December 14, 2010
Chris Palmer reveals the secrets of wildlife documentaries.
Marine cinematographer Tom Campbell shooting high-definition footage of a 15-foot great white shark off South Africa, 2001. Photo by Dennis Coffman © SOS Ltd.
This interview is an excerpt from The WildLife with Laurel Neme, a program that explores the mysteries of the animal world through interviews with scientists and other wildlife investigators. "The WildLife" airs every Monday from 1-2 pm EST on WOMM-LP, 105.9 FM in Burlington, Vermont. You can livestream it at theradiator.org or download the podcast from iTunes, laurelneme.com or laurelneme.podbean.com.
Dr. Laurel A. Neme is also the author of ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species.
Laurel Neme's interview with wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer aired originally aired November 15, 2010. The interview was conducted by both Laurel Neme and “The WildLife’s intern, Ben Kennedy. It was transcribed by Ben Kennedy, who also wrote this introduction.
These claims come from Chris Palmer, a veteran wildlife filmmaker with over 300 hours of original programming for prime time television and the giant screen, director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University and author of Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom (Sierra Club Books, 2010). Palmer concedes that his films have used these unethical techniques and that significant proportion of the wildlife programming we find ourselves enthralled with is as fake and scripted as any Hollywood movie.
Marine cinematographer Tom Campbell filming an inquisitive giant manta ray at San Benedicto, Mexico, for the award-winning Giant Mantas of San Benedicto feature. Tom, on closed circuit rebreather, is using a Sony F900 HD camera in an Amphibico housing. Photo © Andrea Marshall.
This led Palmer to television. In 1982, Palmer pitched an idea to Ted Turner, which turned into a partnership between TBS Superstation and the National Audubon Society. He became a producer, hiring writers, cinematographers, photographers, researchers and so forth to develop a new line of nature programs.
The Hong-Kong born, English-raised Palmer attended University College London where he earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering and an MS in Oceanic Engineering and Naval Architecture, and a second master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard University where he was a Kennedy Scholar. In the 20 years before becoming a film producer, he was a naval officer, an engineer, a business consultant, an energy analyst, chief energy advisor to a senior U.S. senator, a political appointee in President Jimmy Carter’s Environmental Protection Agency, and an environmental activist.
“My goal has always been to use television to promote conservation,” he insists “and to use television to change public policy” but concedes that is not the goal of all wildlife filmmakers. Often times their goal is to get high ratings beyond all else and this sometimes leads to a desire to get certain shots of an animal acting in a specific way, which can lead to staging phony scenes.
Cameraman Mike Single gets some uninvited assistance from a Mohave Desert sidewinder while filming Death Valley in 2004 for Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ). Photo by Rachael Wilson © NHNZ.
Through his partnership with Ted Turner, Palmer produced over 60 films, but in 2006 Turner was forced from his role as Vice-Chairman at Time Warner. “It was very sad. Ted called me and said my hand’s being forced on this. All my programs on TBS superstation are being taken away,” Palmer said. “It had a huge influence on us.”
Though Palmer condemns the use of phony scenes, he understands the science of fakery as well as any other producer. “If you see a close-up of a bear standing on his hind legs and roaring,” Palmer confesses, “what is likely going on is there is a trainer behind the scenes who is telling it what to do.”
These trained animals can be anything from bears to Siberian tigers that are kept on private reserves or game farms. “These are very stressful places for animals, not good places for animals to be, especially big charismatic animals like bears and wolves and wolverines and lynx; these sorts of animals are kept in small cages,” he confesses “So there’s an animal welfare issue as well as the audience deception issue.”
Palmer admits to the renting of wolves from a game farm for an IMAX movie he produced in the 1990’s called Wolves. “This was before I understood game farms and what they were,” he admits “but we couldn’t get close-ups of wolves in the wild. It was just impossible.” Similarly, for the IMAX movie Whales, which Palmer produced and had a $4 million budget to play with, he still incorporated deceptive techniques. Because killer whales are an obstacle faced by humpbacks in their 3,000 mile migration, the film features a killer whale skull at the bottom of the ocean. But, Palmer explains “we put the skull there.”
Joseph Pontecorvo uses a jib arm to film a nesting blue-footed booby in the Galápagos Islands for the film Equator: Power of an Ocean. Photo by Alison Balance © NHNZ.
