How Low Can You Go?: cost-conscious natural history

During the 1990s, the demand for natural history programming has been driven to new heights by the likes of global channel providers Discovery and National Geographic. As the available airtime has expanded, so has the need for high quality wildlife shows...
August 1, 1999

During the 1990s, the demand for natural history programming has been driven to new heights by the likes of global channel providers Discovery and National Geographic. As the available airtime has expanded, so has the need for high quality wildlife shows to keep schedules fresh.

For a while, varied line-ups could be constructed using new blue-chip shows, reruns and carefully selected acquisitions. But the advent of digital capacity, coupled with the rising expectations of pay-tv viewers, has created a new appetite for long-running original shows.

This, in turn, has revolutionized the way in which natural history production is defined. With blue-chip behavioral films running at least US$500,000 an hour, cost-effective ways have had to be found to produce high-volume shows of a reasonable quality.

The downward pressure on price has manifested itself in a wide variety of ways – one of which has been the use of archive `out-takes’ to create wholly new series.

The BBC NHU’s commercial arm, Wildvision, took this approach with a series called Killing for a Living, ‘a simple story based on the relationship between predators and their prey,’ says nhu head of development, Michael Bright. Bright set up Wildvision eight years ago to exploit ‘the largest collection of wildlife pictures in the world.’ According to Bright, the series has gone on to be one of the corporation’s best sellers.

United Wildlife, with its combined Survival/Partridge Films library of 10,000 hours, has had similar successes. Head of development Andrew Buchanan says: ‘Archive-based series give you all the advantages of sitting in the Amazon for 12 months without the associated cost. We can fill gaps in thematic schedules without sacrificing quality or accuracy.’ For Buchanan, who is keen to protect the integrity of the Survival and Partridge brands, this is preferable, in most circumstances, to ‘shooting a new film on DVC and editing it quickly. That may keep costs down, but it is not going to produce a detailed behavioral study.’

There are limitations to the use of archive, however. For a start, says the BBC’s Bright, ‘you can’t just use it for its own sake. You have to find fresh and exciting stories.’ Likewise, he adds, cobbling together different pieces of archive footage can create a patchy-looking series if not selected, organized and graded correctly.

The use of post-production wizardry, popular presenters, newly-shot segments, music and animation are all ways to make an archive-based series more entertaining – but inevitably these also push up the budget of the finished project.

The cost to broadcasters can be offset where producers and distributors retain international exploitation rights, but it is clear that archive shows are only part of the answer. Besides, most producers don’t have access to libraries on the scale of the BBC’s or United’s.

A more widespread trend has seen a redefinition of the wildlife genre so as to encompass shows depicting people interacting with animals.

Animal Planet U.S. controller, Clark Bunting, identifies two sub-genres which have worked well in his schedule. The first is the presenter-led format; notably series like Steve Irwin: Croc Hunter. Not only does this format come in at a lower price than behavioral blue-chip, but ‘it gives the channel a recognizable and popular face,’ says Bunting.

The other key genre is animal-oriented docusoaps which, for AP, means Emergency Vets – now on its hundredth 30-minute episode. ‘People get caught up in the drama of whether the pets will survive,’ says Bunting. ‘They know that the vets are genuinely upset if they lose an animal.’

Costs on E Vets are kept down by ruthless pre-planning. A tough vetting process ensures that the characters and story lines are strong enough to carry each episode.

The series producer is based near the E Vets trauma unit in Denver to minimize travel costs. ‘We use dvd cameras, Avid editing equipment, natural light and sound, but no graphics or animation,’ says Bunting. ‘In return, we get the network’s second-highest-rated show.’

Traditional natural history producers might shudder at the suggestion that E Vets is in any way akin to `natural history.’ But the dynamic editorial approach taken on that series is now widespread on both sides of the Atlantic.

Furthermore, says Bunting, such series are encouraging ‘a new wave of innovation and creativity. Producers are demonstrating a willingness to assume risks not previously seen in natural history.’

This theme is taken up by former BBC NHU senior producer, Richard Brock, who now runs his own Bristol-based production company, Living Planet. ‘I produced Living Planet and Life on Earth [two BBC blue-chip natural history series] with Sir David Attenborough and the NHU,’ recalls Brock. ‘But, as I carried on, I grew more concerned that tv was escaping from the reality of what was happening to wildlife habitats.’

Today, Brock shoots stories with conservationist themes using a Sony digital VX1000 camera. He describes the VX1000 as ‘potentially the biggest advance for wildlife filmmaking for years.’

Brock’s most recent series Endangered has aired on ng channels worldwide. He is now developing films on the subjects of `ecotourism’ and `eating wildlife.’

He believes that terrestrial audience ratings in Europe indicate that viewers are disaffected with straightforward high-tech blue-chip series. ‘We need interesting stories and ideas,’ he asserts. ‘Not more predictable series about predators. I look for connections which will engage people without being too preachy. For example, I investigate what ecotourism means for local people and wildlife.’

Brock does not profess to capturing blue-chip quality images with the VX1000. But he believes the hand-held camera has clear advantages other than cost. ‘I can go to places as a tourist and not get hassled by customs or police. Traveling light also makes difficult locations accessible to me.’

