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

Documentary filmmaker sheds light on the business of faking nature films.

September 28, 2010, 10:55 AM

Sept. 28, 2010— -- As executive producer of wildlife documentaries that include the titles "Wolves," "Dolphins," "Bears," and two films on tigers, Chris Palmer has spent more than 25 years helping to guide armchair adventurers through the wonders of nature.

Palmer, who describes himself as an adventurer who has swam with whales and sharks, gotten up close and personal with Kodiak bears, camped among the wolves, and trudged through an Everglades swamp.

But in his new book, Palmer, whose work has appeared on IMAX screens and on primetime television, points a finger at himself and other nature documentary filmmakers, shedding light on what he sees as a pervasive practice of faking nature.

"Wildlife films, too many of them, involve deceptions, manipulations, misrepresentations, fraudulence, and the audience doesn't know,'' said Palmer, 63, in an interview with "Nightline's" John Donvan.

Nature TV is popular because it offers a bird's eye view of the wonders of the world as they unfold, out there for anyone to see, but available to only the relative few who have the time, the money, and the equipment for adventure.

Yet according to Palmer, the reality is filmmakers often intricately stage -- and even contrive -- nature in these so-called documentaries.

"We had a scientist who had this killer whale skull and we asked him if he would bring it and then we put it at the bottom of the sea," said Palmer, referring to his film "Whales: An Unforgettable Journey."

In his "Wolves" documentary, a lupine pack fed on a carcass that was not the tasty bounty of nature it seemed to be.

"We found a dead animal,'' said Palmer. "You know there is lots of road kill we put it there" on the set.

Palmer added that often, though not in his "Wolves" film, when producers want to show a feeding scrum, they will place M&Ms or other treats inside an animal carcass to entice other animals to devour it.

He acknowledges other artifice in his "Wolves," documentary.

In the film, mother cubs scratch out an existence on the side of an unforgiving mountain, their only refuge a den dug out of the hard earth. But the wolves pictured are, in fact, rented. Animal actors who live on a game farm.

Read the Fine Print: Film Credits Reveal that Creatures of Wildlife are Actors

And the den they are living in?

"We dug it out, we help set it up,'' said Palmer. "Now see, we're inside now this is not a real den," he said, as he watched the film with ABC News. "I mean the mother is acting like this is a real den and this is not dissimilar from what you might see in real life, in reality. But in order to get a camera in there, the wolf is habituated to the noisy camera and the cameraman, this is all made up."

These manipulations are sometimes excused by filmmakers because they are revealed, in fine print, during the closing credits. Palmer's "Wolves" film included this disclaimer in the credits:

"Sections of this film were made possible by employing captive animals. This reduces stress on wild populations that would otherwise be affected by prolonged or intrusive filming requirements. No animals were harmed during the production of this film,"

"But who reads the credits? Except my mother?" said Palmer. "Technically we're covered, but there is no indication in the film, that those are (not) wild wolves, people would think they were watching wild and free roaming wolves."

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.

Palmer says it is possible to make great films honestly, "But it takes a lot of creativity, a lot of hard work."

Is There a "Greater Good" in the Deception, Filmmaker Wonders

Nature filmmakers say their films won't work without helping viewers connect with the animals, a trick often achieved by naming them, as Palmer's film had named "Misty" and "Echo."

"It is easier to care about animals if you name them and there is a big debate in science," said Palmer. "Jane Goodall named her chimps and she was criticized, but look at the incredible good she has done.

When filmmakers resort to faking scenes, it is typically done in service of helping viewers to care about the animals and the environment. The desired result is to inspire awe, even love, for the animals, and to make viewers take the side of the animals.

And that is why Palmer makes films about wildlife, he said. He wants viewers to develop respect and understanding for wildlife.

In his "Bears" film, some of the animals were trucked to the location where the film was shot.

"They are behaving under the instruction of a trainer," said Palmer. "The trainer is making sounds, they are trained through being fed and rewarded with M&M's and food."

And while the actor bears helped filmmakers create compelling cinema, there may be consequences. "The trouble is that you send a signal to the viewers that it is OK to get this close to bears and that is not a good signal to send."

Palmer's ambivalence runs deep. He is keenly aware that his deceptions have made people care and he sees a greater good in that.

"I make films in order to change something in society, and in this particular case, making us more environmentally aware, making us more environmentally responsible," he said.

"Maybe it is worth it to have told the lie," he said. On the other hand, he worries, maybe those rented animals are not treated well on the game farm. And, he wonders aloud, what happens to them after their turn in front of the camera is over?

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