Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
Ever wonder how nature photographers and filmmakers get perfect close-ups of animals in the wild? It may have nothing to do with skill or luck. Many filmmakers take shortcuts, using captive animals and staging the drama that unfolds on screen. We go behind the scenes to explore the challenges and ethics of nature photography and filmmaking.
- Cristina Mittermeier President, International League of Conservation Photographers
- Chris Palmer Director, Center for Environmental Filmmaking, American University
Related Video: Chris Palmer Interview
Wildlife filmmaker and author Chris Palmer talks about what he hopes wildlife films can achieve and whether or not audiences are understanding their messages of conservation. This interview was shot, edited, and directed by students at the International Film Academy of Jackson Hole:
“Shooting in the Wild” Book Trailer
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe expect a lot from our nature films these days. We want to follow whales as they migrate in giant screen underwater 3D. We are riveted by the lion pride downing an antelope. We want a heartwarming story of the mother bear and her cubs. And we are used to seeing calendars featuring close-ups of endangered species against stunning wilderness backgrounds, but we rarely think about how the filmmakers and photographers got those shots.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWould you feel cheated if you find out that those bears were rented for the shoot from a game farm? What if the beautiful mountain in the background was Photoshopped in. How much should we know and how much do we want to know about how these images are made? Joining us in studio right now is Chris Palmer. He is the director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University and author of the book, "Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom." Chris Palmer, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. CHRIS PALMERKojo, I'm delighted to be here.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios in Los Angeles is Cristina Mittermeier. Cristina is the president of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Cristina Mittermeier, thank you for joining us. I don't hear Cristina, but presumably Cristina hears me and we will get to her in a second. But first, starting with you, Chris Palmer, staging scenes is nothing new in wildlife films. One of the Disney classics that influenced you as a child was famously filmed with fake shots. Tell us about that.
PALMERWhen I was about 11, Kojo, I watched a film from Disney called "White Wilderness." It was -- it came out in 1958 and it had two scenes that stick in my mind. One was of lemmings committing suicide as they migrated and the other was of a bear cub climbing a mountain. Both of these turn out to be fraudulent and made up. The lemming scene, as most people nowadays know, was -- you know, the lemmings were captured and then thrown off a mountain top and made to look as though they were migrating and drowning. So that was just completely fraudulent.
PALMERAnd then, the bear that -- we saw this little bear cub climbing up a mountain. When it got near the snow-covered mountain, as he got near the top, it lost its footing and began to fall. And the audiences laugh because it's sort of a slapstick comedy. And starts to tumble down, faster and faster, soon going out of control. It ends its fall by banging hard on the bare rock at the bottom and people -- when I first saw this, I thought, well, that was amazing that a photographer had -- well, they must have waited there for months to get their shot. Well, it turns out, it was all staged. It was done in a studio. The mountain was manufactured. The snow was false. The cub was controlled, was captive and brought there.
PALMERAnd so what we got is a situation of animal -- I think, animal harassment done for the sake of conservation. And I want to quickly say, though, Kojo, that Disney, back in the 1950s, was actually ahead of its time compared to what people did before that. It was actually farsighted and, by the standards of its time, quite good.
NNAMDIBut we know how that was done, nevertheless, we still live with the myth about lemmings being prone to mass suicide.
PALMERDoesn't that show the extraordinary power of film that so many people believe that myth? And it just shows how important films are. They're emotive. They reach people emotionally. And this is why it's so important that -- why I've written my book, "Shooting in the Wild," because I want people to realize these are important. And that makes it even a bigger responsibility on the shoulders of film producers like myself to produce them ethically, to produce them with a conservation message and to produce them with a minimum of audience deception.
NNAMDIWe've all heard of the "Lassie" series. There were, in fact, something like 11 dog actors who played Lassie.
PALMERYes, I believe that's true, that's true.
