Monday 20 May 2019

Forbidden Planet: how nature programmes pull the wool over our eyes

As the BBC owns up to fabricating tribal life footage from Papua New Guinea, Ed Power looks at how nature programmes pull the wool over our eyes

Wibbly-wobbly wonder: Members of the Korowai tribe said the treehouse was built for ‘the benefit of overseas programme makers’
Wibbly-wobbly wonder: Members of the Korowai tribe said the treehouse was built for ‘the benefit of overseas programme makers’

As if there isn't enough fake news around already, the BBC has admitted to playing fast and loose with its depiction of tribal life in Papua New Guinea in 2011 documentary Human Planet.

One of the corporation's vaunted natural history docs, the series showed a family from the Korowai people building a tree house 140ft in the air and then moving into the structure.

But it has emerged the Korowai created the shaky shack at the behest of the BBC and had no intention of living there on the very reasonable grounds that it was a wibbly-wobbly death trap.

The sleight of hand was uncovered by writer and broadcaster Will Millard when he travelled to the area for another BBC series, My Year with the Tribe, and locals voiced misgivings over how they would be portrayed on screen. "They're worried [about] how many people come up here and we might fall through the floor," Millard said. "This is not where they live, this is total artifice."

In a statement, the BBC said it was a "breach of editorial standards" and that the network has since revised its guidelines.

This isn't the only such scandal to engulf the BBC - nor the first time natural history film-makers have been accused of playing tricks in order to tell a more gripping story. In 2011, no less a figure than sainted David Attenborough was drawn into a fake documentary controversy as it emerged that a scene of cuddling polar bear cubs in Frozen Planet had not, as was heavily implied in his narration, been shot in the North Pole. In fact it was captured in the rather less frozen environs of a zoo in the Netherlands.

Attenborough wasn't pleading mea culpa, however, and defended the shortcut on the basis that breaking the fourth wall to explain the provenance of the footage would have killed the tension.

"It would completely ruin the atmosphere and destroy the pleasure of the viewers and destroy the atmosphere you are trying to create," he said. "The question is, during the middle of this scene when you are trying to paint what it is like in the middle of winter at the Pole, to say 'Oh, by the way, this was filmed in a zoo'."

David Attenborough. Photo: David Parry/PA
David Attenborough. Photo: David Parry/PA

The BBC backed him up, seeming not in the least contrite about featuring animals in captivity. "While the great majority of footage for Frozen Planet is filmed entirely in the wild, on occasion certain sequences need to be filmed in controlled conditions - otherwise we wouldn't be able to bring these stories to our audiences. This type of filming is standard practice across the industry when creating natural history programmes."

The statement was telling in so far as it acknowledged that a degree of smoke and mirrors has always been integral to wildlife documentary.

This goes all the way back to pioneering entries in the canon, such as Disney's 1958 Oscar-winning True Life Adventure, for which the crew flew in a batch of lemmings and then herded them over a cliff by way of illustrating the animals' supposed suicidal tendencies.

"A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny," went the breathless narration as, off camera, assistants chased the frightened animals into the water. "That destiny is to jump into the ocean. They've become victims of an obsession."

In one notorious case, a LIFE magazine photographer set a captured leopard upon a group of baboons. "Most of the time the leopard would chase the baboons and they would run off and climb trees," he wrote subsequently. "I had photographed all this. But for some reason, one baboon didn't get off. It turned and faced the leopard, and the leopard killed it. We didn't know that this was going to happen. I just turned on the camera motor and I got this terrific shot of this confrontation."

More recently, the 2011 BBC documentary Human Planet: Deserts - Life In The Furnace, was revealed to have featured a semi-domesticated wolf, brought in when an actual wolf proved elusive.

Going one further was 2009 feature length doc Turtle: The Incredible Journey which used CGI special effects to pep up the action (when CGI proved unsuitable, the turtle was shot in an enclosed tank).

Even in cases where animals are not blatantly manipulated for our entertainment, a certain economy with the facts is inevitable. Documentary makers will shoot hours of footage and then weave together the material in a way that presents a compelling dramatic arc.

A heart-thumping sequence in which a gazelle is interrupted by a rampaging lioness might be cut from scenes filmed in different days - and potentially featuring different animals. Factor in dramatic sound-effects - almost always added during post-production - and a swelling score, and raw footage of animals standing around not doing much can be reshaped into a grandiose commentary on nature's tooth and claw reality.

The excuse trotted by the programme makers is that this is often the only way to secure the footage. It's either that or nothing. "If you had tried to put a camera in the wild in a polar bear den, she would have either killed the cub or the cameraman, one or the other," said Attenborough of the Frozen Planet furore. "I mean, it is out of the question."

Irish Independent

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