Wildlife documentaries or dramatic science?

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Update: Lizzie Crouch expands the discussion when addressing fiction.

Jason G. Goldman just posted to Scientific American blogs the twitter discussion that followed this post. Brian Switek encourages us to use #scioceans and keep the conversation going. 

Behind the scenes with To the Arctic 3D. Photo credit: © Florian Schulz/Visionsofthewild.com via Smithsonian blogs.

I first met Chris Palmer when I attended his lecture about ethics in wildlife film. Palmer is a wildlife filmmaker, and his CV includes IMAX productions like Whales and To the Arctic, and the book Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. Also a conservation advocate, Chris believes that filmmakers “have a responsibility of raising viewer awareness of the serious environmental problems facing the world”. We talked further (he graciously agreed to answer a few interview questions) and we both agree that wildlife films are great opportunity to educate the general public about science and spread a message of conservation. But, like Chris said, “[solely] promoting the beauty of the natural world is not the same as conservation.” How can we use wildlife films to educate?

Pelicans in flight by Etienne-Jules Marey. Photo – US public domain.

Can we learn science from wildlife films?

The use of films to teach science is not new. According to Gregg Mitman in Cinematic Nature, “the motion picture was first developed not for entertainment purposes, but for the analysis of animal motion.” In 1882, French physiologists Etienne-Jules Marey recorded pelicans in flight, with the goal to understand animal movement. Soon after, Eadweard Muybridge proved Marey’s hypothesis that a horse can have all four hooves off the ground, and photographed a galloping horse. Mitman also points out several other occasions in which film was used to benefit science, such as teaching surgery techniques and anatomy lessons (and also serve as inspiration for the pursuit of science).

The horse in motion by Eadweard Muybridge. Photo source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. US Public domain.

Since those early recordings for teaching and study, science and nature films have immensely diversified. Films allow for observation of animal behavior in their natural environment (such as hunting behavior recorded from penguins carrying cameras). We can now watch footage from remote locations that show exotic animals in their habitat. A broad spectrum of wildlife films is available to the public, from the high budget, state-of-the-art IMAX productions, to independent short films on habitat conservation. And somewhere in between, let’s not forget the “reality shows” and the presenter-led TV series (including the ones on the search for a hidden beast, real or otherwise). Besides giving us access to inhospitable ecosystems, films can also raise public interest in science and therefore encourage science education. Like Chris Palmer told me,  “[wildlife film’s] job is to raise awareness and promote conservation.”

Filming Meerkat Manor, a nature “reality show” that follows a family of meerkats and their social conflicts. Photo via Wikipedia.

Wildlife film has shaped the general public’s understanding of science. How did it reach the status of scientific authority?

Many people rely on wildlife films (and lately, on nature-related reality TV shows such as Meerkat Manor or Dangerous Encounters) as their source of scientific information. Nature films have the potential to educate and to bridge the knowledge gap between the general public and the scientific community. Such a gap is sometimes referred as the “deficit model,” or the “assumption that differences in understanding between experts and the lay public result from the latter’s ignorance of science,” according to Dingwall and Aldridge in their analysis of TV wildlife programming as science education source. (The debate over the deficit model is extensive and was recently discussed at the 2013 Science Online conference. In the words of science educator and PLOS colleague Jean Flanagan, “[the model is] at the very least incomplete; much misunderstanding of science goes further than just not being aware of the facts.”)

The public has come to trust films and see them as a scientific truth. In her study of scientific authority in wildlife film, Rebecca Wexler reports that “viewers regard film sequences as realistic because of cultural tendencies resulting from 19th century understandings of photography and film as mechanically accurate reproductions of the visual world.” This also happens because movies are labeled as scientifically correct and factual.

When I asked Chris Palmer him what he thought of scientific accuracy in nature films, he responded “you can find many scientists who are appalled at how they have been portrayed in documentaries and how their message has been corrupted and messed with by filmmakers for the sake of ratings.” It turns out this status of scientific authority is given to nature films even in cases of scripted dramas: footage that has been twisted to accommodate a sequence of edited scenes closely following a script.

Behind the scenes at March of the Penguins, a film that unintentionally sparked creationist intelligent design beliefs. Photo credit: Jérôme Maison © 2005 Bonne Pioche Productions / Alliance De Production Cinématographique via The Documentary Blog.

Rebecca Wexler focused her analysis of scientific authority in film on March of the Penguins. The film shows beautiful footage of emperor penguins in their journey across Antarctica to breed and raise a chick (a task that has been deemed “the worst journey in the world” by Aspley Cherry-Garrard, who brought back an emperor’s egg in 1911). March’s constant use of anthropomorphism might have brought unwanted attention to the movie. Creationist groups have deemed this film as “proof” of intelligent design (ID). The fact that emperor penguins form mating pairs is seen as support for “traditional family values” of monogamy and heterosexuality. The hardship that emperors go through to raise chicks was believed to support ID (even though, for scientists, it seems like the opposite). Even the lack of conservation messages in the film has fueled an anti-global warming movement (if the penguins are doing fine, why should we be concerned?). Jean explored this topic in an earlier post on cultural cognition: groups (both creationists and scientists) will align with concepts that match their worldview, regardless of facts or accuracy.

