Has natural history changed enough?

According to Icon Film's CEO and creative director Harry Marshall, natural history used to be reserved for family time on Sunday evenings while curled up in front of the fire with a cup of tea. Today, with the variety of channels and programs from which to choose, it's a different story. People aren't coming to nature programs just to learn or escape to the wilderness, so natural history programming has been forced to change in order to compete. The question is, has it changed enough?
September 1, 2008

According to Icon Film’s CEO and creative director Harry Marshall, natural history used to be reserved for family time on Sunday evenings while curled up in front of the fire with a cup of tea. Today, with the variety of channels and programs from which to choose, it’s a different story. People aren’t coming to nature programs just to learn or escape to the wilderness, so natural history programming has been forced to change in order to compete. The question is, has it changed enough?

Inbreeding versus hybrid vigor

The trouble with the storytelling in traditional natural history docs, according to Bristol-based Marshall, is it was often written by zoologists and botanists, not writers. ‘I think if you listen to the language of natural history storytelling it’s very archaic,’ he argues. ‘In natural speech I wouldn’t invite you out for some nutrients. We’d go out to have a meal. And, if it got light, I wouldn’t look at you and portentously say ‘DAWN.” Marshall feels the script and the style of narration in traditional natural history docs are too biblical, Dickensian, old fashioned and, frankly, lazy.

He also suggests that while other television genres have had to battle it out against each other for audience share, natural history has had a certain built-in audience and hasn’t had to partake in the fight. The result is, while other genres had to borrow the best elements from each other to stay competitive, natural history became inbred. ‘I think just as natural history has been retarded in terms of its storytelling it’s been precocious in terms of its techniques and as a result it’s been pretty complacent,’ says Marshall.

Animal Planet GM Marjorie Kaplan felt the channel could successfully escape the voice-of-God narration and blend genres when it underwent a rebrand earlier this year. While the team at Animal Planet still sees a place for traditional natural history programs, they are also exploring more alluring ways to tell animal stories. Many of the channel’s new shows and series, while still based around animal behavior and natural history, use more conventional reality storytelling to immerse the audience in the storyline, says Charlie Foley, VP of development for Animal Planet. ‘Natural history isn’t only single hours, majestically filmed in the great, vast wildernesses of the world with Morgan Freeman narrating,’ says Kaplan. ‘There can be great pieces done like that. But there can also be little intimate stories, like Meerkat Manor.‘ Fred Kaufman, executive producer for Thirteen/WNET’s ‘Nature,’ agrees with Kaplan that blending genres is the way to go. ‘I think producers are borrowing from whatever is working regardless of the subjectmatter and trying to apply that to nature and wildlife,’ he says.

The blue-chip doc used to be the pinnacle of natural history filmmaking. Sitting back and calmly watching a fox run around its habitat is what audiences were used to when it came to the delivery of natural history. Today, because of the expectations of audiences for factual programs in general, great footage only goes so far. The consensus seems to be that for most channels, innovations in natural history storytelling are the key to luring audiences.

Though impressive nature footage can be incredibly beautiful to look at, if it doesn’t have a good storyline audiences may not be willing to stay and look on. While Marshall isn’t impressed with the slow progress of storytelling in natural history programs, he does feel that some people have made inroads. Taking the success of March of the Penguins for example, he points out that while BBC’s Life on Earth contained infinitely better shots of penguins doing everything they did in Penguins and more, in terms of watchability, the BBC’s telling of the penguins’ story was dull in comparison. Life was an opera next to Penguins’ blockbuster motion picture. ‘If you go to an opera you don’t go for the plot, because there is no plot,’ says Marshall. ‘You go to it for other reasons. You go for the lovely music. In the case of Life on Earth, you didn’t go there for the storytelling, you went for the amazing pictures.’

Due to the recent hybridization of animal programs with techniques from other genres, such as the soap opera template used in Meerkat Manor, audience interest in nature programming seems to be at a high point. The evidence is all around: there is the launch of Disneynature, Disney’s theatrical nature doc unit set to output two films a year; the ongoing interest in green and environmental docs; and, at the summit, the huge success of Planet Earth. The latter is most people’s example of the hope for the future of natural history programming. ‘I don’t think anybody expected natural history to do what Planet Earth did a year ago,’ says Kaplan. ‘It re-awoke people to the possibilities of spectacular storytelling in natural history and, while that’s a great example of blue-chip natural history, there’s no question there’s more great storytelling like that to be done.’