“Staging and manipulation is fairly routine,” he submits, and the reason is simple: save money. “With networks like the BBC and Discovery, they can afford to send out filmmakers for several months and wait for the money shots, like was done in big-time programs like Planet Earth. But most producers can’t afford to send people out for more than a few days.”
Palmer’s motivation for whistle-blowing is simple: he’s become increasingly haunted by animal harassment during filming, the deceptions of the audience, and the lack of conservation in the films.
AN INTERVIEW WITH WILDLIFE FILMMAKER CHRIS PALMER
Laurel Neme: How did you first get involved in wildlife filmmaking?
As Graeme Duane films, Brady Barr pulls a crocodile into the boat. This “nuisance croc” had attacked and killed residents of a small village in Sofali Provice of central Mozambique, and would be relocated. Photo © Brady Barr.
I remember the story of Henry Winkler (the “Fonz”), and how he mentioned on one of his [TV] shows, ABC's “Happy Days,” that he was getting a library card. I was amazed to find out that the next day the country’s libraries were swamped with young kids asking for a library card. I began to see the influence that television could have on people. …
About the same time (about 1982), Ted Turner was beginning to look for new programming for his TBS Superstation. … and after some discussions Ted and I formed a partnership between TBS and the National Audubon Society. That's what got me into environmental conservation television programming.
THE CONSERVATION IMPACT OF WILDLIFE FILMMAKING
Laurel Neme: For you, given your background in conservation, what is the purpose of wildlife films?
Marty Stouffer with his Arriflex HSR camera and a remarkably tame mountain goat near Mount Evans, Colorado, not far from Idaho Springs. Photo by John King, courtesy of Marty Stouffer Productions, Ltd.
Laurel Neme: Some would argue the job of these films is to foster appreciation of wildlife, and that that appreciation will lead to action. What are your thoughts?
Chris Palmer: In fact, there is a lot of debate about this. I've changed my mind a couple of times. When I first started, that’s what I thought. I thought there was a direct linkage between ratings and conservation—in other words, the higher the rating, the greater the impact on conservation. I've come now to think that's a naive view, and that ratings are just one metric, and maybe not a very good one, of the conservation impact. There obviously is a link between conservation and ratings because if you get a zero rating, nobody is watching, so you can't achieve anything. But it's also true to say a higher rating doesn't necessarily mean you have a high conservation impact. For example, Blue Planet had a very high rating but did not have a high conservation impact.
I now think that there's a process that goes on. … We're all in different stages. ...
Laurel Neme: So you’re saying there’s a spectrum of perspectives and we need films for that whole range along the spectrum.
As cinematographer Bob Poole films cheetahs in Ndutu, Tanzania, one hops onto his Land Rover for a better view of the plains. Photo courtesy of Bob Poole.
Laurel Neme: In your book, Shooting in the Wild, you ask whether money spent on these films would be better spent on conservation. What do you think?
Chris Palmer: It's an important question to ask. If you're doing a film about black-footed ferrets, is that a good use of money? Or would that $0.5 million be better spent contributing to preserving the land from development? Those are good questions. I think we need to keep on asking them. I think the answer is that both are needed. We need to lobby to buy land. We need to press hard on the media angle. We need all these things—communications, lobbying, education. Probably that's going to be the solution: waging a multifaceted war. …
MONEY AND ITS INFLUENCE ON FILMS
Laurel Neme: How do you balance influence from advertisers or donors with honest reporting?
Chris Palmer: The question of money and influence on content is an important one, and something that we're generally not sensitive enough to. These films can only be made with money, and where that money comes from has a big influence on what type of film you make. If you get money from a commercial company, that company is going to want to see that its mission is furthered by the film. The money can come in various forms, such as sponsorship or direct investments or a gift, and … you try and keep the corporation out of the editorial content of the film…because it could destroy the credibility of the film. [For example,] in the environmental business, if you have Exxon Mobil sponsoring a film on conservation, nobody is going to believe it. So, you have to be very careful how you pitch your sponsors or investors.