One criticism of cheap tape-based cameras is that filmmakers shoot off too much tape, effectively deferring costs until the post-production stage. However, Brock’s experience shooting film has taught him to identify good stories quickly and be conservative about shooting tape. ‘I doubt my ratio in the cutting room is ever more than about 15:1,’ he says.

Although the new generations of single operator digital cameras are an obvious way to cut costs and gain extraordinary access to locations, many production companies working in the nh field still prefer to use traditional Beta crews. Instead, they seek to control costs up front.

Carlton factual department’s Amanda Tennison has been responsible for two 13 x 30-minute series on endangered species made under an NG/Carlton International joint-venture, launched at MIP 1998.

According to Tennison, the rationale for the deal was this: ‘NG needed a lot of output for their channels but didn’t have a tradition of making quick turnaround films at the cheaper end of the market.’ Carlton’s factual team was brought in to oversee production, while Carlton International shares distribution rights with NG’s international channels.

The JV, which produced 14 hours in year one, has been ‘a steep learning curve for both sides,’ says Tennison. But it was clear from the start that ‘stories about the interaction of people with animals was the only way to make natural history work at lower budgets. You can’t lie in wait for the snow tiger for a year. Your story has to be character driven, not animal behavior driven.’

Like Brock, Tennison sees this as a way of opening new storytelling possibilities within the genre. ‘You can get conservation issues into these series in a way you can’t with pure natural history. Why the environment is being degraded has never been part of traditional natural history thinking.’

Planning the shoot carefully, with consistent and early involvement from the commissioning editors, was the key to controlling costs, says Tennison. Likewise, NG’s ‘fantastic research resource contributed significantly to the production process.’

Again echoing Brock, Tennison says ‘shooting had to be disciplined so as to minimize the time in the cutting room.’ Similarly, commentaries for the first four episodes were recorded in two days – far faster than the norm for natural history.

Café Productions’ Simon Nasht and blue-chip nh producer Andrea Florence coproduced one series called Return to the Wild for the NG/Carlton JV. On a budget of less than US$150,000 per hour, they visited locations such as Siberia, Australia and Kenya, where ‘professionals or kooky amateurs were working to rehabilitate animals,’ says Nasht.

Nasht agrees that concentrating on the relationship between people and animals makes low-cost productions viable. But he still regards them as ‘tv Darwinism. You evolve new skills to make these shows happen. But they are not budgets we would choose to work with, and I know they were a surprise to Andrea. There is no contingency in case a problem arises. That can make it a nervous process.’

Like all his peers, Nasht emphasizes the need for ‘pretty intensive pre-production planning – narrowing the unknowns. This series was about getting captive animals back into the wild. So we could tie episodes to locations and events which we knew would happen.’

Given the constraints, why make such a series at all? Firstly, says Nasht, it was a chance to broaden into the natural history genre – a relatively new addition to the Café portfolio. ‘We do a lot of production for cable and satellite. We wanted to see if we could apply what we knew from genres like science to this area.’

More significantly, however, it is ‘vital for a company like Café to work on series where we retain some rights. These are also productions that allow us to keep staff onboard. Indies are always in danger of having no retained corporate memory.’

Making it work for an indie like Café depends on two further factors, says Nasht. ‘These sorts of series are pretty marginal unless they develop into long-running series. And I don’t think we could have attempted it if we didn’t control our own post-production. That gives you some sort of safety margin which wouldn’t be available to a smaller company.’

One of the most prolific U.K. producers in the animal arena is London’s Bazal. Under deputy managing director Nicki Cheetham, the company has made 400 x 30-minutes of Pet Rescue for Channel 4, 52 x 30-minutes of Animal SOS for Carlton and 55 x 30-minutes of Lion Country for the bbc.

All of these are domestic series, but the company is now producing two series for the international market under the Animal Alert banner. The first, which will be aired by Channel 5 in the U.K., follows the work of animal care specialists at Florida’s Seaworld. The second looks at marine conservation along the California coast line.

Cheetham underlines the need for ‘guaranteed animals.’ In the case of Pet Rescue, which films at three different rspca headquarters in the U.K., ‘tightly knit creative teams, consisting of a location producer and a research team, work to a defined editorial brief. They know the stories we are looking for to get closure.’ Teams are posted permanently on each site while directors and Beta crews are shuttled between them. The series calls on a total work force of 50.

Volume commissions allow economies of scale in production, says Cheetham. ‘We have good relationships with our suppliers. Their level of service is high because of the volume of work we give them.’

Beta is preferred to DVC for creative reasons, says Cheetham. ‘At Seaworld we can get some wonderful underwater shots of animals. We would only choose to use DVC if we wanted to create a sense of intimacy – not for cost reasons.’

As a further spin-off, putting the money on the screen improves the chances of selling the show. Currently, Discovery reversions Pet Rescue for its European network.

Post-production is also tightly controlled, says Cheetham. Eight suites are running constantly to feed the show, which goes out at 5:30 p.m. every weekday. The payback for C4 is that audiences in that slot have risen from 900,000 to 2.5 million.

