This week a hot topic for discussion within my wildlife filmmaking group has been filming captive wildlife in big nature documentary series. So much of what we see on television is in fact filmed within a studio environment, or with captive zoo animals... But without this a lot of behaviour would never be captured for the television. So what's the big ho ha? Is it wrong to film "wildlife" away from the wild?
One of the most famous examples that I can think of is the scene from BBC's Frozen Planet in which new born polar bear babies were filmed in a den in a zoo - an impossible shot in the wild. Whilst the narration subtly avoids describing exactly where the filming took place it hints that these particular babies are beneath the snow in the Arctic. Of course this is not true, and the BBC made no efforts to hide the fact (away from the film) but very quickly it was blown out of the water. "Faked Polar Bear Birth" and "Frozen Planet Scandal" were the headlines that hit the news - but the fact is that it isn't fake. It is still a real polar bear and it's real cubs. Had David Attenborough's narration said "Inside a man-made den in a zoo in Norway" the magic spell of the program would have been broken. What we are seeing is a technique to give viewers as close as possible to reality. Would you rather not see it at all?
In actual fact rather a lot of what you see on nature documentaries is filmed in a studio. Insects, for example, filmed in macro (very close up) cannot be filmed in the wild because you need a lot of light and a lot of time with the animal in order to get it right. When you see time-lapse images of plants growing that is always set up in a studio; real plants growing in real time just in an environment where they can be filmed for the viewers full benefit.
I now watch nature documentaries and I can pick out bits that are filmed in a studio - but does that take away from me the magic of the documentary? I don't think it does - yes it is nice to believe in unicorns and fairies but in reality I understand that some things just can't be done. The truth is that wildlife documentary makers are story tellers, story tellers must use tools and crafts. So long as animals are treated ethically and fairly (and believe me I have very high standards in animal ethical rights) I can't really see what is wrong.
But of course this is coming from the point of view of someone who is hoping to make wildlife films... I am curious to know your thoughts on the matter? Does it ruin a nature documentary if it is not all filmed in nature? Or are story tellers methods worth it in the end?
In the link below you can see how the Frozen Planet polar bear birth scene was created.