Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker | Chris Palmer | TEDxAmericanUniversity


Translator: CJ Maxwell
Reviewer: Denise RQ When I first got into wildlife film-making in the early 1980s, I brought home a film on bears
my colleagues and I had just completed to show my wife, Gale. Gale loved it. There was a particular scene
in the film that she liked. It showed a grizzly bear
on a mountainside, stepping through a stream. You could see the sunlight
dappling on its back, and you could hear the water
dripping off its paws. Gale said to me,
“How did you get that shot?” I said to her, “Well, we were
actually across a valley. We had a very powerful telescopic lens,
and that’s how we got the shot.” She said to me,
“Well, how do you get the sound?” I said that I had
a very talented sound guy, and he filled a bowl full of water, ruffled his hand and elbow in it, recorded the sounds, and then matched the sounds
with the footage. Gale said to me, “You mean, you cheated.” (Laughter) She couldn’t believe I had done that. I brought home
a science-based documentary, and she was expecting
authenticity and truth; authenticity and truth. Many viewers like Gale would be surprised if they knew how much fakery
there is in wildlife films. Fakery that goes
beyond simple sound effects. Film producers routinely
make-up fake stories, rent captive animals,
and pretend they’re wild, and use computer-generated imagery to spice up the footage. Sadly, I have been guilty of all these audience deceptions. I am embarrassed
at how long it took me to realize that they were wrong. In an IMAX film on whales, we followed
a mother humpback and her calf. We called them Misty and Echo as they went
on their 3,000-mile migration from Hawaii to their feeding
grounds in Alaska. The tension in the film mounts as the audience wonders,
“Will they get there?” They have to run a gauntlet of threats, entanglements with fishing nets, collisions with ships,
attacks from killer whales. Will they get there? Well, they do get there. The camera lingers on Misty and Echo
as they arrive in Alaskan waters. It’s an emotional high point of the film
and the music swells. The only thing is
it wasn’t Misty and Echo. It was another humpback whale and calf. We meant well,
of course we meant well; the film championed whale conservation. We adhered carefully to the science and facts
of whale migration. But the need for a dramatic story
trumped the need for truth. That wasn’t the only trick we pulled. We showed an orca skull
on the floor of the ocean. We showed close-ups of its teeth to indicate the threat
to migrating humpbacks especially calves, from predatory orcas. What we didn’t mention is that we placed that orca skull there ourselves
on the ocean floor. I’ve made many other mistakes. In an IMAX film on wolves, we showed close-ups of a wolf pack interacting in complex and subtle ways. The film was designed to combat the misinformation campaigns
of the raunching and hunting lobbies which depict wolves
as vicious and blood-thirsty and fit only for destruction. We wanted to show
the relationships within a wolf pack and particularly wanted to show
the important task, the communal task of raising a litter of pups. We wanted to put the rich, social lives
of wolves up on the screen. But… filming the intimate lives of wolves is virtually impossible. They do not tolerate
the presence of people. So, we rented wolves. We rented wolves. The film came out.
It went all over the country. I gave many talks about it,
and at one of these talks, somebody in the audience
put their hand up and said, “How did you get that amazing shot
of the mother wolf in the den?” My heart sank. Answering that question truthfully meant betraying trade secrets. I was reluctant to admit that the den where the mother wolf had suckled
its newborn pups was artificial. We had built it. I didn’t want to admit the wolves we were using in this film
were rented from a game farm. I was facing a moment of truth. I decided to come clean
and tell the truth. I told him the den was artificial,
that we made it. I told them the wolves were rented. Oh boy. I could just feel
the disappointment in the audience. The excited mood in the theater suddenly deflated. They had watched the film assuming the wolves were wild
and totally free roaming. Why wouldn’t they make that assumption? We had deliberately and intentionally, deliberately and intentionally, given that impression throughout the film. Audience deception is an important ethical issue
in wildlife film making. But it’s not the only one. There’s another one
which is far more serious. One that I’m not guilty of,
and it’s animal harassment; animal harassment. Animal harassment has been pervasive in wildlife film making for decades. It ranges from the relatively mild, getting too close and disturbing animals to the much more severe and dangerous, deliberately goading and harming them for the sake of entertainment. Today, with the race for ratings, this problem is only getting worse. Let me give you two examples. Yukon Men on the Discovery channel is a popular reality series focused on the citizens of a town in central Alaska. The series depicts wolves
as blood-thirsty dangerous predators besieging this town and threatening
the safety of everyone in it. Early on, we see
one of the main characters brutally killing a wolf
with a semi-automatic assault rifle. Yukon Men does not show
wolves as intelligent, as highly social, as caring parents. It shows them as menacing man-eaters; menacing man-eaters. In so doing, delivers a significant blow to wolf conservation efforts. Rattlesnake Republic on Animal Planet follows four teams
of rattlesnake hunters in Texas. In the promotional literature
for this series, Animal Planet describes the rattlesnake as the “most dangerous predator,” “the most dangerous animal
on the continent;” end quote. Even though bites from rattlesnakes are very rare and only happen when the creature is extremely stressed, extremely provoked. The producers of this series
deliberately antagonize and goad these snakes in order to build dramatic storylines and pump up the ratings. This series represents animal cruelty, slaughter, and stigmatization as entertainment. There are many other programs like these. These programs teach people animals are vicious and violent, and that humans are justified in taking any means
they want to subdue them. Sadly, it’s their very
viciousness and violence that draws viewers and pumps up the network’s ratings. We cannot, we should not allow
the broadcasters to benefit, to profit
from animal harassment. In this critical time
with the climate heating up and with biodiversity in steep decline, we need wildlife programs
that advance conservation not encourage violence against animals. This television world
is driven by ratings so making a change here will not be easy. It will take the combined efforts of viewers, filmmakers,
and most importantly, broadcasters to bring about a change in the ethics of how these wildlife films are made. First, viewers; viewers must speak up. Reach out to the networks. Demand higher standards. We can change the ratings game simply by boycotting shows
that use unethical practices. When I see a particularly egregious show, I tweet about it and use the hashtag # crueltyforratings; cruelty for ratings. Second, filmmakers – filmmakers must capture
footage responsibly, reject cutting corners,
and behave ethically. Filmmakers can also establish
a relationship with scientists to make sure the content of these films is accurate and valid. And finally, broadcasters. Broadcasters who commission,
and fund, and air these programs must show greater moral leadership;
greater moral leadership. At a minimum, broadcasters should do no harm. A task they are failing at
spectacularly at the moment. But their real calling
should be more than that. It should be to live according to the inspiring
and noble standards of their founders. That should be their real calling. Broadcasters should mandate
ethics training for their executives. They should place more emphasis
on ethically produced programs. They should exercise more
oversight of the contents to make sure the science
and facts are accurate. Films are one of the greatest tools that we have for swaying public opinion. Films can take viewers to see places they would otherwise never see. Films can inspire viewers to treat other inhabitants of our planet with more respect and dignity. Films can even give us the opportunity to reverse the course
of environmental destruction and improve the future
for all life, all life, on this planet. But we the viewers,
the filmmakers, the broadcasters are failing to seize this opportunity. We must stop the audience deception. We must stop the animal harassment. We must live up to our responsibilities as stewards of this amazing planet. Thank you. (Applause)

