What makes a good story for natural history?
We sweep through a beautiful landscape, a herd of wildebeest galloping through the depths of a river, the music flares and the voice of David Attenborough tells us it is the time of the greatest migration in the world. Our heart pounds a little faster and we close our eyes and imagine ourselves immersed in that incredibly wild landscape. Not another soul for miles around, just you and nature. Bliss. But this is not the reality of visiting the Masai Mara. In fact if you were to visit at the time of the great migration you are unlikely to get away from other vehicles swarming around, dozens of tourists trying to get the best shot of their holiday. This world of uncolonised beauty that the filmmaker gives us is a fiction, it is a story. It is a work of art.
During the past few months on the MA Wildlife Filmmaking course my eyes have been opened to what goes in to creating a wildlife film. One of my favourite parts has been to look at "Creating a story for Natural History" and getting my head around the fact that the documentaries we see on the TV are a work of drama. Of course I've always known that wildlife programmes are a condensed version of nature: you can't expect to go out to Africa and see all the action that you see on the TV. But it wasn't until I read this quote from producer Brian Leith that I really understood:
“A story isn’t truth. A story is a story… You add sound effects, you add music, you add narration… The best films are the most imaginative – more lies – because imaginative means romance, wonderful images, lyricism…. These are not reality, and this is what is exciting about the [film] business.”
What programme makers do is take the objective truth, the raw materials, and create a story. What we see in nature is, more often than not, sleeping lions. What a wildlife story-teller does is give it character and bring an emotional twist. We take a specific moment and structure it in a specific way, look at it from a new angle, take beautiful close ups, closer than you could ever see with the naked eye, and add music to create drama. When you bring together all these elements you are creating, as much as a playwright or a novelist creates, an otherworldliness that is not the same as real-life. It is a form of communication and conveys a truth to the viewer but not as they would see it if they were to sit out and watch, say, a pride of lions. What makes a good story for natural history programmes is fundamentally the same as what makes a great play or novel; the best wildlife filmmakers draw together all these elements and show nature beyond its finest.
There are many people that have a problem with this. So many complaints pour into the BBC, the Daily Mail picks up every small detail it can and pull programmes apart shouting that filmmakers are lying to their audience. But if nature programmes were to show nature as it really happens, in all honesty, no one would watch. What a wildlife films allows us to do is to see events that actually happen, but in more detail, with creative flare, with excitement and closer than we could ever see in real life. If this means filming a polar bear giving birth in a zoo then so be it. Because wildlife programmes are now better than ever... and that is because we have some of the greatest storytellers in the industry.