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The tricks behind nature documentaries (washingtonpost.com)
91 points by ab9 on Sept 26, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 31 comments

Regarding Man v.s. Wild: The entire premise of the show is false. They claim to drop Bear Grylls in some remote location where he has to make it back to civilization. But in reality they seem to just drive around and film him doing stunts, see e.g.:


Worse, a lot of the behavior on that show is terrible survival behavior. E.g. when they did the episode in Iceland Grylls at one point jumped into a water filled ravine to make it to the other bank, and planned to dry off in some geothermal area he could see in the distance.

Firstly there's no ravine like that in Iceland that you couldn't easily walk around in 5-10 minutes without getting yourself wet, and secondly jumping into freezing water in the wilderness and thinking you can dry yourself off in some unfamiliar geothermal area you can spot in the distance is beyond stupid.

Most of the world's geothermal areas (including Iceland's) are just a collection of steaming holes in the ground, or water either too hot or too cold to dry off in. It's much better to stay dry than to take such a chance.

There are examples like that in virtually every episodes. E.g. Grylls climbing down a waterfall that he could trivially have walked around.

To be fair, they do point out that many of the situations are simulated to demonstrate a survival technique.

In much the same way that you generally never want to, for example, be in a situation that causes you to have to use your buddy's secondary breather on a dive, you still want to simulate that while training so that you know what to do if it does happen.

That all said, I totally agree with you in general.

Any more examples of terrible survival behavior?

Its very hard to find examples of good survival behaviour in Grylls' work.

Essentially, if you are on your own, with no rescue coming, you must be super conservative in everything you do. A simple and common broken ankle is now a fatal wound.

With this in mind, you don't charge around everywhere like Grylls does. You don't climb anything you could fall off, you don't make any big jumps. You move slowly and carefully, conserving energy and minimising risk.

Pretty much everything he does, from start to finish, as he runs around for the camera, while entertaining television, is a terrible survival template. You find very few experienced mountain guides that run around like Bear does.

I think the entire notion of finding your way back is silly. One of the keys of survival is letting someone know where you are and when you will be back.

If you go missing, people will come looking with a general idea of where you are, and how far you could have traveled. Once you start trekking around because you saw a river and rivers always lead to civilizations, that's what Bear said, you start increasing the area you could be, while wasting calories and risking injury.

Conserve your energy, make yourself visible (fire, mirror, bright colors, signals), and try to have a decent time.

You said it better than I could have. The only cases of genuine survival behavior I can recall on the show are the segments where he discusses what local plants are safe to eat, or how one might acquire water in some seemingly dry locations.

Yes, I liked the one where Mr. Grylls jumps into a glacier tunnel to make his way towards the waterfall.


I was up in Churchill, Manitoba this past summer, home to many polar bears. Some locals told me stories about film makers who come to the North with their "the bears are all dying" narrative already set, and being very distraught when they couldn't be taken to a skinny polar bear, because they were, indeed, all fat at that time of year.

"Survivorman" is much more tame than "Man vs Wild", but I doubt "Survivorman" would actually get more rating.

Who would want to watch a guy starve half of the time and subsists himself on the small flora and fauna he can catch? Nobody. But it's much more realistic and I think much more informative.

I always wish they would make clear "rules of engagement" in shows like Man vs Wild. In other words the crew is not allowed to provide any assistance or interference until the person trying to survive says its an emergency, and they would show that moment on film. That would add drama and achieve a clearer view of what the experience is really like.

Then again in Survivorman you have him making needless treks to set his cameras up then walk back to the origin. All this so that he can get himself on camera when he actually "departs".

Not very survivior-like and incredibly energy wasteful.

Me, which is why I read about it. Text is a better format for that kind of material.

Some of these examples are silly. Adding sound effects (Foley) is completely standard practice. The fact that Winged Migration involves training birds to fly next to cameras is fully documented in the "making of" feature on the Winged Migration DVD and was never hidden.

On the other hand giving multiple animals a single name and pretending there's an unbroken drama is disturbing because it genuinely distorts stories and might teach the wrong lesson, for example that a species is doing fine, when in fact it's facing major obstacles.

This is sad. What made environmental programs worse for me is the human interaction (and human interest) stories that they try to create. Usually it is a person catching or wrestling with a wild animal (they usually try to justify this for some obscure reason instead of admitting it is for television).

Probably the best example of this is Steve Irwin's shows.

But this probably just mirrors what people want. Everything should be instant gratification - like getting drive through hamburgers.