NNAMDIAnd we identified -- we were thinking with one Lassie. I'd like to invite our listeners into this conversation. Do you watch any of the cable channels on wildlife and nature, Discovery, Animal Planet? Have you ever seen an IMAX 3D nature movie? Do you know how your favorite wildlife films are made? Call us, 800-433-8850, 800-433-8850. Or you can just send an e-mail to email@example.com, a tweet @kojoshow or join the conversation at our website, kojoshow.org. I think Cristina Mittermeier is with us now. Cristina, can you hear me?
MS. CRISTINA MITTERMEIERYeah, I can hear you, Kojo. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIVery well. Cristina is the president of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Cristina, are there any parallels in photography to the kinds of things that Chris Palmer and I have been talking about in movies and television productions?
MITTERMEIEROh, there are many, many parallels and some of the same offenses take place. You'll be surprised to know that very, very few pictures of wild animals, as we see them today in calendars and books, are actually made in the wild. And a lot of these animals, like you said earlier, are rented out. They live in cages and people pay a fee to bring them out and take their picture.
NNAMDIChris, we're now used to amazing close-ups, giant screen 3D and dramatic stories of animal survival. Just how much of these big budget nature documentaries is fake?
PALMERWell, it's hard to put a figure to it, Kojo. But more -- the answer is more than most people realize. Cristina just indicated how common it is when you see calendars at holiday times, when you buy those calendars and you see these still pictures of wolverines or grizzly bears or wolves, almost certainly those come from, as Cristina (word?), from a game farm. In the movie business, it's very, very common.
PALMERIt's actually hard to get close-up shots of wild, free-roaming charismatic species like bears and wolves and wolverines and the likes. It's not easy to get close to those animals. So if you see a close-up shot of one of those animals in a documentary, you need to ask yourself, how was that shot made? Was it done from a captive, controlled animal? Or was the -- was the animal really wild and free roaming, as often these films like to imply they are? So it's quite common.
NNAMDICristina, if in fact they're shot with a captive animal, some would argue that subjecting captive animals to a camera may, in some instances, be better than interfering with wild animals.
MITTERMEIERI think the real issue, Kojo, is that a lot of these animals are captured from the wild for the specific purpose of keeping them in captivity and renting them out to photographers and filmmakers. If some of the proceeds of that activity went back to conservation of habitat, I would probably not object so harshly. But we have no idea how those animals are being kept.
MITTERMEIERWe don't know how they're being cared for and we know that a lot of the funding is not going back to conserve the wild habitat. So, in fact, they're being kidnapped from the wild so that photographers and filmmakers can profit, you know, off their backs.
NNAMDIChris Palmer, let me make another argument, on the other hand, wild animals can be dangerous. Isn't a controlled environment sometimes necessary for the safety of the photographers or the camera people?
PALMERWell, I don't think you can get away from a fundamental point, which is while there may be some merit in that argument, Kojo, you still got to come back to the fundamental point that these animals are held in an extraordinary stressful situations, in small cages, they're transported around the country, one on top of the other, prey on top predator. It's incredibly stressed.
PALMERNow, I've used game farms in my films when I was ignorant and didn't realize how stressed they were. I've used rented walls for our IMAX films, for example. And at the time, I thought, well, this is good. It means we're not habituating or bothering wild wolves. But I've come to have a different view now as I've learned more about game farms, that they are highly stressful and animals should not be kept in that type of situation. So I've now come out against game farms and recommend against them.
NNAMDIChris Palmer is the director of the Center -- director for the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University and author of the book, "Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom." He joins us in our Washington studio. Joining us from studios in Los Angeles is Cristina Mittermeier. She is the president of the International League of Conservation Photographers.
NNAMDIWe're inviting your phone calls at 800-433-8850. Have nature films and photos made you more conscious of endangered species? And what do you think about how they have been shot? What did you think about how they have been shot? 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Chris, what other tactics are used to create illusions on screen?
