Wildlife Films: Seeing But Not Always Believing In Shooting in the Wild, filmmaker Chris Palmer exposes some of the dirty secrets behind nature documentaries, like manufactured sounds and staged animal fights. He says he was compelled to disclose these tricks because he had seen a lot of animal mistreatment and audience deception and felt the need for transparency.
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Wildlife Films: Seeing But Not Always Believing

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Wildlife Films: Seeing But Not Always Believing

Wildlife Films: Seeing But Not Always Believing

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The walrus sounds you just heard were authentic, recorded on a beach in northwest Alaska. But some of the sounds you hear in wildlife documentaries may not be. That's what veteran environmental filmmaker Chris Palmer writes in his book, "Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom."

Mr. Palmer exposes some of the dirty secrets behind nature filmmaking, like manufactured sounds and staged animal fights. Chris Palmer is in our studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHRIS PALMER (Environmental Filmmaker): Thank you, Liane. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

HANSEN: It's nice to have you here. Some of the practices you write about are ones you've used when making documentaries for TV and movies. Can you give us just an example how you staged a nature shot?

Mr. PALMER: Well, I'll give you two examples. One is when we used animals from game farms and pretended they were wild animals. An example there would be wolves. We made an IMAX film on wolves, and we found it very hard to get shots of real, live, free-roaming wolves. So we went to a game farm and rented them. We took them out, and the audience thought that they were wild wolves. So we misled the audience. So that's an example.

Another example is to do with sound. One of the first films I ever made was on bears. There was a particular scene, and it was of a grizzly bear. And you could hear the water dripping off its paws.

HANSEN: We have an example of that particular scene. Let's hear that sound.

(Soundbite of music and splashing)

HANSEN: What are we really hearing here?

Mr. PALMER: What you're really hearing is my very talented sound guy with a basin full of water, ruffling his hand and elbow in the water, recording those water sounds, and then cleverly matching it to the video that we shot - with a long lens. We shot that beautiful shot of a grizzly bear about a mile away, across a valley.

HANSEN: Let me ask a technical question. When your cameras are rolling, are you recording sound?

Mr. PALMER: Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no. On our IMAX cameras, usually not. And the sound sometimes can be sync sound, if you're clever enough and the wind isn't blowing - and that very rarely happens. Or, as I've indicated, you can actually manufacture sounds in the studio to make them sound real when they're not.

HANSEN: Give us another example.

Mr. PALMER: Well, an example would be when you see an eagle taking off majestically from the top of a mountain. You hear its wings beating. That sound will invariably be made by an umbrella opening and closing.

Another example, Liane, is when you watch a film from Africa, and you see a lion biting into the neck or limb of a Thomson's gazelle. What you might well be listening to there is - in terms of sound - is actually a piece of celery being broken, because that sounds very much like a lion biting into flesh.

HANSEN: Why do filmmakers take these shortcuts, then - the manufactured shots, the post-production sounds?

Mr. PALMER: To save money. Even these big companies like National Geographic and the BBC and Discover and Animal Planet, they are all working on very tight budgets. Thirty years ago, we might have the money to shoot for three months. Nowadays, it's more like, no, three days. And you have to come back with the footage if you want to be hired again, as I've said. So you know, you're under tremendous pressure.

HANSEN: Some of your colleagues are not very happy about this book. What are you hearing?

Mr. PALMER: They are not happy because they feel like I'm a magician giving away the trade secrets, which I am doing - because I think there should be much more transparency in these films than there really is. But many of my colleagues are absolutely delighted; for the first time, this is being discussed. But a few of my colleagues think that I'm being smug and sanctimonious and, you know, shouldn't be giving away these trade secrets because it'll spoil people's enjoyment of these films. And they feel I'm being critical of them. So, you know, it's understandable their reaction is one of resentment.

HANSEN: What happens during your next film, when you find you can't get the sound of the animal, or you don't get that money shot that you need?

Mr. PALMER: Well, I think, you know, that's a very good question cause I think there is a trade-off. Sometimes, you will not get what you want because it's ethically the right thing to do. And your ratings will go down. So there is a penalty, sometimes, for doing the right thing. On the other hand, the challenge is now with filmmakers, like myself and all my colleagues in this business, to come up with clever, innovative, fresh ways of dealing with these issues so we can both be entertaining and ethically correct.

HANSEN: Chris Palmer is a wildlife filmmaker and professor who heads the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University here in Washington, D.C. He's also the author of the book "Shooting in the Wild," published by Sierra Club Books. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. PALMER: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me, Liane.

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