Wildlife documentary filmmakers reveal the tricks of their trade

On a stoney beach on one of the Galapagos Islands, an iguana looks around tentatively. It has only recently hatched, but it faces immediate danger. Snakes lie in wait. As the camera cuts back and forth between the iguana and one of the snakes, tension builds. Backing music adds to the suspense. We can also hear the snakes’ slow, gravelly movements and the hushed, intense tones of David Attenborough’s commentary. Suddenly, the snake lunges forward and sends the iguana scuttling away. The camera pans round to reveal a plague of snakes, reminiscent of an Indiana Jones film!

The hatchling is soon caught and the snakes wrap themselves around it. Although escape seems futile, the scaly hero somehow wriggles free and dashes frantically across the sand. The chase that ensues is marked by a change in music – fast percussion mixed with mighty, ominous strings. Miraculously, the iguana evades the final attacks and leaps up the rock face to safety.

It took no time for this short clip from the BBC series Planet Earth II to go viral. The degree of drama and precision of shooting rivals any Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, you can’t help but wonder…how do they manage get these shots?! It looks so staged that you can almost imagine the director’s voice:

Cut, cut, cut….snakes, back into position; lizard, run a bit faster, please!

Lemmings

OK, a little fanciful perhaps. However, as Emmett Fitzgerald explains on the podcast 99% Invisible, when it comes to filming and recording animals in the wild, all is not as it seems. He gives examples such as filmmakers attracting sharks by feeding them dead fish and passing domesticated wolves off as wild animals. The most extreme case of fabrication, Fitzgerald suggests, took place in the 1950s ‘documentary’ White Wilderness. The film includes unforgettable footage of lemmings jumping off a cliff. This helped diffuse the urban legend that lemmings are prone to acts of acrobatic, mass suicide. Not exactly the kind of evolutionary adaptation you’d expect to succeed! In fact, as it transpired, the makers of White Wilderness used a contraption to throw the poor rodents over the edge. All in the name of entertainment.

On the other end of the falsification spectrum, you have the subtle art of Foley. This consists of reproducing sound effects in a studio with a range of materials and adding them to a film in post-production. We take it for granted that the sounds we hear in wildlife documentaries are the sounds made by actual animals. But if many of these scenes are shot from a distance with long-focus lenses, how can this be? It’s not impossible, you can position microphones in an area beforehand. However, more commonly, foley artists are assigned the task of recreating the sounds.

Wildlife documentaries play an important role in getting people excited about the natural world and raising their awareness of environmental issues. Although modern documentary-makers continue to employ a variety of tricks to create a captivating narrative, nowadays there’s a greater consideration for ethics. So there’s no reason to stop enjoying extraordinary productions like Planet Earth II, but let’s spare a thought for the grown man in a sandpit somewhere pretending to be an iguana!