The Chickahominy Report

News about Earth, Atmosphere, Water, and Life

Review: Shooting in the Wild

Chris Palmer
Shoot­ing in the Wild: An Insid­er’s Account of Mak­ing Movies in the Ani­mal Kingdom
San Fran­cis­co: Sier­ra Club Books, 2010
ISBN: 978–1‑57805–148-91. 223+xxiii pp. $24.95 (US)

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — On Sep­tem­ber 22, an arti­cle in The Wash­ing­ton Post touched off a vig­or­ous dis­cus­sion on ECOLOG‑L, a pop­u­lar sci­en­tif­ic list­serv spon­sored by the Eco­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca, about “nature­fak­ing” in envi­ron­men­tal films and doc­u­men­taries. The sto­ry, which appeared under the some­what mis­lead­ing head­line, “Wildlife film­mak­er Chris Palmer shows that ani­mals are often set up to suc­ceed[1],” dis­cussed some of the issues raised in Palmer’s new book, Shoot­ing in the Wild: An Insid­er’s Account of Mak­ing Movies in the Ani­mal King­dom.

Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom

Shoot­ing in the Wild: An Insid­er’s Account of Mak­ing Movies in the Ani­mal Kingdom

Shoot­ing in the Wild is no con­fes­sion­al. It is no polemic. Palmer, Dis­tin­guished Film Pro­duc­er in Res­i­dence at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty’s Cen­ter for Envi­ron­men­tal Film­mak­ing, offers a rea­soned, nuanced view of the real­i­ties of film­ing the world’s ani­mal life. The book begins with an intro­duc­tion that illus­trates the pow­er of nature films. Palmer tells the sto­ry of Bruce Wei­de, an Alaskan who as a youth was steeped in the mythol­o­gy of the evil wolf. He eager­ly took part in hunts for wolves—in part to earn the $50 boun­ty for wolf pelts paid by the state. But short­ly after see­ing a Cana­di­an film, Death of a Leg­end, that por­trayed wolves as effi­cient preda­tors but also loy­al and affec­tion­ate mem­bers of extend­ed fam­i­lies, Wei­de found that he could not shoot a wolf framed neat­ly in the crosshairs of the scope of his rifle. Wei­de even­tu­al­ly became a film­mak­er him­self. He has spent years work­ing tire­less­ly to change pub­lic opin­ion about wolves.

The next sec­tion of Shoot­ing in the Wild sur­veys the art, his­to­ry, and method of nature film­mak­ing. Begin­ning with a dis­cus­sion of the diver­si­ty of nature films—from tele­vi­sion to IMAX—Palmer sur­veys the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of nature films as they evolved from enter­tain­ments fea­tur­ing a high­ly dis­tort­ed vision of real­i­ty (assum­ing there was much real­i­ty to begin with), to more high-mind­ed pro­duc­tions fea­tur­ing strong con­ser­va­tion mes­sages, to the con­fused mix we have to day of very infor­ma­tive pro­grams mixed with extreme­ly exploita­tive tripe (my words, not Palmer’s).

The method sec­tion recaps the pro­ce­dure of mak­ing wildlife films—from devel­op­ing the con­cept, obtain­ing fund­ing, build­ing a crew, work­ing with experts, scout­ing loca­tions, shoot­ing, post-pro­duc­tion, mar­ket­ing, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and out­reach. The sec­tion includes chap­ters on fund­ing and work­ing with celebrities.

The heart of the book address­es the eth­i­cal dilem­mas one encoun­ters in nature films. No film­mak­ing is easy, but Palmer points out that film­ing nature is espe­cial­ly chal­leng­ing. Ani­mals and plants car­ry on their lives on their sched­ule, not ours. If a film­mak­er is inter­est­ed in coral repro­duc­tion, he had best be in the water with dive gear, cam­era gear, and lights on the one or two nights out of the year when corals spawn. Ani­mals and plants live in their neigh­bor­hood, not ours. A film­mak­er inter­est­ed in the life cycle of ancient Atlantic white cedar best not be afraid of heights—more than that, he best be a good rock climber because most of the old-age trees live on steep cliff faces. Ani­mals and plants are adapt­ed to the haz­ards and nui­sances of their envi­ron­ment, not ours. A film­mak­er try­ing to cap­ture hunt­ing behav­ior of the north­ern lynx had bet­ter be pre­pared for vicious attacks by mos­qui­toes and black flies in the sum­mer and for extrem­i­ty-destroy­ing cold in winter.