Money can come from a bunch of different sources, such as corporations, foundations, wealthy individuals and so on. The less strings attached, obviously the better. But anyone who says that sponsorship money doesn't influence the content is not telling the truth. There is a link there. For example, there was an IMAX film made about gold. There was nothing wrong with the film. It was a fine film. It was full of the wonders of gold: what an extraordinary material it is; how gorgeous the necklaces are; all these things you could do with it; the power of it. [There was] nothing in the film about the violent and disgraceful environmental impact of gold mining: the pollution from it; all the terrible things that happen when you mine gold; the sickening aspects of gold mining on these environments. There was nothing in the film about that. Well, why not? Surprise, surprise! The film was sponsored by gold mining companies. So, I think you always have to look at these films and see who is funding them, and check if there’s an influence going on which destroys the validity of the film. Laurel Neme: Under Ted Turner’s leadership, was that less of an issue?
Kim Wolhuter filming hyenas at a Cape buffalo kill for the National Geographic TV special Predators at War, Mala Mala Game Reserve, South Africa. He’s able to get so close without peril because the hyenas do not see him either as a threat or as prey. Photo © Barend Van Der Watt.
We did another film about overgrazing, and this time the ranching industry came after us and boycotted TBS and Audubon. And, again, we lost money. But the thing about having someone like Ted in your corner, [is that] he’s fearless and he doesn't mind losing money if it’s the right thing to do. He thought the films were great. He thought they had a good message. He thought it was important for people to know that clearcutting and overgrazing were not good things. He was not going to be pushed around by the ranching industry or the logging industry, and he broadcast [the films] anyway.
Laurel Neme: When Ted Turner’s company was bought out by Time Warner, and later in 2006 when he was essentially forced to step down as Vice-Chairman of Time Warner, what was the impact of that shift?
Chris Palmer: We lost our programming. The influence was huge for us. … It meant he couldn't put on the type of environmental programming [done by] National Audubon and others like the Cousteau Society and National Geographic. … Other people took over the programming decisions from him.
AUDIENCE DECEPTION IN WILDLIFE FILMS
Laurel Neme: In your book, Shooting in the Wild, you say that what makes many nature documentaries so engaging is the sheer wonder of seeing those animals wild. But you also relate how many of those scenes are often staged.
Dereck and Beverly Joubert, award-winning filmmakers and National Geographic explorers-in-residence, filming lions at a buffalo kill, Duba Plains in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo © Wildlife Films.
Some of the animals we see in these films are not wild. They are controlled. They may be wild but they are controlled and captive and some of them are trained. [For example,] if you see a close-up of a bear standing on its hind legs with its mouth open and roaring, it almost certainly was acting. Behind the camera is a trainer giving signals, using m&m's and jelly beans to train it, and rewarding it with food to do certain things, like open its mouth and roar to look menacing. It’s just an act.
People get taken in by this. When people find out that the animals they are looking at are not…wild and free-roaming, yet the film is giving the impression they are, they feel cheated. I think this is a problem.
Filmmaker Cynthia Moses’s International Conservation and Education Fund (INCEF), uses the power of images to influence attitudes and advance conservation in Africa. Here, at an afternoon screening in the Cuvette Ouest region of the Republic of Congo, the audience watches a film on preserving great apes. Photo © INCEF.
Laurel Neme: What are some examples of how you have used captive animals?
Chris Palmer: In our “Wolves” IMAX film, [which I made] before I really understood game farms, I rented wolves for that film because we wanted to get closer to the wolves. We couldn't get close-ups of the wolves in the wild. Wolves don't like to be around people. They will move away, and they will move 50 miles a day. So trying to get an IMAX camera close to wild wolves is virtually impossible. In Yellowstone, or the Yukon, for example, it was just impossible. The only way to get close-up of wolves and bears is to rent them out, and that’s what I did when I made our “Wolves” IMAX film.
Three sealing vessels wait for the opening day of Canada’s commercial seal hunt—the largest slaughter of marine mammals in the world—in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2005. This harp seal was most likely clubbed for his skin during the hunt. Photo © Kathy Milani/The Humane Society of the U.S.
POSITIVE ASPECTS OF SHORTCUTS
Ben Kennedy: Why do filmmakers take all these shortcuts?