10 Replies to “Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker | Chris Palmer | TEDxAmericanUniversity

  1. I had the great pleasure of listening to you speak and meet you many years ago at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula. I was very moved then as I am even more so today. I applaud your efforts and courage to speak out and point to a more ethical direction in wildlife filmmaking. Kind Regards! #newwayforward @Chris Palmer #newday #filmmaker

  2. You have changed the way I watch and do wildlife films. My wish is that thanks to your books and this TED conference, every single Producer, Broadcaster, Presenter, Director, Camera Operator and Editor will behave ethically. It is our responsibility as communicators. We can not make the money shot a priority in our films.

  3. it's ok its not real it tells the accurate depiction of events. I do not have a problem with this so much.

  4. Like any film really. I shot a nativity, not long ago, and had to totally mess with the timings, pull the sound out of sync. Now them confused little children, riddled with stage fright, who only just learned how to talk, look like talented little actors.

  5. Ethics need to drive every industry than this will not be the problem, almost every industry is the same, in all other industries humans do similar treatment to other humans knowingly except in your talk it is done to other beings. Anyhow, Here is effective quote to help implement it rather easily: "Whatever you do, just check – is it for the wellbeing of others, or is it about you? If it is about you, you shouldn’t do it." ~Sadhguru

  6. less people,more wild animals,a number of 270 millions human is a good number,a super technology,the same model of economy,at sure less distance,between the purest ant the reachest,wild animals in all countries,top climate,dna sciences to improve each of us,sciences,filosify,arts,combinated with the spirituals powers but in the way that human nowdays are more powerfull than the gods,to create the new kind,explore universe,and creative life to other planets similar to climate of earth.

  7. Wow im just want to start filming wildlife for independent documentary, and this will be a great path to follow, thank you so much!

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