The days of Disney-like wildlife film documentaries may be over-

Better equipment (that means digital) and perhaps a new breed of wildlife cinematographers are serving to make what the public sees more real. This is very hard because real might not look realistic to audiences raised on special effects.

Cinematographers also depend on a number of paid and volunteer sources of up-to-the-minute information in places like Yellowstone, as described in a feature article in The Men’s Journal,There will be Blood.” By Matthew Power.

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I should mention also, however, that there is a new feature movie, fiction, out, The Grey, that sets a new low in fear mongering. The wolves eat oil workers who crash in British Columbia (at least that is where much of the movie was made), and the oil companies employ sharp shooters to protect the crew.  Since there are no real wolf attacks to film, this kind of movie is easy to make.

Oil company workers. How sympathetic!

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides, and he is President of the Western Watersheds Project.

47 Responses to Making a wildlife film, especially of carnivores in real action, is not easy

  1. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    Just a warning, folks. I have a feeling this topic could generate some problem comments. Please think twice. Never mind.

    • avatar Savebears says:

      Ralph, if you know that a certain story that is not true can generate problem comments, then why post it? I would say that you are helping to generate those problem comments if you have to post a warning of this nature. I would have to say as of late, some of the stories being posted are the reason there are so many problem comments. The blog seems to have lost its objectivity.

      IMHO

      • avatar JB says:

        Savebears: I’m just curious; what do you find unobjective about Ralph’s post?

      • avatar Savebears says:

        JB,

        I didn’t say I find it a bad post, I am just curious as to why he felt it necessary to post a warning that it would solicit problem posts. I have been posting and watching this blog, since the days before there were blogs and things have really changed over the years.

      • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

        Savebears,

        In my comment above I did not have the movie, Grey, in mind. I was thinking more about some of negative views some have about other wildlife photographers. There is a community of them of sorts, and not everyone gets along.

      • avatar Doryfun says:

        Savebears,

        Isn’t evolution wonderful? Without change, the world would be boring.

    • avatar Doryfun says:

      Ralph,

      What is a “problem” comment?

      • avatar Doryfun says:

        Ralph,

        If someone warned you not to look at the pink elephant in the room, do you think you could look into the room and not see it?

  2. avatar Barb Rupers says:

    Walt Disney was not just about Bambi type films. During the early 1950s he produced some movies which, I as a high school student, found fascinating such as: Nature’s Half Acre that used time lapse photography to show the beauty of flowers blooming, Bear Country, and the Vanishing Prairie which showed the birth of a bison calf. Teachers at my scchool were divided as to whether that kind of event should be shown in movies viewed by anyone let alone by HS students.

    Those movies showed me aspects of the world beyond my town, surrounded by wheat fields, to which I was confined due to a lack of transportation. In short, they were eye openers.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      Agree with Barb here. I too grew up far from wilderness areas, surrounded by subdivisions and freeways, with little exposure to wildlife other than the occasional deer or fox passing thru.

      Walt Disney, National Geographic specials and even Wild Kingdom, showed me aspects of a much bigger world that I wanted to explore or even live near and thankfully, that has happened 🙂

      • Wild Kingdom – brings up a fond memory of one of my fellow Colorado State University grad students who worked on bobcats being excited about Marlin Perkins and his crew working with him on his study site on the Ft Carson Military Base near Colorado Springs. The wildlife grad student worked hard and get Marlin to a bobcat that was treed. They filmed and then cut… had to bring in the “stunt” or “stand-in” bobcat to complete the shoot. Burst my childhood wildlife bubble.

  3. avatar Immer Treue says:

    I knew The Grey was in the makings for a while. I’d be lying if I said I did not want to see the movie, yet I’d feel a bit guilty due to the fact that so much has been done in terms of wolf education in order to stymie this type of stereotype.

    Perusing Nabeki’s site, it has come up that four wolves were killed and two were eaten by cast/crew during the making of the film. I don’t know how reliable that source was, so I won’t jump to any conclusion(s) other than the no animals were injured during the making of this film disclaimer might not float.

    This could actually be a pretty good topic if folks think prior to writing. I give wolf “education” presentations at times to grade schools and have used three kill sequences during the spiels. Prior to showing the film clips, I tell the kids that wolves are not very “clean” killers and that it can be pretty messy. If they do not want to watch, that is fine.