PALMERWell, one of them is quite common, is fabricated sound, Kojo. For example, when you see an eagle taking off from the top of a mountain and hear its wings flapping, this could quite easily be -- that sound you're listening to could actually be an umbrella opening and closing.
NNAMDIJust the sound effect.
PALMERJust the sound effects. And when you see a lion chasing down a gazelle on the African plains and then clamping his jaws into his throat. And that sound can be recreated from the chew -- from a person, a folly artist, chomping on celery. Or if you see a bear, for example, sliding down with his cubs playing, sliding down a slope, a hill on snow and you hear that sliding sound. That can be created by filling a woman's stocking with custard powder and then massaging it. So there are lots of ways we use folly sound. So there's one way we deceive.
PALMERBut another way, perhaps more important, is that we sometimes make things up to create powerful stories. For example, in my case, we produced a film (unintelligible) whales. Part of that involved the story of Misty and Echo leaving two -- a mother and calf, humpback whale, leaving their breeding grounds in Hawaii and going on a 3,000 mile migration to Alaska. Very dramatic story. Well, in the film, we actually see Misty and Echo arrive. And that we have the reader say, here Misty and Echo -- this is one of the emotional high points of the film, Misty having arrived. Well, it wasn't Misty and Echo. We said that, the audiences believe that. But, in fact, it was just two other, a mother and calf. We -- it wasn't actually the same whales.
PALMERDoes this matter? I mean, that's why I've written my book is to try and encourage more debate about the ethics of this, which is a hidden world at the moment.
NNAMDICristina, I’m glad he brought up Misty and Echo because we also want to see something we can relate to in photographs, mothers with babies, correct?
MITTERMEIERCorrect. And, you know, Kojo, there is something to be said for those photographers who actually spend months and even years out in the wild sitting quietly in a blind trying to not, you know, interfere with natural behavior to get those kinds of shots. And what happens when a photographer, you know, just goes out and rents a mother and a cub and takes the same photograph and then these animals are put back into a cage? So I think there has to be some recognition for the photographers and filmmakers that are doing the right thing.
NNAMDIA lot of the nature shows we know feature a story, as you just pointed out, Chris. The animals have names, Misty, Echo, and we follow them as they overcome terrible odds. Why is that so important to us?
PALMERWell, this question of anthropomorphism is a little tricky. When you give names to animals, you make them more human and they become -- you become more attached to them. And this is important. When we make films, we want people to be emotionally attached to the animals. We want people to get the message, these animals are important and worth saving. On the other hand, scientists generally don't like this because it brings in emotion into the film when they're trying to be, you know, trying to do science. So there's a debate about that, Kojo. Sometimes I come down on the side as fine -- like, Jane Goodall, fine to name animals.
NNAMDIWell, I know, in the forward to your book that was written by Jane Goodall, she talks about when she and her husband shot Mrs. Goodall in the "Wild Chimpanzees" that was narrated by the late great Orson Wells. She talked about anthropomorphism and the fact that the chimpanzees were made to look almost human. And they were really upset about that.
PALMERYes. 'Cause sometimes you can go over the -- this is, you know, can sometimes go over the edge, over the line. I mean, a little bit of it may be good to make a -- increase the drama and the excitement in the entertainment value. You know, these films are important in terms of conservation. And in order to get an audience, though, they have to be entertaining. And so a little bit of anthropomorphism is, I think, acceptable. Going too far is -- can be a problem.
NNAMDIFortunately for them, they were able to get the film cut and Orson Wells had to redo some of the narration while he was in the hospital bed after an accident.
NNAMDIYou want to encourage more skepticism, Chris. Can you explain?
PALMERYes. I want people, when they see on a movie, on a documentary, a close-up of a grizzly bear feeding, say, on the carcass of an elk. And they look at that and they think, well, that's amazing how that photographer got that, how the cinematographer got that picture. I want people to say, wait a minute. I wonder if that really is a wild free-roaming bear. Because the chances are high -- when you're that close up, the chances are high that that was a bear that's captive and controlled and rented perhaps from a game farm. And there are perhaps some M&M's or jelly beans put in the guts of the elk to make it feed.
