: ‘The stories were being told in the same way all the time. I think that’s partly because they were picked up, not just by particular units like ours, but they became mainstream. Everybody’s telling them as a black and white issue – animals versus the needs of people. I think that’s where people started to go ho-hum.’

The danger of non-specialists (like local news reporters, for example) exhausting viewer’s patience with blanket, non-scientific coverage of issues like environmental conservation is clear. Getting audiences to keep coming might have natural history filmmakers walking a tightrope: commercial but solidly scientific, thrilling yet educational. No easy task.

Keenan Smart offers his formula for success: ‘I think there’s still a very significant audience that doesn’t simply want to be titillated, but rather informed and educated, and entertained at the same time. Those three words are still a mantra: information, entertainment and education – all wrapped into an exciting style of presentation.’


With slots for natural history multiplying like rabbits, the push is on to find a volume of affordable content to fill the new shelf space. Inevitably, that means plumbing the vaults for material for rebroadcast or reversioning.

It has been suggested that this could result in a backlash, as viewers have come to expect the latest natural history to top previous generations in terms of technology and style. Audiences might be disappointed to tune into the newest wildlife channel only to find Jacques Cousteau re-runs with that distinctive seventies look. It could get them thinking twice the next time they reach for the remote.

‘Someone’s got to get out there and shoot the new stuff,’ warns Green Umbrella’s Peter Jones, ‘or otherwise we will shoot ourselves in the foot. Think of the fantastic volume of film in the back catalogues available to the broadcasters which were, in their time, remarkable films. But if our present generation of broadcasters call on them too much, they could kill the golden goose. It is only by showing the audience enough that is new, to continually whet and develop their appetites, that we can actually keep this business going.’

Most agreed with Jones’ observation. Fred Kaufman offered an upside to the proposition, suggesting that the reliance on archives will serve to highlight the work of the best contemporary producers and the broadcasters who support them. ‘In fact it will only help to distinguish all of us from each other.’ The stations investing in the newest programming, some offered, might be the ones to win the viewer war in the long-run.


Good natural history films have to perform two tasks: tell an engaging story, and live up to viewer expectations. To a large extent, both are now a function of technology.

While no producer is in the position to replace equipment with every new advance, technological forays afford producers opportunities for new footage, and an expanding array of brushes with which to embellish their creation. High definition, CGI and a host of other cutting-edge tools offer the opportunity to work in remarkably realistic and malleable formats, but they are accompanied by an appropriately modern price tag.

Many producers are feeling pressured to take advantage of the technology, both for reasons specific to the genre and general trends in broadcasting. ‘I think that audiences have expectations about production values,’ says the CBC’s Michael Allder. ‘They’re endlessly being bombarded by ads where the cost of the ad is double the cost of the hour. A ton of production values are going into thirty or sixty seconds.’

That sort of pressure, conscious or not, has started to play more than a passive role in wildlife productions. Most natural history filmmakers seem to be taking only tentative steps with modern technology. While this may be more a function of budget restrictions than choice, there does seem to be a constant theme running through objections to the infusion of technology: they say you can’t buy a good story.

‘My big concern,’ explains Fred Kaufman, ‘has always been what can we bring to the audience. They’re less caught up in this technology than we as broadcasters are. That’s really my first priority.’

The key seems to be maintaining some equilibrium on-screen: make sure the audience is never distracted by the technology. The CBC’s Caroline Underwood offers her approach: ‘[The viewers] realize that there’s a certain amount of technology and technique involved, but the trick is to not make it too obvious – so there are times when your audience is seduced by it, and it seems very natural rather than clinical.’

The future of technology for natural history filmmakers seems to lie in the science of subtlety – smaller cameras, sharper images and less intrusive film crews. ‘The technology of video cameras does enable an awful lot of people to very rapidly and quite economically become potential filmmakers,’ observes Keenan Smart. ‘I think there is a danger in that in some respects, but there is also a tremendous advantage in it, particularly when these cameras become used, as they are now, increasingly by scientists and people who are really studying the natural world intensively. It enables them to record stories and sequences which, otherwise, might never have been captured on tape or film.’

‘The fact is, the development of cameras themselves: the lens systems, the use of high-speed and macro and so forth, has been fantastic over the last few years. We have a real interest in other newer technologies like infra-red and thermal camera systems. We’re using a lot of remote camera set-ups that allow very little interference with what’s going on at a particular site, that on occasion allow you to shoot much more significant material than you would have been able to if someone was trying to stake the thing out in a hide.’