Using our opposable thumbs

In order to keep telling stories like Planet Earth, outside of good writing, what natural history programs need is a constant evolution of technology. With the sensitivity of lenses and mobility of cameras constantly getting better, potential for quality images is easier to access, but also, expectations are higher. ‘What I think you’re beginning to see is the confluence between the filmmaking community and the research/science community,’ says Geoff Daniels, SVP of development and production at National Geographic International. The melding together of the scientific community’s imaging technology with the mobility and hardiness of cameras such as the Phantom and the RED is creating the opportunity for more impressive pictures.

Martin Dohrn and the work he does through his Bristol-based prodco Ammonite is a prime example of combining technical innovation with interesting storytelling techniques to create compelling programs. His latest production, Small Talk Diaries, which is nominated for three awards at Wildscreen, is about insects as predators, parents and entertainers. Because Dohrn uses his own device called the Frankencam – a motion-control rig that was used in the BBC series Life in the Undergrowth and allows the camera to get in close to tiny subjects – he and his team are able to film insects from the ground up, and they come out looking more like saber-toothed tigers than ants. Beyond simply getting great shots of bugs, Dohrn also gives the insects voices and the show is targeted to children on CBBC. ‘What he’s done is he’s come up with the idea of a lens that you can attach to a camera and suddenly you can understand what the insects are saying,’ says Marshall of Dohrn’s invention.

Staying on top of technical innovations might be a must for natural history filmmakers, but having the financial capability to get involved as they happen is not always possible.

Not mere chicken feed

‘Gigantic budgets aren’t the only way to do it,’ says Kaplan. Though natural history programs can cost loads, there are programs such as Animal Planet’s Grizzly Man Diaries, which is made by Creative Differences from preexisting footage filmed by Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell over 13 years in Alaska, that cost significantly less. While conventional blue-chip docs require budgets at the $800,000-an-hour level, many are taking the Grizzly Man route. ‘There are few strands that are willing to give you that,’ says Marshall of the $800,000 price tag. ‘If you’re in this for the long run, like we are, then you have to identify sensible levels of funding you think you can get on a fairly regular basis. I think that good design, like good storytelling, doesn’t cost anything. So what we try to do is find a good story,’ he says. Ellen Windemuth, owner of Amsterdam-based distributor and producer Off the Fence, agrees that nature budgets are tight, but they can be worked with. ‘I think people are really working on making films look great and look even better through clever post-production and innovative new technical equipment,’ she says.

Marking its territory

The differences in natural history programming range from channel to channel, program style to program style and also from territory to territory. In Windemuth’s experience producing for channels in the US, UK and Europe, broadcasters in the States are looking for entertainment-based animal programs, often with humans acting as the bridge between the audience and the environment. With channels like Channel 5 in the UK, it looks for the wow factor with amazing human/animal relationships and, on the other hand, the BBC looks for high-concept, high-quality nature fair. While the UK and the US generally look for more exciting nature shows, European audiences in countries such as Germany, France and Belgium are content with slower-paced one-offs. ‘In Germany, natural history’s more for the older audience,’ says Ralf Blasius, an executive producer at Off the Fence who used to work at ZDF. ‘It’s still quite calm and nice to watch and that’s very different from the American and the English markets, which are much more challenging.’

Windemuth agrees. ‘I think where series govern the needs of US broadcasters, one-hour specials govern the needs of European broadcasters,’ she says. And, she says, Japan fits somewhere in the middle. The priority for nature programs at NHK is very high, says Gen Sasaki, NHK’s senior producer in charge of science programs. ‘It used to be people already interested in nature and animals who watched natural programs,’ he says. ‘But now, many people who weren’t [watching] recognize how interesting the topic is for the first time.’ Windemuth observes that NHK seems to be very interested in high-concept, blue-chip programs and tend towards either big, limited series or half-hour specials.

While each territory appears to have its desires mapped out, Windemuth thinks with the styles of natural history programs ever widening as program genres overlap, it’s wise for different channels to keep their distance as well. ‘Broadcasters are really targeting audiences so they don’t trip over each other,’ she says. ‘In the environment of migrating eyeballs you want to make sure the dedicated set of eyeballs you need to have are on you.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.