Wildlife’s Greatest hits

1. Private Life of Plants (1995)
October 1, 2007

Natural history films are something more. They’re not just television. They straddle the line between science and entertainment; between capturing evidence of the wild world for posterity, and capturing a viewer’s attention.

Earlier this summer, realscreen asked readers to name the films that inspired them. What we received was a long list of worthy titles that certainly stirred audiences at home, but which had also brought new creative talents to the genre. These were the films that opened our readers’ hearts, eyes and minds, and pulled them into careers in the field.

It quickly became apparent there were many, many films in that category, and that readers’ interests largely dictated what spoke to them the most. But there was enough common ground that 10 films stood out. These we list below, with the three that stood out most ranked accordingly

1. Private Life of Plants (1995)
With extensive use of timelapse, Private Life of Plants is able to bring to life a world few viewers even knew existed, highlighting the drama and conflict of this little-seen aspect of the natural world.
What our readers said:
‘A series about plants… Who could have been brave enough to put that forward to the commissioners?’
‘The unique technology, combining timelapsing together with a tracking system, was amazing. This was the program that introduced these techniques into natural history programs.’

2. Life on Earth (1979)
It takes a certain degree of courage to tackle evolution – an inherently non-visual theme – for television. It took the genius of David Attenborough and the BBC NHU to turn it into a genre archetype.
What our readers said:
‘It set the bar for a new style of natural history storytelling, and set it high.’
‘I grew up in an urban environment with no exposure to nature whatsoever. One of the pivotal moments of my life was, as a school girl, watching one of the very first episodes of Life on Earth, and seeing those unearthly armies of horseshoe crabs emerging onto the beaches of Delaware. That film changed my life. I had never seen anything like it before.’

3. Planet Earth (2006)
Five years in the making, Planet Earth is the consummate visual survey of life on earth. Constructed as a journey over the planet, the series captures previously unseen animal behavior using unique camera technology, almost entirely in HD.
What our readers said:
‘First in series, BBC NHU.’
‘Amazing cinematography and never-before-seen behavior.’
‘Absolutely, truly stunning visuals.’

The Blue Planet (2001)
Attenborough dives into the world’s oceans, and succeeds in fathoming their depths. The series features remarkable images captured through dogged investigation and a willingness to go where none dared before.
What our readers said:
‘Its scale, breadth and the quality of behavior captured is mind-blowing.’
‘Alastair Fothergill… Undoubtedly the major work of the world’s biggest wildlife producer.’

He Dances for his Cormorants (1993)
Borealis, with Canal+
Combining history and natural history into a visually stunning package, He Dances for his Cormorants follows Zong Man as he artfully and patiently raises cormorants to fish for him on the Lijiang River.
What our readers said:
‘A brilliant people and animals film.’
‘It’s an incredibly beautiful film, demonstrating the remarkable relationship man and animals can share.’

Microcosmos (1996)
Galatée Films, France 2 Cinéma, Bac Films
Huge wildlife stories can be found in the smallest vistas. Using incredible macro photography, Microcosmos was able to capture such dramatic sequences as ladybugs feeding, snails mating and spiders wrapping their dinner.
What our readers said:
‘With no dialog, the producers use images to explain what they want to show.’
‘Proof positive that animals don’t have to be big to be interesting.’
‘There is beauty and poetry in the world of insects.’

Vision Man (1997)
Åby-Long Productions, with Svenska Filminstitutet, SVT, TV2 DEnmark
As the modern world invades, old ways are being driven out. Such is the realization faced by 87-year-old Eskimo hunter Utuniarsukak, as he considers a life spent hunting polar bear and walrus, with only hand-made tools and his own courage.
What our readers said:
‘This was a great film. It’s understandable why it won the delegates award at Wildscreen in Bristol about eight years ago.’
‘A quirky and surprisingly wonderful essay on the relationship between people and nature.’

My Halcyon River (2002)
Delve into the secret world that exists along a river in Britain with a man who has lived beside it since he was a boy. Witness a complicated and beautiful place populated by hunter and prey few even notice exists.
What our readers said:
‘A lyrically observed detail in nature; fantastic use of music.’
‘Just a beautifully crafted film. I love the English countryside and this is an excellent and intimate portrait of the inhabitants of an English river.’
‘Charles Hamilton James’ best film about wildlife in front of our door. The film spreads a unique atmosphere and has an outstanding link between music and editing which makes it an outstanding piece of art.’

The Queen of Trees (2005)
Deeble & Stone Productions, Thirteen/WNET New York, NHK, Granada International, BBC, ZDF
How is it that a majestic and towering fig tree depends on a tiny wasp for survival – and vice versa? This stunning film delves into this symbiotic relationship with such remarkable detail, it’s surprising the filmmakers were able to capture it in just two years.
What our readers said:
‘A movie about a tree! Beautiful and interesting.’
‘This is an extraordinary film. It is a beautifully written story, exquisitely photographed and it draws you in to explore and unfold one of the greatest stories in nature, whilst also revealing the incredible interconnectivity of all things.’

Puma – Lion of the Andes (1996)
Cinematographer Hugh Miles spent two years following an elusive puma that lives like a ghost in the wilds of Chile. But Penny, as she was dubbed, was only a key that unlocked an incredible, and previously unexplored, natural world.
What our readers said:
‘I can’t remember all the titles from the millions of animal docs I’ve seen, but this is the only one I’ll never forget. It still stands as the best ever… It’s a masterpiece and it really makes me want to fight for these beautiful cats. This program is an inspiration to my work in conservation.’

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.