I personally think that if they set up nice highres cameras at a watering hole (with nice internet connection) it would be better. You would then be able to watch the water hole all day and it would be cheap.

Imagine laying on a couch on a Saturday, reading a book while eying the watering hole in HD on your television/PC...

I believe there's definitely a role for "curated" [to tie it back to another ongoing discussion] nature/environmental programs, but I really like your idea of an HD watering hole feed. Does anybody know of anything like it? Something that could just be left to run on your TV and maybe you might happen to catch something amazing if you looked up at just the right time?

And get Coke to sponsor it ;)

That would be an improvement over something some cable tv systems once did in small communities. If a town had one nearby full-power analog tv station, analog signals carried on the same channel on cable would often get interference. Even if the same station was carried, the differing time delays would cause the video to appear in different positions on a scan line causing ghosts. In the later days, the channel would typically carry public service text, community access programs, or guide listings. But in the early days it'd be things like weather guages next to an aquarium with the camera panning back and forth.

Maybe by 2012 someone can do a video with (Tina Fey) Sara Palin shown secretly hunting down the last bear in Alaska or something... chase a Russian bear on an iceberg and wrestle for oil rights?

BearGate, the Sara Palin conspiracy

Image is always manipulated one way or another, willingly or inadvertently, for the form or to change its meaning. Nothing really that new there. Like the sound of the bear paw ion the water example: did anyone really think they had a mike pole right above the beast? Did I miss something?

I would like to see it again but I think Flaherty's Nanook http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013427/ feels much more real than most of more recent nature movies. Even if there is always some artificial human hand behind (be it only the cutting of the reels), some movies are good and some aren't, and in this documentary genre "good" should not mean bloody spectacular, it should mean just real. In the article someone draw the line to Gorilla suits, I would draw it much closer to Flaherty's way.

I wonder if one can define a loose version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle for all documentaries: the more closely involved the film-maker is to the action, the more he/she influences it.

A scene which vividly comes to mind is in Harlan County, USA, where the film-maker gets shot at (!) by one of the anti-union thugs.

There is a fantastic documentary about a documentary, Santiago, ( http://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santiago_(document%C3%A1rio) , unfortunately in portuguese), that explores this very issue. When he was young, the director tried to shoot a documentary about his family's former butler, but ended up discarding the footage. Years later, after the butler was dead, he came back to the footage and realized what a dick he was during the whole process. He then edited it to tell a story of the common blindness of the documentarist. It's touching, and makes it so you will never watch a documentary in the same way after watching it. I have no idea if it was released internationally, but it's definitely worth seeing.

That is a good movie. Highly recommended. It records a glimpse of the American history that many have ignored or forgotten.

I always like to imagine "Planet Earth" is free of most of this stuff, and I hope I won't be proven otherwise.

BBC Life documentary always had an "On Location" at the end. Here are two examples.

One involves a lot of fake, they searched for a spot outside to observe and then rebuild the whole set indoor in order to be able to film growing of the plants [1].

In the other one they follow a dragon hunting a buffalo around for a long time trying best not to interfere [2].

But there is more, for one episode a cameramen built a shelter to hide himself from a bird. He had to improve it and stay for a long time to finally catch his footage. (Couldn't find it, sorry)

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrDnCLczYA4

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2-mTbv8gYo

One of the great things about the BBC natural history unit's programmes is that on the DVDs/Blu-Rays/Broadcasts they tend to show additional footage of how certain scenes were captured. They do tend to have the whole 6 weeks out in the middle of nowhere waiting for the perfect shot stuff going on, but of course that tends to be for one scene.

The other thing I've noticed the BBC do is they reuse footage from one documentary in another, which I guess is fair enough if it's good footage. I'd also be surprised if there wasn't some clever editing with audio to get the results.

I've always assumed that the sound effects from their underwater shots were studio effects.

I mostly assume that the sounds on land are heavily edited too. You can't put a proper microphone on a lion.

I don't let it bother me however.

I think the real point of the story is the push towards animals as entertainment rather than the fact that some hard to get footage is staged (though the two points are mixed together). The Economist had a good article on just how profitable wildlife show are, http://www.economist.com/node/16793496?story_id=16793496&.... Consequently it is easy to see why content creators are keen to reduce costs (cut corners ?) and boost ratings.

I've heard Chris speak and he's a fascinating guy. I haven't bought my copy yet but I imagine the book is a great read based on his engaging speaking style.

I think that the title of this HN posting is misleading. The actual title of the article is Wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer shows that animals are often set up to succeed

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