Wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer shows that animals are often set up to succeed

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; C01

Not long after Chris Palmer broke into environmental filmmaking in the early 1980s, he brought home a newly completed film to show his wife, Gail.

She loved it -- especially the close-up of the grizzly bear splashing in a stream. She asked Palmer how the crew had captured the sound of water dripping from the bear's paws. He confessed: The sound guy had miked up a water basin and recorded splashing sounds made by his own hands.

She turned to him and said, "You're a big fake."

Three decades later, Palmer hasn't quite recovered. And, at 63, he has written a confessional for an entire industry. "Shooting in the Wild," published this year by Sierra Club Books, exposes the unpleasant secrets of environmental filmmaking: manufactured sounds, staged fights, wild animals that aren't quite wild filmed in nature that isn't entirely natural.

Nature documentaries "carry the promise of authenticity," Palmer said, speaking on a morning stroll through the manufactured wilderness of the National Zoo. Nature filmmakers profess to present animal life as it is lived, untouched by mankind. Yet human fingerprints are everywhere.

Palmer's book underscores the fundamental challenge of wildlife filmmaking: Nature is frequently boring. Wild animals prefer not to be seen.

"If you sit in the wild and watch wildlife, nothing happens for a very long time," said Maggie Burnette Stogner, an environmental filmmaker who works with Palmer on the American University faculty. "That's mostly what happens in wildlife."

Nature footage is hard-earned. A crew might spend six weeks in discomfort and tedium for a few moments of dramatic cinema. Certain shots -- animal births, or predators seizing prey -- are difficult to capture by chance. So some filmmakers set them up.

The lemmings that plunge to their deaths in the 1958 Disney documentary "White Wilderness" were hurled ingloriously to their doom by members of the crew, as a Canadian documentary revealed. Palmer writes that Marlin Perkins, host of television's "Wild Kingdom," was known to bait animals into combat and to film captive beasts deposited into the wild, and that the avian stars of the 2001 film "Winged Migration" were trained to fly around cameras.

Palmer asserts that manipulation pervades his field. Game farms, he writes, have built a cottage industry around supplying nature programs with exotic animals. Much of the sound in wildlife films is manufactured in the studio. Interactions between predator and prey are routinely staged.

"And if you see a bear feeding on a deer carcass in a film," Palmer writes, "it is almost certainly a tame bear searching for hidden jellybeans in the entrails of the deer's stomach."

Even David Attenborough, the dean of British environmental filmmaking, admitted arranging for scorpions to mate in a studio, "with a painted sunset and Styrofoam clouds" as a backdrop, Palmer writes.

Palmer says he believes he is the first industry insider to pen a tell-all book. Diplomatic and meticulously fair, he has won praise from across the environmental filmmaking industry.

But not unanimous praise. Erik Nelson, a prolific environmental filmmaker in Los Angeles, finds "a sort of sanctimonious smugness to his book that sets my teeth on edge."

Nelson is a glancing target in Palmer's book; the author portrays Nelson's eight-part television series "The Grizzly Man Diaries" as "sensational" and lambastes the animal-attack genre that Nelson helped to create. Nelson, in turn, asserts that Palmer has seldom actually shot a nature film -- most of Palmer's credits have come in the comparatively detached role of executive producer. He terms Palmer's ethics crusade "a giant nothingburger of an issue." (Palmer says he has been "deeply involved" in all of his films.)

And there has been other pushback. This fall, one cable channel executive rebuffed an invitation to speak to Palmer's AU filmmaking class because of the fallout.

"Chris is taking a pretty bold step in doing this," said Tom Campbell, a fellow filmmaker based in Santa Barbara, Calif. "Nobody really wants to speak out too much. If I say something bad about Discovery or Geographic, nobody's going to hire me again."

* * *

Palmer said he wanted to bare the industry's secrets at a time when filmmakers and programmers face mounting pressure to deliver footage quickly and cheaply.

The proliferation of cable channels has spawned more environmental programming, good and bad, than ever. Nature programmers, battling hundreds of niche cable competitors for viewers, want wilder wildlife on shorter deadlines.

"When I first started at [National] Geographic, filmmakers were in the field for three years," Stogner said. "Now it's compressed to 'Go out and get it in a month.' Well, it doesn't happen that way. The sharks don't show up."

Industry leaders do not dispute many of Palmer's claims. Staging, game farms and studio manipulation are widely known and freely discussed within the business.

But where to draw the line?

If there is an ethical beacon that guides the wildlife channels, it is the quest for realism. Programmers say they condone the use of captive animals as stand-ins for wildlife, and contrived meetings between species, as long as all involved are acting naturally and the viewer is seeing things that might actually happen in nature.

"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.

* * *

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.

This subgenre of "fangs and claws" programming courts alpha males. A show called "Shark Bite Beach" is part of the Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week. Animal Planet offers "Untamed and Uncut," a compendium of videos depicting animal rampage.

Palmer points to a clip from the Discovery Channel program "Man vs. Wild." The host, celebrity survivalist Bear Grylls, plunges into a jungle stream, fully clothed, and captures a giant lizard. Palmer suspects the lizard has been placed there by the crew; Discovery officials deny that.

"You'll want to dispatch him," Grylls says. Then he swings the lizard around by the tail and whips its head against a tree.

A grisly scene. Then again, the point of the program is to show how to survive in the wild, partly by killing and cooking one's own food.

Discovery executives say "Man vs. Wild" and its ilk represent an entirely different genre than blue-chip nature filmmaking, and are subject to different standards. Grylls's techniques "have been credited with saving the lives of ordinary people who have found themselves in treacherous situations," said Stephen Reverand, senior vice president of development and production at the Discovery Channel.

Palmer disapproves. In his book, he proposes that every nature film might open with a disclaimer on the screen that says something like, "All the scenes in this film are real and not staged," or, more probably, "Some of the scenes depicted in this film were shot with tame, captive animals."

Not likely, say industry colleagues. Who wants to watch a tame nature film?


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