Thursday, 9 January 2014

Dramatising natural history documentaries

'Natural history can be pretty dramatic' (Steve Hewlett, 8/1/2014)

I was listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Media Show, this morning in which an interesting discussion took place between the host Steve Hewlett and Wendy Darke, the head of the BBC's Natural History Unit. The discussion revolved around the extent to which the new BBC prime-time natural history series, Hidden Kingdoms, was built upon artifice.

The series starts on January 16th 2014 on BBC1 - check out the trailer below:


This is a show that has been two years in the making and focusses on the lives of very small creatures, who are very difficult to record in their natural environment. Consequently, in order for the production team to reveal the lives of these diminutive animals they have had to resort to using controlled situations and have filmed captive animals, sometimes in studios, shot against blue-screens so that the 'drama' of their lives can be revealed.

Hardly natural?

The BBC has come under fire from certain quarters of the news media in recent years, especially when it comes to deceiving the public in it's natural history output. Much was made in the press about the 'fake' polar bear birth sequence in the Frozen Planet (2011) series. In that series, a polar bear family was followed in the natural environment, but the scenes of the animal giving birth were actually of a different bear who was housed in a Dutch animal park, in a purpose built enclosure that allowed for unprecedented camera access. Even the snow was fake. However, the viewing public would not have been able to easily distinguish between the natural and artificial sequences, leading to questions of duplicity and declining viewer trust.

At the time the BBC revealed that such staging of footage was common-place amongst natural history output. In an interview on the UK TV show This Morning, Sir David Attenborough responded to the criticism and suggested these sequences were not designed to mislead the public - rather, they were used to enhance the audience's understanding of the animal's lives.

The question is, during the middle of this scene when you are trying to paint what it is like in the middle of winter at the pole, to say, 'Oh, by the way, this was filmed in a zoo.'
It ruins the atmosphere, and destroys the pleasure of the viewers and destroys the atmosphere you are trying to create. It's not a falsehood and we don't keep it secret either. But to say actually in the middle of that sequence, I mean how far do you take this?
Do you say this is a penguin, but actually it was a different penguin colony than this one and this one is a different one? Come on, we were making movies.

At the end of the first episode of Hidden Kingdoms there is a 10 minute sequence that explains the various types of filmmaking techniques that have been employed to create the documentary footage contained within the main show. This is something the BBC have been doing for quite some time in relation to their natural history output, going at least as far back as Planet Earth (2006). Indeed, it's arguable that these short featurettes have become a staple part of the BBC natural history output, and speak to the twin-pronged audience desire to know about the natural world as well as the challenges of capturing the exotic footage presented.

Upfront honesty?

In the Media Show interview, Darke responded to Hewlett's criticisms that the show does not reveal the levels of artifice for dramatic purporses to the audiences in advance by suggesting that production is very honest with the viewers via the 'making of' featurette, as well as via information contained within the show's website. Indeed, viewers are warned in advance that special filming techniques have been employed - providing they visit the BBC's media pack for the show.

However, the level of detail revealed in the media pack is underwhelming. Here's an extract from the website that details the extent to which the material presented in artificial:
What is it like to be a dung beetle caught in an earth-shaking wildebeest stampede? Or a mouse facing a tsunami-like flash flood, which to us would be nothing more than a gentle trickle? Combining their skills as wildlife filmmakers with blue-screen filming allowed the team to recreate real-life events as experienced by the animal stars, giving viewers a unique new perspective on these dramatic worlds within worlds.
When listening to the interview between Hewlett and Darke, it becomes clear that animal runs were built and captive creatures were forced into contexts that didn't occur naturally.  Nevertheless, the BBC are clearly anxious to not fall foul of the same criticisms levelled at it circa Frozen Planet. This level of transparency is clearly an attempt to address earlier failings. However,  this hasn't always worked, as Mark Lawson has pointed out:
I think that there is a problem with the methods used and that it has only been increased by the openness about what has been done. Watching the show is like living with a liar: you start to question everything.
Lawson goes on to discuss the privileged position that viewer of natural history programmes finds themselves in - namely, that they want and expect to be stunned with footage that seems almost unbelievable. Given the extent to which Hollywood-driven CGI has become a staple part of our filmic culture, it may not be surprising to see such techniques being employed in nature documentaries. Indeed, it may be exactly what is required in order to keep this type of flagship programming at the heart of the television schedules.

All documentary is constructed 

What seemed to be absent from the debates around these shows and their varying levels of authenticity or artifice is an acknowledgement that all factual forms are constructed and can never give direct access to the real. While I understand that natural history programming fits within traditions of public service broadcasting and realist aesthetics, it doesn't negate the fact that the editing together of images from multiple cameras, overlaid with some kind of explanatory narration, fosters an environment in which audience interpretations of events are being carefully cultivated - often in a highly narrativised and in an anthropomorphic manner.

Whenever debates around documentary and artifice take place I can't help but think back to Bill Nichols's work on the varying modes of address within the genre (especially chapter 6) and their implications for audience understanding. Nichols identified 6 different modes of address or 'inflections'.

Whenever I see the BBC evoke the making of featurettes at the end of their programmes, I am reminded of Nichols's 'Reflexive Mode' which calls attention to the assumptions and conventions that govern documentary filmmaking. Typically, this mode increases audience awareness that what they are watching is a constructed re-presentation of reality rather than unfiltered access to the real.

The easiest way to explain this idea is by means of a comparison. I frequently use a cropped version of Rene Magritte's painting 'The Treachery of Images' in classes where I remove the text 'Ceci nest pas use pipe' and ask my students what they are looking at.

If the students haven't seen this example before, they usually say that what they can see is a pipe, before I tell them that they are wrong. They are looking at a painting of a pipe.

If they have seen the example before and say it's a painting of a pipe then I usually tell them they are wrong again. They are looking at a version of the painting that has been captured as a digital file before being recompiled and projected onto a screen so that it resembles a painting of a pipe. Never did Walter Benjamin's essay, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' from 1936 seem more prescient.

It's not a huge leap from Magritte to Jean Baudrillard's examples of Disneyland as hyperreal America (in Simulation and Simulacra, 1981) and the claim that first Gulf War did not happen (in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, 1991) - despite the documentary evidence to the latter that an event called the Gulf War did take place in Kuwait in 1991. However, Baudrillard's point was about the way in which the images of that war were mediated to construct a version of events many times removed from the actuality of the incident (watching laser-guided Maverick missiles explode over featureless targets via cockpit videos).

The point that I am making is that the interview that opened this post seems to assume that there is a way to accurately represent the reality of the natural world that is somehow free from the problems of representation and narrative construction. Access to an objective reality becomes increasingly problematic and untenable once we acknowledge that all media forms are subject to certain types of artifice - whether deliberately acknowledged or not.

Still, the debate in The Media Show will be a helpful teaching aid for anyone wanting to quickly cut to the issues of documentary. We all love a little bit of 4K/HD 'nature porn' while we are sat in front of our big screen flat-panel televisions made of rare earth materials that may have been mined in conflict zones around the world, from unsustainable sources.

At least we get to watch the lovely, pretty pictures.

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