You just have to pay for it…


Certain ethical fires have always smoldered in the genre, and modern technology is threatening to add fresh fuel. A new generation of tools allow filmmakers to get deeper into the wild to observe behavior that would have been impossible otherwise, but who defines the limits?

Innovations like animal-mounted remote cameras allow filmmakers to capture remarkable images without being personally involved. The argument for the technique is that every animal, no matter how blasž they might appear about lurking film crews, alters their behavior around humans. This technique does, however, cross the line between observation and human-animal interaction, and raises the specter of behavioral training, or even exploitation.

‘The problem with trying to dissect every aspect of animal behavior,’ cautions Caroline Underwood of the CBC, ‘and present it in a visual format where you’re using captive animals and wild animals, is that you’re really playing around with the audiences ability to make a judgment about what’s right and correct in terms of the ethics of natural history filmmaking. There are various ethical issues – how close? How often?’

Compact, high-resolution equipment also creates frequency issues, she observes. ‘It can be a bit of a stampede, as it is in Kenya right now with tourists [who have started following film crews into the bush]. You can fly for hours by helicopter only to discover there are two other film crews there. The pond is getting smaller and smaller all the time.’

Many ethical issues have already been solved by the increased sophistication of the viewing audience. ‘We’ve seen the development of techniques which the audience now sees through,’ observes Peter Jones. ‘I don’t think they did to begin with. It’s possible to layer things, and blue screen effects, but I think the audience now sees through that. I think there are certain techniques within the armory available to us which are rightly being abandoned, and more will be abandoned for ethical reasons. At the end of the day though, it’s down to that filmmaker in the field.’

While the audience will define some limitations, natural history filmmakers do have an advantage over other disciplines in that they are a fairly insular group, and can police themselves. The same drive that makes them compete for the best footage and constantly raise the bar, will hopefully also lower the boom when someone has gone too far. While the demand for wildlife seems to be insatiable, nature’s patience with repeated intrusion isn’t.


Some argue that the future of all television is high definition, but it is especially evident that natural history is headed in that direction. Feet dragging aside, HD seems inevitable at this point in time – at least until the next format of choice is invented. (For more on HD, see page 26)

‘I see the beginnings of a completely new natural history library shot on high definition,’ predicts Fred Kaufman of the next decade. ‘I think just about everything that has been done will be done again on high definition. I also think you will see a far more expanded menu of natural history programming. Whereas years ago what people thought of as a wildlife show was strictly a blue chip animal behavior film, I think you’re going to see far more of these human animal relationship stories because they’re probably far more cost effective.

‘I think you’re going to be seeing a new style and presentation as well. To introduce the younger viewer, I think you’re going to see some things being done in natural history in terms of pacing and editing and music and graphics that we haven’t seen before… accessible, exciting, different, relevant, contemporary. I think we need to really all collectively look at how to make this more contemporary so it doesn’t just seem like the old educational films from the sixties and seventies. I think that one of the great problems we have is the stuff tends to be slow and boring, and we face that all the time. You’re going to see some break-out people doing some very different and interesting things.’



More and more natural historians are turning to kids programming to attract new audiences. Green Umbrella has begun producing children’s natural history dramas. PBS has Wild TV. German broadcaster ZDF has completed a series called If Animals Could Talk, and they plan to do even more.

‘It’s all a question of mix,’ explains ZDF Enterprise’s head of docs, Kristina Hollstein. ‘You always need different programs in different slots, because people don’t want to only see blue chip docs. I think a lot of children want to know how the world works. There are also a lot of adults watching children’s programs as well.’


Debate on the topic of violence in nature films continues…

Peter Jones of Green Umbrella relates the following story: Shortly after the broadcast of their Trials Of Life series, Jones came across a group of young women peering through a bookstore window at a display of the books which had accompanied the series. They were discussing the program of the night before, and to his complete surprise, it wasn’t the big kills that caught their attention – it was the fungus and microscopic creatures. But, will it put lions on the dole?

Says Jones: ‘The ability to surprise and astonish people by letting them know what is actually going on around them is constantly there.’

See also:

Technology – Nature in High Def (pg. 26)

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