PALMEROr perhaps the bear had not been fed for several days so it would be hungry. So there's a lot of that manipulation that goes on that viewers don't know about and I think ought to know about.
NNAMDICristina, what should we be looking for in nature photos as skeptical consumers?
MITTERMEIERYou know, Kojo, I think, the bigger issue is one of credibility because we have to be concerned with two types of different ethical breaches. One of them is the journalistic ethical breach, where people are going to stop believing what they see in these pictures. And at least for conservation purposes, it's really important that people believe that what we're showing them is actually happening in the wild. And the second kind of ethical breach is, of course, the rights of the wild life that we're infringing, that we may be putting them in danger, that we may be provoking an attack that then results in an animal being killed.
MITTERMEIERSo all of these ethical conversations are really important, but they really drive us back to whether or not people believe that our environment is in trouble and that the conservation community is credible.
NNAMDIHere is Katie on the phone in Manassas, Va. Katie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATIEThank you, Kojo, thank you very much. I'm currently taking a class in Photoshop and I'm an adult learner. And I sit there in this class of 19 other students and I'm wondering, these kids who are 18 or 19 years old, they've been exposed to photography that has been Photoshopped, magazine articles that have been Photoshopped so that how do they know what's real and what's not real? And if this -- the point that Cristina was bringing up about ethics, fortunately, the teacher, his preface to the course was about being skeptical about what you see and about photo journalists, their obligation to be true to, you know, their craft.
NNAMDIYeah, here's Cristina, Katie.
MITTERMEIERWell, I think Katie makes an excellent, excellent point. And Photoshop abuse is one of the biggest infringements that there are to, you know, ethics in journalism. I think the natural reaction of most people when they see a picture today is to not believe that it really happened. And as a journalist, when you subscribe to a ethical standard that says that you're not going to be, you know, leaning on tools like Photoshop to make things appear where they were not there, people start believing a little more your images.
MITTERMEIERBut I agree with Katie, that it's up to teachers and people like Chris who write about these issues. To talk about the implications. If people don't believe that the pictures are real, they're not going to believe that the environmental problems are real either.
NNAMDICristina, you can do almost anything to a photo, change the background, play with the colors. If we see an image of a wolf in perfect silhouette against a beautiful mountain range, should we be a little skeptical?
MITTERMEIERI think you should, you know. And yet there are those photographers out there who are, you know, risking life and limb and making enormous sacrifices to bring images of those wild animals. And they're always less than perfect and I think they're far more beautiful.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Katie. Here is Rita in Fairfax County, Va. Rita, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RITAThank you for taking my call. My question is very specific one. The hero of my childhood, Jacques Cousteau and his family who's followed after them, how do their ethics -- what are they like in (word?) is concerned? And Steve Irwin, who always looked very fake to me, but was a hero to my children, how does his ethics stack up against what you are discussing here? Thank you.
NNAMDIFirst, Jacques Cousteau, Chris Palmer?
PALMERJacques Cousteau was a very good person. He was a strong conservationist and did a great deal of good in his life and has family now, which is working hard in the same direction or doing great things. It was true that earlier in his career he might've killed a few sharks during filming, but by the standards of those days, he was ahead of his time and I basely give him strong approval. There was Steve Irwin.
NNAMDIThe Crocodile Hunter.
PALMERThe Crocodile Hunter, now, he was killed by the barb of stingray when he got too close to it. The thing about Steve Irwin is, he's a very good human being, good father, good family person. If you read his autobiography, he's very strong on conservation. But what he did wrong was to get in the personal space of animals. Grab them, harass them, goad them and this is not good. So there's a plus and a minus on Steve Irwin. The plus is that he helped thousands of young people fall in love with reptiles.
