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Wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer shows that animals are often set up to succeed
"It's always real behavior and real biology," said Scott Wyerman, senior vice president for standards and practices at the National Geographic Channel. "Our goal is to tell a true story."
The 2007 National Geographic film "Arctic Tale" depicted several years in the life of a polar bear and her cubs. To follow a single polar bear family for seven years "is physically impossible," Wyerman said, so Nanu the polar bear is a composite of many bears. The closing credits say so.
Fred Kaufman, executive producer of the esteemed PBS program "Nature," said the goal has always been to do "something that moves the bar scientifically." He condones the occasional use of captive animals when a filmmaker can't get the shot naturally.
"Whether it's a captive animal or a wild animal, it's an animal. It's unpredictable," he said. "I draw the line at putting someone in a gorilla suit."
Palmer has produced more than 300 hours of nature programming, including many Imax films and productions for Disney, PBS and Animal Planet.
Palmer and his crew work hard to get authentic shots. They also occasionally resort to manipulation.
For the 1996 Imax film "Whales," Palmer used recorded whale sounds to lure whales into a bay for easier filming. He invented the narrative of a humpback mother and child surviving a journey from Hawaii to Alaska, combining images of different whales.
For the Imax movie "Wolves," Palmer sent a husband-and-wife team to the Yukon for footage. "They spent six weeks," he said. "They got nothing." To complete the film, Palmer filmed captive wolves from the game farm Animals of Montana Inc. A scene of a mother wolf suckling her pups was shot on a manufactured set.
Palmer put a disclaimer in the end credits. He doubts many viewers saw it.
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Born in Hong Kong to a British family, Palmer studied engineering at University College London and spent seven years in the British Navy designing warships. He emigrated in 1972 and worked at the Environmental Protection Agency in the Carter administration, then turned to lobbying. In 1982, he persuaded media mogul Ted Turner to partner with the National Audubon Society to produce wildlife programming on his TBS cable channel.
These days, Palmer worries about a new generation of wildlife reality programming, largely defined by the work of flamboyant celebrity host Steve Irwin. Before he was fatally pierced by a stingray's barb in 2006, Irwin taught cable networks how to attain high ratings with cheaply shot reality programs.