Rent-a-Wolf: Filmmakers Fake Wildlife 'Documentaries'


Wildlife filmmakers play on viewers' heartstrings because they want to make them care.

Palmer says there is a long history of fakery in wildlife cinema.

The 1958 Oscar winner "White Wilderness" tugged at heartstrings, with a now-famous scene of suicide by lemmings. It was outed as a fake several years ago. Those lemmings didn't jump to their watery death. They were hurled off those cliffs by the filmmakers. Lemming suicide is a myth.

"Lots of deception go on, and the reason I have written the book is to launch a campaign around the world to ask whether what we're doing is right,'' said Palmer.

While Palmer continues to make wildlife films, he is now a professor and the director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at the American University School of Communication, in Washington, D.C.

Palmer is perched safely in academia where the revelations made in his book won't hurt him too badly. Others in his profession have not been so ready to reveal these filmmaking secrets.

The main reason nature documentaries have taken shortcuts, he said, is simple. It's money.

Business and Other Practical Concerns Lead to Fakery

"You have to send your kids to college, you want to retire with some money,'' he said. "So you're concerned with your job security, you cannot go back with dull footage. So you need to come back with dramatic exciting footage. When you're under that pressure, and money's running out, and the weather is closing in, ethics is the last thing in your mind. You are after that shot."

While rent-a-wolves can get the job done, tug at viewers' emotions, and earn ratings, the challenge, Palmer said, is "How do you produce films that are very attractive and interesting and exciting, and yet….don't involve deception or fraudulence?"

Palmer, whose book, "Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom," was released in May, is careful to point out that while many wildlife films involve fakery, not all of them do. And those that do, he said, typically fake only small elements of their films to move the story along, speed up the process of filmmaking, and save money.

Some filmmakers emphasize that silver lining in their manipulations; They can spare wild animals the trauma and disruption of coming into contact with humans during filming.

His "Whales" film, "follows" Misty and Echo, a mother and her calf along their migratory path.

But Palmer and his filmmaking team had no means or money to follow two whales at ocean depths for 3,000 miles.

"We made them up," Palmer said. "Down in Hawaii there is lots of mothers and calves, this is their breeding grounds. They make this massive 3,000 mile migration from their breeding grounds in Hawaii to their feeding grounds in Alaska.

Through the film, viewers watch Misty and Echo taking off from Hawaii. Along the way, they encounter amazing obstacles and challenges, including killer whales, drift nets, collisions with ships and more.

"So the tension in the film builds as we wonder whether we will see Misty and Echo arrive in Alaska," Palmer said. "Our ship goes up to Alaska, we are waiting for them there, and will we see them?"

The music crescendos when Misty and Echo arrive safely in Alaska, a perfect conclusion for an audience who, presumably, loves a happy ending.

"The point is that we made that up," Palmer said. "The mother and the calf that we see arriving in Alaska (are) not the same animals that we saw leaving in Hawaii," he said.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...