Chris Palmer: The reason they take these shortcuts is to save money. Budgets are very tight nowadays. The time is over where people can go out for four to five months to get footage of extraordinary animal behavior. Occasionally that does happen, for example, when the BBC, which has a very big budget, makes a series like Planet Earth and Life, they’ll spend $2 million an hour. So they can afford to send people out into the Himalayas to get pictures of snow leopards and so on. But for most wildlife filmmakers you don't have three or four months. You’re lucky to have three days. To get footage and to get “money shots” in three days, so that you get hired again and so that the executive producer of the network is pleased with your work, you have to find shortcuts. That’s why people do this. They’re forced by the situation—the shortage of time, shortage of money—to do whatever it takes to get the shot. That often means fabricating it.
Ben Kennedy: Do you think there are positive aspects to these deceptions?
Adam Ravetch uses a crane-cam to shoot Pacific walrus in Russia. Photo by Anatoly Kochnev.
PROBLEMS OF DECEPTIONS AND ANIMAL HARASSMENT
Laurel Neme: Can you name some particularly unethical examples of harassment of animals just for the sake of entertainment?
Chris Palmer: I can give you one with Bear Grylls. There is a clip on YouTube now of him jumping into a small stream, about 10 feet wide, and grabbing a monitor lizard, with sharp claws. He holds it up by the tail, discusses it, shows its claws, and then he holds it by the tail and swings it as hard as he can against a tree to kill it. [Then he] gets his knife out and plunges it into the back of the neck of the monitor lizard to kill it. To be fair, if there was an Animal Planet executive on the phone, (by the way, they’re all very good people) they would say "…that’s not an environmental film. That’s a survivalist film." But I think that’s a distinction made by executives and networks. It’s not a distinction made by ordinary, regular people. And I don’t think killing an animal for the sake of ratings is a good thing. I know Animal Planet and Discovery will say "This is totally unfair of you. This film with Bear Grylls is about survival, and people’s lives have been saved by the things they've learned on his show." I would respond to that [by saying] "How many people’s lives have been endangered by them trying to imitate him doing ridiculous stunts."
Laurel Neme: What about this phenomenon of people imitating the hosts?
Adam Ravetch uses a crane-cam to shoot Pacific walrus in Russia. Photo by Anatoly Kochnev.
Laurel Neme: Why are these issues so problematic? What’s the harm of staging fake scenes?
Chris Palmer: For example, a scene you can find in films is of a snake climbing a tree. It goes up a tree and then the next thing you see is the camera on the ground looking up and the snake falling down on it. A naive viewer will think "the snake’s just fallen out of the tree because it was chased out of the tree by an angry bird defending its nest.” But what’s happened is that an assistant or someone up the tree has dropped the snake out of the tree. Now this fakery is fraudulent, but it may be scientifically accurate. … [So,] what is the harm? On the one hand, let’s just say it’s scientifically accurate. In other words, snakes do occasionally get chased out of trees and will fall to the ground. So the behavior is accurate. That’s good. But what’s wrong here, I think, is that the audience thinks they’re watching something that happened completely naturally. They think the cameraman was patient, waiting days or weeks under the tree for the snake to come out and fall. Of course, we all know that doesn't happen. It was all staged and done in a couple of hours. I think what’s wrong is that the audience is deceived. Well, does that matter? Maybe not. Some people would say, "Stop fussing. This is just filmmaking. This is just natural, ordinary, banal filmmaker artifice.” I would ask the question: when did that artifice cross an ethical line into unacceptable audience deception? I think it does happen too much. I agree that equally moral people will draw that line in different places. The point of my book Shooting in the Wild is to push that line back a bit so that we are leaning more towards more transparency and less towards more deception.
Laurel Neme: Could that audience deception also backfire in terms of people thinking it’s a lot easier to see wildlife close up?
Chris Palmer: People get so misled by television because in television we cut out all the boring parts. People go out in the wild and they look around and say "Wait a minute...Where the heck are the animals?" They are baffled by going out and not seeing anything because they are so used to television and its constant action, predation, copulation and wonder why they can't go out and see it themselves. It's because much of the footage we shoot is thrown away because it’s boring. We just show you on television the exciting, dramatic exciting chase scene or sex scene or whatever it is. So people get completely misled and that’s a problem, I think. …
By the way, I should have said earlier that one of the problems with fakery is that when people find out about it and get disappointed, we run the risk that they will then mistrust everything else in the rest of the film, including the conservation messages. That’s one of the negatives of fakery. …
CONSERVATION IMPACT OF STAGING
Laurel Neme: Another aspect of the audience deception is the idea of staging the animal fights and consistently depicting certain types of animals, like sharks, as murderous and evil. What is the impact of that?