    Point being, since before Rodney King, near everyone has some sort of camera with them, and are not afraid to capture some pretty gruesome events on film. Perhaps the “revolution” won’t be televised, but it will be captured by some digital device.

  4. avatar somsai says:

    There is a large segment of the population that enjoys seeing animals and even people suffer horrible painful death. The Romans had their “games” and gladiators, photographers and cinematographers are simply satisfying that desire. Certainly those types of base diversions appeal a large part of the carnivore advocacy portion of radical environmentalists. If any good can come from this sort of footage perhaps it will be a documentary of things like the extinction of the moose in Yellowstone or the destruction of the largest migrating elk herd on the planet. Long sequences of close ups of newborn moose and elk being torn to shreds with a somber authoritative voice over in the background could be very effective.

    My news aggregator has picked up on the trailers for Grey. I have to admit to not watching the entire segment. I doubt a movie like that would have any affect on the general publics attitude toward wolves. Perhaps a docudrama of the death of Candice Berner, complete with eco villains and a beautiful famous movie star as the lead. Don’t most people think wolves exist entirely on rodents via Never Cry Wolf?

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      somsai,

      The first time I saw a wolf in Yellowstone Park, I was walking up the Lamar River Trail. It stood there with an elk calf in its mouth.

      I was thrilled and thought it was a wonderful day to witness an authentic moment in life and death in what I think it the natural order of things.

      I was equally pleased several years later to watch an angry mother elk chase a wolf for almost a mile. I suppose that is what you mean by “radical environmentalist” — experiences of the real world and not watching or listening to some blowhard politician, preacher, or “reality” program on television.

    • avatar Immer Treue says:

      Somsai,

      +++Don’t most people think wolves exist entirely on rodents via Never Cry Wolf?+++

      Perhaps you might like to page through Cat Urbigkit’s Wolves of Yellowstone. The central premise behind her book was pretty much just that in terms of a supposed remnant native wolf population.

      Also, I would think a film of someone who unexpectedly stumbles upon someone field dressing a deer or elk might be similarly effective with the accompanying somber voice over. Not meant as anti hunting, but wolves and hunters do what wolves and hunters do.

    • avatar Alan says:

      Personally i hate to see anything die. I have very dramatic photos of a wolf kill that I took a couple of years ago. I took them because it happened in front of me and I call myself a photographer. I rarely look at them and almost never show them. I am equally appalled by a hunter putting blowing a hole in the side of a young deer as it peacefully grazes in a meadow. I can’t even imagine how traumatized I would be if I were to visit a slaughter house. But the simple fact of life is that everything lives because something else dies. Even deer and elk kill small trees and shrubs. I am certain that wolves would happily kill their prey with a single shot from a rifle at 100 feet if they could; rather than risk getting their heads kicked out making the kill, but they can’t. They use what they have available to them to survive, just as you or I would if necessary.
      As for moose being “extinct” in Yellowstone, I see plenty of moose in Yellowstone. Certainly not as many as before the ’88 fires temporarily destroyed much of their habitat; but they are there. It’s all a matter of looking in the right places, which sometimes entails a bit of hiking. I almost never fail to find them when looking for them.

  5. avatar aves says:

    While making wildlife film is not easy, having a month in Yellowstone with an $80,000 camera sure makes it easier. The combination of a place like Yellowstone and today’s camera technology gives today’s photographers a decided advantage over those from yesteryear. The ethics have improved as well. Thankfully we are far removed from Disney throwing hamsters off a cliff or Marty Stouffer throwing a cougar and a bighorn into the same enclosure. Those shows did reach a large audience and I absolutely loved “Wild America” as a child but their ethics were deplorable.

    Now that so much of our society has turned away from nature there is a dire need for high quality films. So much of what passes for nature shows these days is dumbed down, sensationalistic, or uses the wildlife as merely background for the pseudo-biologist’s glorification. Jeff Corwin was the only one of the new breed of hosts that was an actual biologist and actually educated the viewer. I can only imagine he’s no longer on tv because he got fed up with the disturbing trend of Animal Planet/Discovery’s programming. I can only sit through the BBC specials and PBS’s “Nature” these days. But “Nature” all too often makes a person the focus of the show. And even great footage can still be diminished if it is accompanied by anthropomorphic stories, inaccurate information or narration by Oprah Winfrey.