A range of oth­er chal­lenges can make life hell for a nature film­mak­er. Large, dan­ger­ous ani­mals are best filmed from a dis­tance, where long lens­es can ade­quate­ly cap­ture the images, but noth­ing can ade­quate­ly cap­ture the sound. Rare ani­mals may be too dif­fi­cult to find, or may be too vul­ner­a­ble to dis­tur­bance, in the wild. Many organ­isms are too small to be seen, much less filmed, with­out spe­cial­ized equip­ment. These are just a small sub­set of the pit­falls of mak­ing nature films.

Nature film­mak­ers from the time of pio­neers such as Jean Painelevé have resort­ed to a num­ber of devices to get the prover­bial and actu­al shot. These include the use of cap­tive ani­mals, enclo­sures, arti­fi­cial sound, staged encoun­ters, and com­put­er graph­ics. For exam­ple, an episode in the BBC tele­vi­sion series Plan­et Earth fea­tured a sequence in which a mouse lemur hunts giant hawk moths seek­ing nec­tar in the flow­ers of a baobab tree. The lemur feed­ing sequence appears to be shot in an enclosure—remarkable, well-lit (for a night scene) close-ups and the scarci­ty of dis­cern­able shapes, such as from adja­cent foliage, in the back­ground of what is sup­posed to be a for­est canopy at night sug­gest to an expe­ri­enced field researcher such as myself that no for­est was present. (A sug­ges­tion is not proof, how­ev­er.) Whether or not the pro­duc­ers of Plan­et Earth shot the sequence in the field or in a lab, it is the kind of shot that would more eas­i­ly be obtained in an arti­fi­cial setting.

Accord­ing to Palmer, film­ing in arti­fi­cial or restrict­ed set­tings posed three pri­ma­ry eth­i­cal con­cerns: 1) sci­en­tif­ic accu­ra­cy, 2) ani­mal wel­fare, and 3) decep­tion of the audience.

Giv­en the feed­ing fren­zy for every scrap of prof­it mod­ern media orga­ni­za­tions face, sci­en­tif­ic accu­ra­cy is some­times sac­ri­ficed. Empha­sis on ani­mal sex and violence—such as in Ani­mal Plan­et’s dread­ful Untamed and Uncut—tit­il­late rather than enlight­en view­ers by offer­ing the illu­sion of preva­lent nature of what are tru­ly rare encoun­ters. In such pro­grams, the role of humans in pro­vok­ing ani­mal attacks is often down­played to feed the nar­ra­tive theme of the sav­agery of nature. While the footage in Untamed and Uncut is often real (though appro­pri­ate con­text is omit­ted), oth­er pro­grams often fea­ture cap­tive ani­mals trained to pro­vide the appropriate—and exaggerated—violent response. Nev­er­the­less, sci­en­tif­ic accu­ra­cy, is often the eas­i­est of these three eth­i­cal issues to address. By thor­ough research and con­sul­ta­tion with sci­en­tif­ic experts, sci­en­tif­ic accu­ra­cy of the scenes can be assured. The con­cept of sci­en­tif­ic accu­ra­cy, how­ev­er, is often used to jus­ti­fy film­ing under con­di­tions that are arguably uneth­i­cal otherwise.

For exam­ple, sci­en­tif­ic accu­ra­cy is often used as the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for footage obtained from the use of cap­tive ani­mals that are not prop­er­ly cared for. Many film­mak­ers, Palmer includ­ed, often use wild ani­mals reared in game farms to obtain footage that is all-but-impos­si­ble to obtain in the wild—such as par­ent­ing behav­ior of secre­tive preda­tors such as wolves or social behav­ior of bur­row­ing ani­mals such as naked mole rats. While many oper­a­tors of game farms work hard to ensure the wel­fare of the ani­mals in their care, many unfor­tu­nate­ly do not, either keep­ing ani­mals in con­di­tions that are unhealthy or abus­ing ani­mals that don’t per­form “prop­er­ly.” Wild ani­mals han­dled by film­mak­ers or sci­en­tists, or whose move­ments are tem­porar­i­ly restrict­ed (such as by enclo­sures), often face undue stress—not that life in the wild is not stress­ful enough.