Brady Barr and his crew filming the unique locomotion of a king cobra in the Western Ghat Mountains, on the west coast of India. Simon Boyce films, while Barr (far left) checks light levels and snake wrangler Gerry Martin manages the cobra. Photo © Brady Barr.
This young leopard was photographed in the Serengeti, Tanzania, during filming on the 1991 production Sunlight and Shadow: The Dappled Cats for Survival Anglia, which was broadcast in the United States by National Geographic. Photo by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone.
TAKING ACTION FOR RESPONSIBLE FILMS
Ben Kennedy: Where should filmmakers draw the line? How can they balance getting the money shot and doing the work ethically?
Chris Palmer: There is no quick, easy answer to that, unfortunately, because we need to do both. We do need to leverage exciting footage. We do need to behave ethically. I think, generally, this means not getting so close to animals and using long lenses to get close to them rather than physically getting close to them. But I think the challenge for people like me and the new generation of wildlife filmmakers coming along is to come up with innovative, fresh, new ways to portray wildlife behavior which is filmed in a responsible way but which is also incredibly exciting and [can] compete against American Idol and other reality shows. …
Laurel Neme: What can people do about this? Tell me about the campaign you’ve started among filmmakers.
Chris Palmer: There are several things we can do. One thing we can do is [when a] network, like Animal Planet or National Geographic, commissions a film, they need to find out exactly how the film will be made. When the filmmaker says in the treatment [description of what will be filmed], “we're going to have a close-up shot in here of a lynx,” instead of just letting it go and taking it for granted, the network needs to ask for full disclosure. They need to ask the filmmaker: "How will you get that close-up of the lynx?" If the filmmaker admits "I'm actually going to rent a lynx from a game farm,” then the network has a responsibility to check that the game farm is run humanely (which is very unlikely). … At that point [they could] say "no, we're not accepting that and you need to find that shot some other way." I think full disclosure during pre-production, before we start shooting, will help a lot.
Another thing is working with reputable, good scientists who are conscious of animal welfare. …[That] is a good thing.
Adam Ravetch filming thousands of Pacific walrus hauled out on shore during a snowstorm in Russia. Photo by Maxim Kuznetsov.
I think another thing is that every time we make a film it has to be part of a campaign. We’ve gone past the point where we can produce films just for the sake of producing a film. We now need to produce films for a bigger purpose than the film itself, in other words to promote conservation. We need to have a social action part of that. We need to produce books that go with it and op-ed pieces and lectures. … We need films to be integrated into campaigns so that they really can make a difference.
Those are some of the things that we need to do in terms of solving these problems. And, of course, improving ethical training of wildlife filmmakers is a very important thing. Teaching filmmakers that it is wrong to harm animals, and wrong to deceive audiences, and wrong to omit conservation.
Laurel Neme: For someone who simply watches the films, what is their role in helping to promote better films?
Chris Palmer: Their role is to be more skeptical. … When they see a grizzly bear and a wolf sparring, fighting over a kill, [they should ask] "I wonder how they got that shot" and write a letter to the networks asking: How did you get that shot? Did you use a controlled bear and wolf to get that shot? And where did they come from? Were they treated humanely? What’s going to happen with the animals once they've passed their life as an on-camera animal? Are they going to be killed? What's going to happen to them? Will they be looked after? Ask these types of questions and don't just accept what you see on television. Write to the networks and demand clarity and disclosure on how these films are made.
Laurel Neme: How can viewers use social media to make sure that ethical films rise above the crowd?
Chris Palmer: We need to get on the websites of Animal Planet, National Geographic and others and ask them questions. We need to talk to our friends, [via] Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter. We need to promote the films that are made responsibly. When people watch a great film that they know is made responsibly and has a great conservation message, they need to talk about it and encourage their friends through Facebook to watch it. When they see a film they worry about, [a film where an] animal looks like it was harassed, … they need to ask: how was that done? They need to talk to people, raise questions on Facebook and other social networks sites on how it was done. I think people can use these sites to build a community around this issue of how to produce films that are programs that are done with animal welfare in mind.