    • avatar Alan says:

      I heard a story about this guy while he was in the park (the guy in the article). He had been in the park for eight or ten days and had gotten very little, virtually nothing. He was getting frustrated because, as is so often the case, he would hear about a lot, but see little. One day he was heading up to Swan Lake Flats when he discovered that the road had been closed due to a late storm. The road to Lamar was also closed because of a rock slide, so he was essentially trapped in Mammoth. He was sitting behind the old Nature Store (hasn’t been open in years), eating and trying to figure out how to spend his day. He decided to film some birds in the sage on the hill and set his camera up. Suddenly, a brand new elk calf popped up out of the sage near the top of the hill and ran right toward his lens. At the same time a black bear came charging over the hill and pounced on the calf facing right into his lens, full frame. Having an eighty thousand dollar camera and a month in Yellowstone helps, but nothing beats a little dumb luck!!

  6. avatar Jay says:

    I think what somsai means by “radical environmentalist” is someone who has the intellect to appreciate wildlife and the natural world beyond the simpleton viewpoint that antlers is purty and animals is fun to kill.

    • avatar somsai says:

      I didn’t realize it would need an explanation.

      I’d say groups on the extreme periphery of the broad range of conservation groups in the US. Not only those who advocate illegality but also those who often hold views at odds with the mainstream of Americans. Fundamentalists who wish to return to some imaginary time in the past that never existed.

      • avatar Alan says:

        “Not only those who advocate illegality but also those who often hold views at odds with the mainstream of Americans.”
        Interesting; in a way that would include hunters. Because, while engaging in a perfectly legal activity, they are at odds with the views held by the vast majority of Americans who are not hunters. They also would like to return to a previous time when the man had to go out and secure the evening meal at the end of a rifle.
        Just playing with ya, Somsai!
        Time for lunch. Veggie patties and a salad!

        • avatar Jay says:

          “I’d say groups on the extreme periphery of the broad range of conservation groups in the US. Not only those who advocate illegality but also those who often hold views at odds with the mainstream of Americans. Fundamentalists who wish to return to some imaginary time in the past that never existed.”

          Ok, so groups like “Sportsmen” for (some) Fish and (some) Wildlife. Now I get it.

          • avatar Mark Gamblin (IDFG) says:

            Alan,
            More to the point, the values of Americans are well understood through annual polling by observers of public attitudes – support, opposition, ambivalence toward wildlife conservation/management issues. This topic is well studied and well understood. It’s unlikely that the continued support of the hunting tradition is without a recognition that human hunting, like wolf predation and other natural processes, includes blood and loss of life. In this regard, Americans retain perhahps more of a realistic connection to
            nature and our role in it. It may be that wildlife cinematography has maintained a positive level of “nature knowledge”.

        • avatar Mark Gamblin (IDFG) says:

          Alan –
          Recognizing that your point is light-hearted, it’s worth noting that hunters are NOT “at odds with the views held by the vast majority of Americans who are not hunters”. It’s been emphasized numerous times in recent threads that a strong majority of Americans support the North American hunting tradition – despite their minority participation in the tradition.

          • avatar Alan says:

            It was indeed meant to be light hearted; but I think the vast majority of Americans don’t give hunting a second thought one way or another. If you were to show them photos or videos of animals being shot, or screaming in pain when the first arrow or bullet failed to produce a kill; or of an animal struggling for days in a leg trap; or of a beautiful deer or elk being “field dressed”, I doubt many non hunters would approve any more than they would approve of images of animals going through a slaughter house. These are images most Americans are very happy never having to see.

          • avatar JEFF E says:

            Alan,
            which would be exactly analogous to what happens in nature as a whole.

            i do not think any thing in nature as far as life and death struggles are particularly “pretty”.

            The obscene thing is the mindset that humans are or should be removed from that equation. I think everyone should have intimate knowledge has to how the food they eat gets to that point. THAT is how respect is engendered for that meal one is eating.

      • The term radical environmentalist is used by today’s extreme conservatives to refer to all the traditional conservation groups reaching back as far as 1892 when the Sierra Club was established.

