Wild Guide – More is more

How wildlife filmmakers can benefit from full disclosure
September 1, 2009

An important goal we have as wildlife filmmakers is to inspire the growth of communities around our films so that they have more reach and impact. For too long, there has been no way for audiences (or sometimes even broadcasters) to easily understand how wildlife filmmakers make their films. By disclosing information about their treatment of animals or any use of staged and manipulated scenes, and then welcoming industry standards, wildlife filmmakers can encourage better conduct among their peers and give their films greater audience appeal.Creating a system to rank environmental and wildlife films and encouraging film producers to fully disclose how they treat animals and wildlife habitat is ultimately good for the animals, the films and the audience.

Full Disclosure

When scientists desire to conduct experiments involving animals, the National Academy of Sciences guidelines require that they write a report stating their intentions and describe the methods they’ll be using. Similarly, wildlife filmmakers should write a report before production starts explaining how wildlife will be treated during filming to ensure that the process will be honest, ethical, and not harmful to animals or habitats.

This commitment should be made public and be accessible to those interested in knowing more about the film. Many questionable decisions happen under the pressures of budget and time during principal photography. A pre-determined plan is valuable in helping to navigate the hundreds of decisions a producer or cinematographer may face during production. Cooperation on films from scientists, funding partners and broadcasters should be contingent on filmmakers signing full-disclosure contracts prior to getting the general production greenlit or, more specifically, prior to using certain locations. It is our hope that eventually our audiences, major broadcasters and research institutions will start asking for this information up front.

We recommend that disclaimers be attached to completed films (such as ‘Captive animals from game farms were used in 75% of the scenes in this film’). Filmmakers would disclose their practices for audiences and broadcasters to evaluate. Considering the importance of the relationship between filmmakers and their supporters, this disclosure provides information that can deepen the trust the audience has, not only with the ideas, but with those behind the lens. This trust helps build audiences and determines the degree of success producers are able to achieve.

Was anything staged or manipulated? Were animals captive, controlled or tame? Do animals in captivity behave differently from animals in the wild? Many filmmakers are inclined to hide this information, thinking it is within their creative discretion to conceal their ‘tricks of the trade.’

This thinking is understandable but absurd, and risks painting filmmakers as arrogant artists above reproach. We maintain that the sharing of information strengthens the relationship with an audience and allows for another level on which these films can be evaluated. Perhaps this type of information would be a great DVD special feature or web posting that conscientious viewers could access.

Across the board

Ideally, the wildlife film community should come up with a rating system based on certain standards. Carbon consumption standards are already being used here at American University and within the green filmmaking community. Mirroring this commitment to accountability and disclosure, wildlife filmmakers should be willing, even eager, to do the hard work of establishing standards so that audiences can have some way of understanding wildlife filmmaking ethics across a wider platform of films. As the public learns about these standards, they can pressure more producers to strive for the highest levels by voting with their wallets, attention and time.

A real relationship with real people

Just like any relationship, filmmakers must earn and keep the trust of their audience. The more filmgoers understand the work we do, the more likely they are to feel engaged. As audiences are empowered with more information about film practices they will, we believe, create a greater demand for ethically-produced content. As wildlife filmmakers, we must treat wildlife carefully and ethically, and then communicate our standards to an audience that wants to belong to a community that they can feel proud of and respect.

Professor Chris Palmer is director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University. Suzanne Taylor is a filmmaker and graduate student at American University.

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