Many field sci­en­tists real­ize the effect their research has on their sub­jects and work hard to ensure that such stress is min­i­mized and that the sci­en­tif­ic ben­e­fit derived from the research is worth the harm done to a small sam­ple of indi­vid­u­als.[2] Most ani­mal research pro­pos­als, as with most human research pro­pos­als, are screened by insti­tu­tion­al review com­mit­tees before such research is begun. The goal of such review is to ensure that the meth­ods are sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly defen­si­ble, i.e., that they are nec­es­sary and like­ly to get the desired results, and that no less-intru­sive method can ade­quate­ly sub­sti­tute for the pro­posed research approach. No sim­i­lar sys­tem of review exists for nature film­mak­ers, but Palmer sug­gests the film­mak­ing com­mu­ni­ty should con­sid­er estab­lish­ing one. He stren­u­ous­ly argues that wel­fare of the ani­mals should be the top pri­or­i­ty of any nature filmmaker.

View­ers of wildlife films often expect every scene to be shot in the wild and every sound to be record­ed in the wild. For a vari­ety of rea­sons, this is not prac­ti­cal. In his book, Palmer recounts an inci­dent in which his wife called him “a big fake” when she found out that the sound of a griz­zly bear splash­ing through a stream in one of his doc­u­men­taries was actu­al­ly the sound of a per­son splash­ing his hands in a basin of water. While the sound effect accu­rate­ly reflect­ed the sound of a bear walk­ing through water, the use of such sound effects arguably deceives the audi­ence. Oth­er arguably decep­tive tech­niques in nature films include the use of footage shot inside enclo­sures or oth­er con­trolled con­di­tions, the use of com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed imagery (CGI), the use of sto­ry lines that pur­port to fol­low ani­mal char­ac­ters that are actu­al­ly com­pos­ites of dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als filmed at dif­fer­ent times and/or dif­fer­ent places.

While view­ers may feel cheat­ed when they learn of such tech­niques, film­mak­ers often have excel­lent rea­sons to use them—to min­i­mize harm to wild ani­mals, to cap­ture behav­ior that would be impos­si­ble to cap­ture in any oth­er way, to just have sound to go with the images. (With a zoom lens, it is rel­a­tive­ly easy to get a good image of a griz­zly bear from a dis­tance, but even with shot­gun and par­a­bol­ic micro­phones, it is all-but-impos­si­ble to get good sound from a dis­tance.) Although most of the eth­i­cal bur­den is on the film­mak­er, view­ers who feel deceived by the use of such tech­niques should ask them­selves if they would watch a film that does not include such devices.

For Palmer, the dilem­ma is as old as film­mak­ing itself, and each film­mak­er has to decide for him­self or her­self what approach is appro­pri­ate, whether the shots to be gained are worth the eth­i­cal com­pro­mis­es involved. In an inter­view, Palmer said:

It’s an old eth­i­cal issue, a foun­da­tion­al issue, whether the ends jus­ti­fy the means. And peo­ple here of equal moral cal­iber can have dif­fer­ent opin­ions. On the one hand, you can argue if the ani­mals are mis­treat­ed and audi­ences are deceived, there’s no trans­paren­cy, then the ends do not jus­ti­fy the means. It does­n’t mat­ter how much good the film is going to do, you should­n’t be doing it. …

The oth­er side of the argu­ment is the ani­mals are only being harassed very, very slight­ly. The audi­ences don’t care if they’re being deceived. They want to sit down with a beer and, after a long day at work, enjoy the film. It does­n’t mat­ter. They know that films are made up or full of deception—that’s what film­mak­ing is. And the film itself is going to pro­mote con­ser­va­tion or do some social good, there­fore it’s fine. …

What film­mak­ers have to do is weigh these argu­ments and make up their minds.

From my view­point as a sci­en­tist and a jour­nal­ist, I under­stand the film­mak­er’s dilem­ma. I have no prob­lem with using cap­tive ani­mals, con­trolled set­tings, or fake but real­is­tic sound to illus­trate sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly valid phe­nom­e­na, but I do have con­cerns on the effects of film­mak­ing on the ani­mals and envi­ron­ments affect­ed. I have no answers, oth­er than work­ing to improve care of cap­tive ani­mals at game farms and lab­o­ra­to­ries and min­i­miz­ing as much as pos­si­ble the stress and/or harm to wild ani­mals. Some­times the ends do jus­ti­fy the means, oth­er times they do not. Cas­es have to be decid­ed on an indi­vid­ual basis.