        Newt Gingrich deliberately begin applying a negative adjective in front of every group that he saw as a political opponent during his rise to power in the 1980s. He sent out tapes to his supporters showing them how to do it, e.g., most recently the “Food Stamp” President.

        In right wing discourse “environmentalist” is now reserved only for front groups of the oil companies, trophy hunters from the 1%, and spin-offs of the National Rifle Association.

        So if all ranchers are now called “welfare ranchers,” conservatives “nut cases,” CEOs “greed merchants,” to the those to the left, we have Newt Gingrich to thank.

        Nasty language spreads!

    • avatar Mike says:

      Bingo, Jay.

  7. avatar CodyCoyote says:

    Have you ever met anyone who thought Oliver Stone’s 1994 film of a Quentin Tarantino script ” Natural Born Killers” was to their mind a documentary ? A source of inspiration ? I have. Thrill kills are alright with them.

    I’m just pointing this out to place a waypoint on the other end of the cinematic social spectrum.Brutal fiction or sharp documentary , people live vicariously thru their movies. Millions of people paid to see NBK and bought the VHS tape and DVD’s afterwards.

    Yet I have to wonder aloud if the cinematic public would sit through an intimate animate linear sequence of a pack of wolves bringing down a cow elk , eviscerating it, and devouring most of it, then having the secondary predators and scavengers come finish the banquet.
    Would that same cinematic public like to see a time lapse sequence of the life of a beef cow from a wet birth to a charbroiled steak in excruciating detail, especially the intimacies of the killing floor and the packing plant ? How about the life of an elk calf from birth to being shot and field gutted four years later , and packed out of the wilderness on mules to the family dinner table ? One person’s shock is another person’s awe.

    Having asked all that , I’m already concerned that ” The Grey ” starring Liam Neeson will be forever viewed from inside a distortion field and the viewer left with a wholly misguided view of wolves. It’s analogous to a Little Red Riding Hood for the 21st century pop culture.

    Wolf advocates need to get out ahead it , and very very soon. It’s easier to be seed the inevitable debate preemptively than do damage control or triage.

  8. avatar Alan says:

    The big difference between wildlife documentaries being done today and those done in the past, such as by Disney or Wild Kingdom, etc. is that cinematographers today will spend hours, days, weeks, months even, waiting for the shot. The patience they speak of in the article. It is not unusual to spend one or two years capturing hundreds of hours of video to be whittled down to a one hour television program. If necessary, to fill in gaps, scenes will then be bartered, traded or purchased from other cinematographers, independent or not. Story lines are often put together by what you were able to film, rather than by what you sent out to film.
    In the old days they did not wait. If the script called for piranha eating a goat they would put a goat in a pool of piranha, after crippling it in some manner so it could not escape. If baby birds falling out of a nest were called for, they would be thrown off a cliff…and, action! Etc.
    I read an article recently (wish I could remember where), that said that it is still bad in entertainment movies that have animal actors, particularly WILD animal actors (as opposed to cats and dogs). Even in movies with the coveted “No animals were harmed in the filming of this motion picture” tag often have animals mistreated in training sessions away from the set (and observers). The orangutan, for example, that appeared in the Clint Eastwood movie “No Which Way But Loose”, died of stress shortly after filming. The article was advocating for the replacement of live animal actors with CGI, as was done so well in last years Planet of the Apes sequel. Kind of made me think twice about going to see movies with animal actors.

  9. avatar Peter Kiermeir says:

    The Grey director about his film in the light of the single wolf recently moving into California
    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/environment/la-me-gs-grey-director-joe-carnahan-wolves-win-20120119,0,6884129.story

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Peter,

      This is an interesting movie review. Thanks. I will go see The Grey if it comes to a theater nearby. I seems to me most films are watched on DVDs or streaming video, but I’ll be interested in viewer comments.

      Will the audience cheer for the wolves or oil workers in this fiction?

      • avatar Peter Kiermeir says:

        My wife and me still go to the cinema from time to time, equipped with popcorn and potato chips and coke! Nothing beats the atmosphere there! I think this movie will certainly be a candidate when it comes to the cinemas here later in the year!

