At first glance, you might not think much has changed in the factual marketplace over the past 20 years. In 1985, the BBC launched Sir David Attenborough’s landmark 12-part series, The Living Planet. Last year, one of the most significant new documentary series to appear was Attenborough’s Planet Earth. And, of course, sharks, Egypt and dinosaurs are as popular now as they were back in the 20th Century. But these apparent similarities belie huge changes in the genre. And the differences between the two Attenborough series say it all. The ambitions of both are broadly similar – inform viewers about our planet in a highly entertaining fashion – but the storytelling techniques are very different. It isn’t just the technological changes but the tone and the immediacy of the series, and the way Attenborough engages both with his subject and viewers.
The two most significant changes in storytelling have been the advent of CGI and the increased use of dramatic reconstruction. Both get mixed press, but, as a viewer (and a non-producer), I have to say I’m a big fan. Generally speaking, they’ve enhanced my enjoyment and understanding. Certainly there have been some shows where the technology has been more important than the subject matter, but that’s the way it usually is with new developments. Nowadays, after a few excesses, they have generally resumed their correct function as a tool rather than an end in themselves.
Who would have imagined 20 years ago that we would see the sort of images that we’ve seen in Walking with Dinosaurs and its successors? Prehistoric Park, produced by Impossible Pictures in the UK and now distributed by FremantleMedia Enterprises to over 50 countries around the world, I believe shows a further development in the use of CGI which has heightened understanding. The show’s basic premise – a naturalist going back in time to rescue animals from extinction – may appear fanciful, but the series uses real science and sophisticated CGI to show a familiar subject in a new light and a different context. And it both delighted and informed audiences, particularly the young at heart.
Dramatic reconstruction is another matter. Once again the low-cost, pre-computer graphic era stuff, where 20 extras filmed in close-up were supposed to be Julius Caesar’s army, would actually distract viewers from the central message. It’s a very different story these days. At its best, it really can give viewers a different insight into events: Dangerous Films’ 9/11: The Twin Towers really brought a new awareness and a genuine, but unsentimental, immediacy to the all-too-familiar events. It told the story without hysteria, but with very classy production techniques – and it was all the more stark for that. The combination of dramatization without dialog and CGI in Atlantic Productions’ Holy Warriors: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin brought the Third Crusade and all its complexities vividly to life, as well as its reverberations 800 years later.
Happy as I am to be an apologist for the use of these techniques, I have to admit the simple fact that what people still want to see is a good story well told.