Tigress managing director Jeremy Bradshaw has also scored with a 14-part animal docusoap called Monkey Business for ITV regional broadcaster Meridian. The same rules apply, in that the series revolves around ‘guaranteed animals’ at a U.K.-based chimp sanctuary.

Typically, each series will call on the skills of a director, series producer, assistant producer, wildlife expert, production manager and editor. The total production period is six months, with each program taking five days to shoot and ten to edit. ‘You couldn’t film abroad in this way,’ says Bradshaw. ‘The recce alone would be too expensive.’

While the production format appears familiar, Bradshaw makes a significant observation. ‘With short schedules and lower budgets you need experienced and specialized staff. They need to be sensitive to animals and great with people. But it is tough to hire them for short series runs.’

Tigress generally sticks to the upper end of the nh budget range – but Bradshaw accepts that there is a demand for new editorial styles in nh in order to keep the genre fresh. Currently he is investigating the viability of what he dubs ‘an MTV-style’ approach to wildlife.

Series like Bazal’s Pet Rescue cost around US$35,000 per episode. Animal Alert, with its international subject matter is obviously more expensive ($60,000-$80,000), but has greater potential to recoup on the international distribution market.

The ability to offset production budgets with partnership funding is an important alternative to cutting costs to the bone. In this case, Bazal has struck a groundbreaking deal with London-based manufacturer Unilever, which has acquired some of the international rights to the series.

In a similar development, car manufacturer Toyota is supporting a Partridge/Sunset & Vine JV to be known as Toyota World of Wildlife. Buchanan describes it as a ‘popular, presenter-less show which will fit well into international schedules.’ S&V has already worked with Gillette on a sports series which is distributed to more than 100 countries.

Discovery International’s Chris Haws, who gathers coproduction money from the most unlikely corners of the globe, points out that it is also possible to form valuable partnerships with local natural history experts.

Currently, he is planning a series of ‘imaginative and innovative projects in the Kruger National Park with HIT Entertainment and a newly-formed South Africa Natural History Unit [sanhu].’ sanhu comprises representatives from national parks, financial backers and local producers. Haws is looking to hatch similar alliances in the Asian market where ‘the appetite for nh programming is growing rapidly.’

Haws’ view is that the new landscape requires ‘a different tactical approach to planning projects and a willingness to look for new angles and new types of programs – good narratives that maybe don’t focus on single species.’

AP’s Bunting agrees. ‘Blue-chip is at the top of the filmmaking food chain. But it is not inherently better than its lower cost counterparts. The use of new storytelling devices shows that you can’t equate budgets with the impact on audiences.’


CARPE DIEM: Multi-tasking for the bottom line

There is widespread agreement that you can’t make blue-chip natural history on the cheap. But that’s not to say there aren’t ways of making your budget work harder.

‘You can’t make it cheaper – but you can plan it better,’ says HIT Wildlife managing director Carl Hall. ‘The main rule is not to do any project singly. If you go to Costa Rica, do three films instead of one. Try to amortize the high cost of setting up the production.’

hit’s work with the South Africa Natural History Unit (SANHU) in South Africa’s Kruger National Park works along these lines. ‘They are based in the park on an ongoing basis, which represents a significant outlay. But sometimes you have to spend a lot up front to get superb material.’

Using scientists to do pre-production research is another important money-saving device, says Hall. ‘A scientist in the field is cheap compared to a film crew – and they can make sure you are as prepared as possible before you start your shoot. Sometimes, we even give them a camera in case they manage to capture any candid footage of value.’

As a rule, Hall avoids ‘high-volume shows.’ Although they are cheap to produce, ‘they haven’t got the shelf-life and they are not as promotable as blue-chip series.’

Tigress managing director Jeremy Bradshaw is of a similar mindset, and backs many of Hall’s observations. While filming lions in South Africa for People and Predators (6 x 30-minutes), the company also took the opportunity to film some sharks. Crocs and dingoes have also been doubled up.

With Tigress’ celebrity-fronted wildlife films, the use of scientists is particularly significant. ‘If you have just ten days with a world famous celebrity, you’ve got to get interaction with animals. So you rely on the years of experience of a scientist who has habituated a group of animals. The right selection is all important.’

What goes for indies also goes for the BBC NHU, says head of development Michael Bright. ‘If you want series like Blue Planet or Walking with Dinosaurs then you’ve got to be prepared to pay what it takes because viewers won’t accept less. But the days when a cameraman could go globe-trotting for the sake of one 50-minute wildlife film are long gone.’

The trick is marrying up different elements from different shows. ‘Field trips have to pay for themselves,’ confirms Bright. ‘We always look to piggy-back presenter links on BBC2′s Animal Zone with our other activities. It is certainly a more complex business these days.’

The BBC/Discovery global partnership also has its benefits. Recently, while former NHU head Alistair Fothergill was filming for the BBC’s epic Oceans series off the coast of New Zealand, he also found time to shoot a sequence as part of Discovery’s ongoing search for the legendary giant squid.

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