      • avatar Alan says:

        Well, I cheered for the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, so I guess that tells you where I’m at! As for this movie, I don’t think I will go see it. Not only for the reasons I cited above (the article I read about cruel treatment of animals trained for motion pictures despite “No animal was harmed” monikers), but also because I just don’t “buy” this director’s claim that he was making some sort of “Moby Dick” type allegory. I think a lot of that is just to ward off possible animal rights protests. This movie just doesn’t feel right. It’s the wrong movie at the wrong time, with all the struggles that are going on around the country to gain acceptance of re-introduced wolves.
        Remember the hunter who shot his guide a few years ago in Paradise Valley, Mt.? He said that he thought the returning guide was wolves coming to “get” him? Turns out the guide had filled his head full of “vicious” wolf stories. This movie is going to lead to something like that, and wolves will die that otherwise would not have died. I’m sorry to say it, but there is just too much ignorance out there to feed it with something like this.

        • avatar Maska says:

          I tend to agree with Alan that this is the wrong movie at the wrong time. I won’t be spending my money to see it and encourage the making of more similar movies. Not only that, from what I’ve heard, there’s not much of a story line apart from the blood and gore.

  10. avatar Peter Kiermeir says:

    Talking about wildlife films with carnivores in action.
    Watch those bears in “Chernobyl reclaimed: An Animal Takeover” http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/11348898-radioactive-wolves-occupy-vacated-homes

  11. avatar kuu says:

    everyone knows wolves are more likly to raise a human baby than eat it. Just look at Romulus and Remus, and Moglie

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RaisedByWolves i learned it here

    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/651/has-a-human-child-ever-been-raised-by-wolves-or-other-animals

  12. Having driven the guide boat for some folks who were filming brown bears for the discovery channel, who by the way do that no spec, hoping to sell a film to the discovery channel, I found that they were not really interested in observing what the animals were actually doing. Instead they had a script written out ahead of time by a writer who knew nothing or next to nothing about bears and they were looking for film clips of bears that would support the “story board”. Unfortunately I find that most animal movies and television seem to follow that pattern. The only way to watch them is with the sound OFF and perhaps you can see some animal behavior unfiltered. . . but much better than that is to watch the animals yourself, alone and with an open mind. After all they don’t read the books or watch the movies about themselves so they don’t act like we expect.

    • avatar Alan says:

      Linda, I was told by a videographer once that he became upset with a certain producer who would refuse to listen to him when he was explaining the activity that he recorded, and rather would “make-up” whatever he wanted. In other words, animals running in play became animals running in terror from a predator; animals play fighting might become a fight to
      the death. Some of it was so ridiculous, he said, that claims would be made that the animals were doing things that they never would actually do in nature. He refused to do business with that producer again.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      “but much better than that is to watch the animals yourself, alone and with an open mind”

      Yep, will second that Linda 🙂

  13. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    One thing this shows (the making and consumption of animal films) is that interpretation of animal behavior is ambiguous to those who do not know the context or know much about animal behavior.

    Most of us know that even judging human behavior can be difficult given hidden motives, etc.

    With animals what we usually know is much less. Most people fall back on what they have heard or read about wild animals, and this is strongly influenced by their cultural, occupational and educational background.

    As I have remarked earlier, almost all reported near wolf attacks are from people who dislike them to begin with or are predisposed that way because of their background.

    Then are those who automatically interpret it as friendly.

    So if there is a wolf attack by a wild wolf, I think a good chance will be in Yellowstone Park where a visitor does not read dangerous behavior, not expecting it.

  14. avatar Peter Kiermeir says:

    Groups Boycott ‘The Grey’ For Portrayal Of Wolves
    http://news.opb.org//article/groups_boycott_the_grey_for_portrayal_of_wolves/

    • avatar Alan says:

      And I quote myself from above, “I just don’t “buy” this director’s claim that he was making some sort of “Moby Dick” type allegory. I think a lot of that is just to ward off possible animal rights protests.”
      Guess it didn’t work.
      They care about wolves so much that they dined on a wolf during the filming. “Tastes a bit gamey” says star Leam Neeson. Too bad, I have alway enjoyed Leam Neeson’s acting. Guess I won’t be going to any more of his films. I might have bought the “This is just entertainment” BS, but this last, if true, was a bit too much. ““Moby Dick” type allegory” my rear! Now I’m beginning to suspect this is a deliberate attempt to turn people against wolves. I would really love to know where the money came from.
      “Just like ‘Jaws'” Ya, right! We saw all the good that did for great whites.

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