PALMERAnd now, at the moment, we have people going through universities and doing PhDs about reptiles who would not be doing it if it weren't for Steve Irwin. So that's a big, big plus. The negative is that he also set a bad example and unintentionally. He didn't mean -- didn't want to do it, but unintentionally he encouraged young people to get too close to wild.
NNAMDIBut let's talk about the consequences of that for a second. Because it's my understanding that you made a motion at a festival that you were attending that no one should applaud, on camera, hosts who harass animals. And it didn't go over that well.
PALMERNo. It's funny, you know. Filmmakers, film producers tend to be strong conservationists, as a general rule, but they also tend to be strong individualists. They don't want to be mucked around with. They don't want to be told what to do. They don't want to be told you can do this and you can't do this. So my emotion to criticize, on camera, intrusive hosts who get too close to animals got voted down because people were worried, what could that lead to.
NNAMDIIt could lead in their minds, I guess, to some of the drama disappearing from the documentary.
PALMERAnd then, being told that they can't get too close to an animal and then sometimes they want to get close to an animal, even though the animal could be harassed.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing our fall membership campaign, but after that, we'll continue this conversation with Chris Palmer and Cristina Mittermeier about how documentaries about nature are made and photographed. You can call us at 800-433-8850. If you've already called, stay on the line, we will get to your call. Otherwise, you can go to our website, Kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on how nature documentaries and films are made, what's real and what's fake. We're talking with Chris Palmer. He is the director for the Center for Environmental Film Making at American University and author of the book, "Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom." And Cristina Mittermeier, she is the president of the International League of Conservation Photographers.
NNAMDIChris Palmer, wildlife and nature films are hugely popular on television. Now, too, just like other TV and cable programs, some wildlife shows have a lot of sex and violence. Critics call it nature porn and fang TV. What do you think about it?
PALMERWell, I don't like it generally. I mean, these films have to be entertaining, uh, because we want to promote the natural world and we want people to respect it and want to conserve it. But I think we have gone over an ethical line here. There is too much sensationalism in these films with on-camera hosts getting very close to animals and harassing them. And a good example of this would be Bear Grylls in Man vs. Wild.
PALMERThis is a very popular show. But in that show, Bear Grylls has killed bats, he has caught a monitor lizard and then killed it on camera by smacking it against a tree and he's bitten live snakes in two. This is not a type of behavior that I think we should be showing on these...
NNAMDIHere's this e-mail we got from Jerry that is, I guess, related to what you're talking about. Jerry says, "I see documentaries where animals fight each other in the wild. How often are these fights natural occurrences and how often do the documentary makers force the animals to fight?"
PALMERWell, quite often. It's not -- it's very, very hard, you know, to film a confrontation like that. Of course, it does happen in the wild. And if a cameraman is very lucky to be there, he'll get a shot. And we have seen, as a good example of it done well, is Battle at Kruger, which you can find on YouTube and is now up to something extraordinary, like 50 million viewers or something.
PALMERBut that was done, not by a filmmaker, but by a tourist who just happened to be there and is completely natural behavior or combat between lions and buffalo and crocodiles, extraordinary footage. But that's unusual. Most of the times when you see animals confronting each other, it's because they've been brought together and in a fabricated way. And it's this type -- and several things are wrong there, Kojo.
PALMEROne is that animals are getting harassed and bothered and disturbed unfairly. And, of course, the other thing that's wrong is that audiences are getting to see -- they think they're seeing the natural world and what they're -- well, they're not. And another example, by the way, is putting chum in the water to cause a shark feeding frenzy and half of the audiences aren't even told that chum's in the water.
PALMERAnd they look at sharks in an -- they see them as menacing and dangerous and man-eating, when, in fact, sharks, if just left alone, are not dangerous to us.
MITTERMEIERChris, can I -- can I -- I'm so sorry, Kojo.
NNAMDIPlease go ahead, Cristina.
