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0 Faking the Wild

  • Thoughts
  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 13-12-2011
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The story of David Attenborough and the "mocked up" sequence with polar bear cubs brought back to me many memories of cutting room arguments and near disasters that I can recall from twenty years as a factual film maker. I am still not sure about the acceptability of some sequences in progammes I made, though my intention was never to deliberately deceive the viewer. Well, only a bit.

I often re-run in my mind one episode that occurred back in the mid-1980s. I was a producer-director in the current affairs and features department of London Weekend Television. In those days there was no chasing after ratings and LWT factual programmes ( Lord Birt was in charge) and we had a reputation for making few if any concessions to "popular" programming. However I was given the chance to make the first ever wildlife programme for the company, a project I relished as a keen bird watcher and amateur naturalist.

Although by then I had made a few programmes it had never occurred to me how those brilliant wildlife cameramen got their amazing sequences. Did they crawl down holes to film moles? How did they get so close to tigers in the jungle? The buzz around the office was that I would not have much trouble as my series was to be six half hours on wildlife in London. Once I had the sparrows in the can, that would be it. Maybe a rat or two as well.

In fact, London is very rich in wildlife. The problem was how to film it. We went to a couple of lectures given by BBC wildlife producers and asked around. I was astonished, and not a little put out, to discover many of the most gripping sequences were faked. The tiger stalking the jungle was a zoo animal. The eagle catching a hare was a falconer's bird. Which brings me to some episodes that I re-run in my mind from time to time.

A star of my series called City Safari was the kestrel, a little falcon once common in the capital,. We saw them every day from our tower block office on the South Bank, and found a nest to film high up in a tower block vent shaft. But we wanted some pukka shots: the bird in slow motion with the Houses of Parliament in the background. And another of a kestrel catching a sparrow, its favourite food in the city, with another classic London backdrop. There were plenty of wild kestrels to film and we got some great shots of them, mostly from a distance. But for the big close-ups with the birds hovering in the right place at the right time we brought in a falconer.

I will never forget the first sequence we shot. We chose what was then a building site on the south side of Vauxhall Bridge, now the MI6 building. At low tide the falconer was able to go down on to the foreshore while the cameraman set his high speed equipment on top of the embankment. The kestrel was on the falconer's arm. He shouted: "Are you ready?" I put my thumb up. In his hand he had a little yellow, dead, day old chick. He showed it to the falcon and then hid it again in his hand. He then threw the bird into the air. It unfolded its wings and looked down for the lure. Momentarily it hovered there giving the cameraman a chance to find it, focus and shoot. The film zipped through the high speed camera taking 500 frames a second. Played back at 25 frames it would be slow and elegant and last twenty times as long as it took to shoot. We had several goes at this until the kestrel got fed up and flew off. The falconer was seen running across Westminster Bridge calling: "Rosie!".

Then there was the Tower of London shot. Here we wanted to show a kestrel catching a sparrow. The same falconer and the same obliging kestrel performed brilliantly on the south bank of the Thames opposite the Tower. When the film was in an advanced "rough cut" stage the executive producer came to view it. To our gratification he loved it. And it did look pretty good, certainly as professional as anything the BBC produced. Then he asked how we had got that amazing shot of the kestrel catching the sparrow. I took him to one side and explained it was falconer's bird called Rosie which had been in Life on Earth. The sequence was cut so that it appeared Rosie had caught the sparrow which, in reality, the falconer had brought with him from the countryside. Looking crestfallen, the producer asked me how I felt about the deceit. I said: " Not very good". But how were we to compete? The BBC and other wildlife film makers all had what we came to call "equity" birds and animals for close shot sequences.

We could have brought up a caption saying: " Reconstruction" but it would have looked daft, and no other companies did that for wildlife programmes. I resolved the moral dilemma by arguing ( to myself ) that kestrels were common in London, they did catch and eat sparrows, and we knew there was a pair nesting near Tower Bridge. Cheating, we discovered, was endemic in wildlife film making but if you were not misleading your audience about what species could be found where, there was no big issue involved. What you had to be most careful about was what you claimed in the voice over. It would have been quite wrong to pretend we had got an amazing sequence of a wild kestrel catching a wild sparrow. We used the sequence to make the point that kestrels in London fed mainly on sparrows. But we did want the viewer to imagine we had staked out the sparrow just as it was caught in the kestrel's talons.

David Attenborough, to his great credit in my view, has always been straight forward about staged sequences and, as far as I am aware, has never tried to deny that they occur. A classic is the inter-cutting of a sequence of the birth of polar bears, filmed in a Belgian zoo, with the bears in the wild as if the birth had been shot in the Arctic. To own up on screen would spoil the magic. I know this for certain because I was banned by my family from watching wildlife films as I would constantly let on that the tiger was clearly from a zoo and looked very much as if it had a piece of string attached to its left back leg. 

I have argued before elsewhere that fakery, in the sense of staging sequences, is endemic in documentary film making. Those film makers who like to refute this -- and there is surprising number of them -- should ask themselves if they have ever asked anyone in one of their films to "do something again" because the first take was spoiled in some way. Or asked them do something they would not otherwise have done. That is all fakery, but not necessarily pernicious. I argue that it is mostly "legitimate". There is another kind of fakery which is "illegitimate" in that it seeks to seriously mislead the viewer about a sequence of events shown on the screen.

What I find most dispiriting about the discussion of fakery in factual programming is the degree to which senior people in the industry pretend they did not know it was going on when it is in fact stock in trade in television documentaries. The intention, invariably, is to make a programme more watchable than it would otherwise be rather than to mislead the viewer about the essential subject matter of the programme. In the case of the polar bears in Frozen Planet the same pretence that cubs were filmed in the wild when in fact they were born in a zoo has been done before with David Attenborough narrating. It cause a bit of a stir then but in time we forget these things and are prepared, in the words of the poet Coleridge to "suspend our disbelief". If you had been watching Frozen Planet with me I would have ruined its best sequence by pointing out there was no way the birth of those cubs could have been filmed in the wild.