For exam­ple, I have no prob­lems if the lemur feed­ing sequence in Plan­et Earth was shot in a con­trolled envi­ron­ment rather than the canopy of an actu­al baobab tree—assuming that it was shot in a con­trolled envi­ron­ment rather than the canopy of an actu­al baobab tree. While I would not want to be rein­car­nat­ed as a giant hawk moth in Mada­gas­car, it was a rel­a­tive­ly small sac­ri­fice to pay for an increased aware­ness of the eco­log­i­cal link­ages among plants, pol­li­na­tors, and preda­tors in forests and wood­lands. But nature film­mak­ers should make a greater effort to make the audi­ence aware of the tech­niques they use so that the real­iza­tion that such “fak­ery” is employed does not result in a back­lash that erodes pub­lic sup­port for con­ser­va­tion efforts worldwide.

In the final chap­ter, Palmer offers eight sug­ges­tions for how to pro­duce nature films that “make a dif­fer­ence.” They are: 1) Start with a state­ment of intent; 2) Work close­ly with rep­utable sci­en­tists; 3) Make con­ser­va­tion films that enter­tain; 4) Use new media effec­tive­ly; 5) Dis­close how the film was made and estab­lish an ethics rank­ing sys­tem; 6) Prac­tice green film­mak­ing; 7) Diver­si­fy the nature film­mak­ing com­mu­ni­ty; and 8) Improve ethics train­ing and guide­lines. The sug­ges­tions are sound, although some may prove unwork­able (the ethics rank­ing sys­tem comes to mind here). I do not get the impres­sion that Palmer sees these rec­om­men­da­tions as an end­point. Rather, they are a start­ing point for a dis­cus­sion that is need­ed through­out the nature film­mak­ing community.

Though the film­mak­ers are the focus of Palmer’s rec­om­men­da­tions, I would argue that we should not absolve the pub­lic of its respon­si­bil­i­ty. The pub­lic should spurn pro­duc­tions that need­less­ly harm or harass wild ani­mals as well as those that mis­treat or fea­ture mis­treat­ed cap­tive ani­mals. It should spurn shows that offer a steady diet of hys­te­ria, hyber­pole, and hocum—the sta­ples of the sub-genre Palmer calls “nature porn and fang TV.”

The pub­lic should also be hon­est about what it wants. Would it watch a film fea­tur­ing bears walk­ing silent­ly across dis­tant rivers, or does it pre­fer a film with the sound of tech­ni­cians splash­ing their hands in water in time with the bears’ steps? Pub­lic demand, as revealed by view­ers’ pur­chas­ing choic­es in the media mar­ket­place, exert a pow­er­ful influ­ence over what choic­es are ulti­mate­ly offered in that mar­ket­place. We can­not escape our cul­pa­bil­i­ty in cre­at­ing the world we find our­selves liv­ing in.

Cur­rent nature film­mak­ers should read Shoot­ing in the Wild. Aspir­ing nature film­mak­ers should read Shoot­ing in the Wild. More impor­tant, view­ers of the work of nature film­mak­ers should read Shoot­ing in the Wild. The dis­cus­sion Palmer would like to have is not just for the film­mak­ing com­mu­ni­ty. It is for all of us. For by hav­ing that dis­cus­sion, and by act­ing on its results, we can begin to cre­ate a world that is bet­ter than the one we have.


Palmer, Chris. Per­son­al inter­view. 20 Nov. 2010.

—. Shoot­ing in the Wild: An Insid­er’s Account of Mak­ing Movies in the Ani­mal King­dom. San Fran­cis­co: Sier­ra Club Books, 2010.

“Sea­son­al Forests.” Plan­et Earth: The Com­plete Series. Prod. Alas­tair Fothergill. 2006. BBC Video. 2007. DVD.

[1] The head­line is mis­lead­ing because some ani­mals are set up to be eat­en, which is not some­thing I would call a “suc­cess.”

[2] While an under­grad­u­ate biol­o­gy major con­tem­plat­ing a life as a zool­o­gist, I changed my focus to plant geog­ra­phy and ecol­o­gy. One of the pri­ma­ry rea­sons for the switch was my desire to avoid harm­ing animals—no mat­ter how nec­es­sary and unavoid­able it may be—in my research.

NOTE: This is an expand­ed ver­sion of an essay orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for the “His­to­ry of Media, Art, and Text” class at Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth University.

CLARIFICATION: I had a com­pul­sive urge to add a ref­er­ence to Palmer’s posi­tion as Dis­tin­guished Film Pro­duc­er in Res­i­dence at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty’s Cen­ter for Envi­ron­men­tal Film­mak­ing in the sec­ond para­graph. Giv­en the focus of this blog is on the Mid-Atlantic region, the ref­er­ence is need­ed to local­ize the post.


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