MITTERMEIERI was going to ask Chris, but if maybe all of this is a product of, you know, slashed budgets. It's so expensive to go and do these pictures and these films and you have to make things happen. And so maybe photographers...
MITTERMEIER...and filmmakers are being forced.
PALMERYeah. That's a very good point, Cristina. And, you know, on some films like Planet Earth and Blue Planet, the budgets are huge and so they can afford to go out and they do go out for, literally, weeks on end and can get extraordinary footage. Some of our listeners will remember the predation of -- a snow leopard predating on a mountain goat in Planet Earth.
PALMERIt was completely natural. But that's kind of unusual. But Cristina's got a very good point. When budgets are cut -- and they're being cut all the time because, you know, television and documentaries is a money-driven business. And so these networks like Discovery and National Geographic, they're all run by very good people, but they face, you know, natural pressures of budgets being very tight and needing to promote their brands.
PALMERAnd this leads them often, I think, over to cross an ethical line and to get into animal house with an unacceptable audience deception. And this is what we have to fight and push back on.
NNAMDIWe are interested in hearing from you about how nature films, documentaries and others are made. 800-433-8850. Have they made you more conscious of endangered species? How aware are you about what is real and what might be fake? 800-433-9950. Cristina, we got this e-mail from Dennis in Bowie. You may have heard this before. Dennis says, "I think that inserting entirely new images, a full moon, mountains, into an existing image transforms the image from a p-h-o-t-o to a f-a-u-x-t-o."
MITTERMEIERThat's an excellent way of putting it. You know, I think there's a personal compass in all of us that tells us what -- when we've crossed that line. And for me, it's simply you cannot add or remove anything from a photograph. Of course, you can correct the color, you can correct the contrast. But the minute you remove a branch or you add another leopard to the picture, you've crossed a line from photography to photo illustration and that's a different craft.
MITTERMEIERWhen I think -- you know, going back to what Chris said, it's the deception of the public. People are going to stop believing that what they're seeing is true and this happens all the time in newspapers. I think we need to subscribe to higher standards of journalism ethics and, you know, use our personal compass to know when we've crossed that line. And I would discourage photography students from making bad frames and then trying to correct them with Photoshop. That's when the -- that's not what Photoshop is for.
NNAMDIHere is Roger in Germantown, Md. Roger, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROGERThanks, Kojo. I think the finest nature photography I've ever seen is the BBC series "Earth." And one of the things I liked most about it, at the end of each segment, there's a -- or each episode, there's a short segment that shows how the photographers got the shots they did, what they went through and how long it took.
NNAMDIHere's Chris Berman -- Chris Palmer.
PALMERWell, Roger, thanks for pointing that out. Those are behind-the-scene films, aren't they? The trouble with them is they are made by the producers and so they are essentially promos and they reveal the producers and directors of the show to be brave and courageous. So you have to be a little bit skeptical about everything you see in them. They tell you what they want you to know.
PALMERIt doesn't tell you the whole truth. But they are fascinating, and I watch them with great interest myself. But I think it's important to still be a little skeptical.
NNAMDII did watch the Bird (sic) series with great interest myself also. Roger, thank you very much for your call. We move onto Devin in Silver Spring, Md. Devin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEVINThanks, Kojo. And nice to talk to talk to you, Cristina and Chris. I see a lot of conservation photography on a daily basis specific to the ocean. I manage a free ocean conservation photo resource called the Marine Photo Bank. My question starts, doesn't the making of money fundamentally undermine this position against staging and manipulating photos?
DEVINLike in any business, you always have people doing whatever it takes to stay on top. So how do you strike a balance between protecting your livelihood and protecting the wildlife who provide you with that livelihood?
MITTERMEIEROh, that's an excellent question.
MITTERMEIERYou know, I struggle with this question all the time because as photographers, of course we're trying to make a living. And if all you care about is to go out and make a buck, then you're shooting for stock and you really don't care about what happens to the places where you photograph. If, on the other hand, you subscribe to the idea that photographs are powerful tools to conserve the spaces and the species that we care out, then you're not out there to make money.
