If you thought that the credibility issues raised by the controversial documentary 'Catfish' could have been solved if they'd opted to abandon the Internet romance and instead head down to the bayou to film actual fish, we have bad news for you.
According to a new book by longtime wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer, the footage in nature documentaries isn't any more legitimate than, say, Joaquin Phoenix rapping in the studio with Diddy.
Palmer's book, 'Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom,' reveals a number of ways in which animals and audiences have been manipulated by filmmakers. For instance, jellybeans and M&Ms are often placed inside animal carcasses to draw scavengers -- "scary" animals that may, in fact, have been rented from game farms. Another example: One documentary crew buried a whale skull at the bottom of the ocean and then filmed it. Because of such tactics, Palmer says that there are three main problems with nature documentaries: They deceive audiences, they harass audiences, and they sensationalize the truth, all of which jeopardizes the conservation message of the work.
Naturally -- no pun intended -- Palmer's book has antagonized some of his peers, including fellow documentarian Erik Nelson, who Palmer cites as being a pioneer of the "animal attack" genre. Nelson told the Washington Post that Palmer brings "a sort of sanctimonious smugness to his book that sets my teeth on edge."
But as Moviefone has learned in an exclusive interview, Palmer is undeterred by the criticism. Keep reading to learn what he has to say about how long this has been going on, who gets it right, and why you shouldn't live every week like it's shark week.
The History Of Deceptive Nature Documentaries
If you read the headline to this article and thought that it referred to a current problem brought on by the loose morals of today's entertainment industry, you're sadly mistaken.
"If you look back to the history of wildlife films, going all the way to the beginning of the last century, when people started to make them, there's always been manipulation," says Palmer. "The question is just the degree of it." In fact, according to Palmer, things have actually gotten better in some ways. "In those days, there was tremendous cruelty. Animals would be goaded to attack, and then [filmed]. They would put a python and a cougar in a small enclosure to fight.
"We wouldn't do that these days," he continues. "But we do other things now. We use animals that we pretend are free-roaming, but that are actually rented from game farms. Or we have Shark Week -- a program that demonizes sharks and makes them out to be dangerous and menacing man-eaters, at a time when we're trying to preserve them."
Do You Have To Be Crazy To Get Good Footage?
There are two issues at work when it comes to getting authentic wildlife footage: safety and time. According to Palmer, a Distinguished Film Producer in Residence at American University in Washington, D.C., this partially explains why so many filmmakers resort to culling from the game farms.
"Television is a money-driven system," he explains, "And there are tremendous pressures on wildlife film producers to get dramatic 'money shots.' You can only get those by getting close -- you put yourself and the animals in danger when you do that. The animals get habituated to people. You might have a camera, but the next person could have a gun."
In addition to the threat posed to the animals, there's also that to the filmmakers, as well. "Wild animals are unpredictable," he goes on, "And if you get too close, you're asking for trouble."
Consider the case of Timothy Treadwell, the subject of the documentary 'Grizzly Man,' who got tremendous real-life footage of bears in the wild without ever visiting a game farm. Of course, he was later also killed and eaten by those same bears. "Timothy Treadwell viewed bears, to a large extent, as people in bear suits," says Palmer. "He thought he could get close to them, touch them and sing to them. He didn't stage anything -- but he got too close."
Can They Get It Right?
Considering that disturbing wild animals endangers them by habituating them to humans, we asked Palmer if filmmakers were being more ethical to use animals from game farms, who were already tame. "That's a good argument," he says, "But game farms are not healthy places. The cages are small, and the conditions are awful. Predators are right on top of prey. Animals shouldn't be treated that way. If there was a game farm that was incredibly humanely run -- and they don't exist -- but where they were given space to roam freely and so on, then I think you could say that the ends justify the means. It would save you from bothering and harassing a wild animal."
The possibility of an humane game farm is an unlikely scenario, explains Lisa Wathne, a captive exotic animal specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "I'd question the possibility of creating one," she says. "It's nearly impossible to create decent, humane conditions for wild animals in captivity. And even if you had them in decent captive conditions, as long as you have people constantly invading their privacy and trying to get the good shot, that's not to the benefit of the animal."
Instead, Palmer -- who praises 'Planet Earth,' a recent BBC and Discovery Channel documentary, as being a rare example of an ethical wildlife film due to it using "very little staging" -- suggests that ethics need to be at the forefront of the film school curriculum. "Just like doctors have training in ethics," he says, "Wildlife filmmakers need to be trained in the ethics of filmmaking."