The film is a beautiful drama, and it should be seen as such. Anthropomorphism is used with the goal of creating and emotional connection with the audience. For example, narrator Morgan Freeman explains some of the scenes: “‘[the penguins] are not that different from us, really. They pout, they bellow, they strut, and occasionally they will engage in some contact sports.” The movie director and distributors claimed that “the movie is simply a tale about penguins and that any attempt to divine a deeper meaning is misguided.” Except when films are portrayed as scientific facts and presented to a credulous non-scientific audience, perhaps they have a responsibility to make their intentions clear.

If films like March of the Penguins are seen as scientific authority and becoming a resource for creationism or ID beliefs (which may influence school curricula in parts of the US), what other non-scientific ideas are films serving as authority for? Should we expect to see nature “documentaries” about the search for Sasquatch or the Loch Ness monster? (Oh wait, those already exist. Finding Bigfoot and Mermaid: the body found are only a few examples. Pseudoscience and cryptozoology in TV is illustrated by skeptic investigator Benjamin Radford.)

Burden’s komodo dragon. Screen capture via Slate.

Wildlife drama vs wildlife documentary: films should either be accurate or provide disclosure as being pure storytelling

In 1926, William Douglas Burden set out to film and capture komodo dragons for the Bronx Zoo. The resulting film was a hit, and it caused the increased number of zoo visitors hoping to see the reptiles up close. However, visitors were disappointed: the lethargic animals looked nothing like the blood-thirsty komodo dragons pictured in the movie. In order to create that behavior, the film was heavily edited and staged (watch a clip), the animals were baited with meat (you can even see strings holding it together), and Burden was not even present during their capture. As Mitman points out, “nature uncut and unedited is never as dramatic and captivating as nature onscreen.” In our interview, Chris Palmer mentioned that “[mass appeal] affects [science portrayal] in a big way. No one wants to watch a dull, pedantic, tedious scientist on TV, however exact, accurate, and nuanced they are being.”

Wildlife “drama” now employs a storyline and a script. It includes characters, that can be scientists or naturalists, but are usually the animals themselves. Animal characters are given a name, a role, and an anthropomorphic personality. They undergo a “hero’s journey,” complete with great adversity and conquest (e.g. a story on a long migration). The journey is put together by editing scenes from footage of different animals obtained in different geographic locations. The animal’s anthropomorphic behavior is accentuated by emotional narration and a celebrity narrator or on-camera host. Character’s “roles” reinforce human gender and societal roles such as good guys (prey), bad guys (predator), nuclear families (the mother takes care of the young while father hunts — apparently no one has heard of ostrich harens and male caretakers).

I don’t see a problem in using an interesting narrative. At the end of Whales, one of Chris’s IMAX productions, mother and calf whales “Misty” and “Echo” were not the same animals who started their migration in the beginning of the film. (Until we have humpback whale GPS, filmmakers have to improvise by recording different animals.) Still, referring to two other whales with those names might strengthen the storyline. I also enjoy the editing and narration, when they serve to educate. I am fine with staging with captive animals, as long as they are humanely treated (after all, I watch sea lions feeding every week and appreciate the educational opportunity the National Zoo is offering to its audience), and it can be especially useful to illustrate behavior otherwise impossible to see. What I am not happy with is the excessive anthropomorphism (Lucy Sullivan illustrates how anthropomorphism defeats science) and the lack of mention of conservation.

Diving with enormous cameras is just one challenge that IMAX filmmakers face. Photo of making of IMAX The Last Reef, via Scripps Institute.

“Environmental films need to do more to encourage conservation because the world’s ecosystems are troubled and in decline,” Chris believes. After I asked how can films adapt to better convey a scientific message of conservation, he stated “by listening more attentively and respectfully to the best scientists we have. Of course, what puts them into that category is that they are humane scientists who respect the rights of animals not to be harassed or harmed.”

Therefore, if a wildlife documentary is not a documentary, and is storytelling or wildlife drama instead, we should treat it as such. Because of its mass appeal, films have an enormous potential to raise awareness and drive change. I’d love to see it increase scientific literacy and to spread a message of conservation. Otherwise, in Chris Palmer’ words, “there would soon be nothing left to film.”

References

  1. Dingwall and Aldridge, Public Understanding of Science 15, 131–152 (2006)
  2. De Cheveigné, Public Understanding of Science 5, (1996) 231-253
  3. Kalof and Amthor, Etudes rurales, (2010) 165-180
  4. Kalof et al, Organization Environment (2011) 1-25
  5. Kilborn, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 48 (2006)
  6. Mitman, Isis, 84, (1993) 637 – 661
  7. Sullivan, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 349, (2006) 215-218
  8. Wexler, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, 39, (2008) 273 – 279
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