How Natural Are Nature Documentaries?

Nature documentaries are fascinating glimpses at life we don’t get to see, because it’s far away, dangerous, or otherwise hidden from our daily lives. Most wild animals avoid humans anyway, so part of the fascination in such shows is wondering how they got those shots, or got so close to the animals. The BBC’s latest documentary, The Hunt, is about predators and the way they stalk their prey, but it leaves out the parts that may gross out the audience. Is that an error of omission, or just an appropriate way to tell a story? Making a wildlife documentary is a lot more complicated than just following animals around with a camera. For example, earlier nature films used tricks to get the footage they wanted, such as when Disney producers chased lemmings off a cliff and presented it as a mass suicide in the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness.   

Most nature documentaries don’t engage in such outright hoaxing, but staging shots or adding sound effects is common. For instance, stories about animal "families" often splice together footage of unrelated animals to create narratives that would otherwise be impossible or impractical to film. In those cases, documentaries are often telling a composite story of what typically occurs in an animal’s upbringing, rather than the story of one specific set of parents raising their young. It’s also common practice to use footage of tame or zoo animals for close-up shots, in order to avoid disturbing wild animals. In fact, Attenborough has been dinged for this particular approach before, on a previous series called Frozen Planet, when shots of polar bear cubs being born in a zoo were cut together with scenes of polar bears in the wild. Crucially, at no point does Attenborough tell the audience that the cubs are born in the wilderness — but neither does he say where they were born. The provenance of the cubs was revealed in behind-the-scenes footage. Hardly secret, but some members of the audience felt deceived nonetheless.

Even more interesting is the footage the BBC left out of The Hunt, like the time a polar bear wanted to hunt the cameraman! Read more about how nature documentaries are constructed at The Verge.

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I've notices also that many documentaries such as the 'Wildest _' series and Chernobyl Reclaimed add artificial drama. They will say something like 'little does this baby gorilla know there are predators lurking about' and jump between footage between a snake and the baby gorilla, but at no point are they in the picture together and were probably not even in the same vicinity. Complete fabrication that ruins credibility, and a waste considering the material is already interesting as it is.
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