MITTERMEIERYou're out there to tell stories. And those are funded in different way. We tend to go and get grants and raise money to go and do these larger projects where we are able to not just make beautiful pictures, but make pictures that tell stories. And sometimes those are shocking and they are dramatic.
MITTERMEIERAnd I know Marine Photo Bank and they do a terrific job of showcasing some of the worst issues on the oceans, not just the beautiful reefs and, you know, seemingly healthy oceans when what we really need to be looking at is some of the troubles of our planet. And those are shocking images. They cost money to make and we need to raise money for that.
NNAMDICristina Mittermeier is the president of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Cristina, it's my understanding that your organization is working on ethics standards for photographers.
MITTERMEIERYes, Kojo, we are. You know, and we, of course, cannot go out and police what photographers are doing. All we can do is offer guidelines for how images are credible or not and then the implications. You know, I often worry what happens when a big conservation group publishes an image that they just purchased from a stock agency without knowing how that image was made.
MITTERMEIERAnd in the environmental community, we have been questioned, over the years, about the extent of our claims on environmental ills of our planet. So using images that rely on cheatery, it really, you know, will cause the public to question our credibility as environmentalists as well. So it's important that we know how our images are made and who made them.
NNAMDIChris Palmer, you try to teach your students about ethics in filmmaking. How do you explain the fact that so many of the big films that you yourself worked on use many of the tactics you now object to?
PALMERIt's a bit awkward actually because I am guilty. My book, "Shooting in the Wild," is full of mea culpas, things that I did wrong. I mean, I have used animals from game farms before I knew better. I've used ads to promote my films which shows bears in menacing postures when this is not really their true nature. I've used chum to create shark feeding frenzies. I fabricated sound. I already told you the story of Misty and Echo.
PALMERWe've put killer whale skulls at the bottom of the sea to make it look as though they're naturally there, but we put them there. So I've done lots of things that are wrong. And I think what I'm trying to do now in my teaching is to be truthful, to say where I made mistakes and to say where we should be going in the future.
NNAMDIIs it enough to have it in the credits at the end of the film as some do, saying that the film, quote unquote "employed captive animals"?
PALMERNot really. I mean, the trouble is with still photography, as Cristina can tell you, you can actually label them. This wolf was filmed in the Minnesota Zoo. But when you're showing a film, it's hard to kind of interrupt the flow of the story and say, these are captive animals. There's no easy way to do that. And so it is natural that you might put it at the end, but who reads the credits? No one, you know, except the producer's mother.
PALMERSo I think what I would like to see is more disclaimers at the beginning of the film. It says, you know, the animals -- some of the animals in this film were from humanely-run game farms or whatever the truth is. I mean, tell the truth, you know. The other day I heard of an editing room where they had footage of otters and sharks. The cameraman had not been able to get them in the same shot so they used computers to put otters in the same scene as the sharks to increase the drama and tension.
PALMERYou know, is that ethical? I mean, you're showing something which is not true. It didn't actually happen. And as Cristina mentioned before, once viewers find that out, they will begin to suspect everything you say, even the conservation message. So we have a responsibility, I think, to be more honest and truthful and transparent.
NNAMDIHere is Adam in Rockville, Md. Adam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ADAMYes. Good afternoon. I'm calling -- I'm actually a film major and I work in visual effects in the government and I studied documentary for my major in college. And I'm just calling to say that there's lot of views on the subject and lots of theories coming from, you know, Eisenstein's theory of what is photography, and you're just documenting with a camera. But I would venture to say that people often tune into television just like they do in the movies. They want to be entertained.
ADAMThey're looking for entertainment. And documentaries has crossed over into this genre of fantasy, especially with features like the dinosaurs, where you see these synthetic environments, yet you have paleontologists telling you all these things that are actually true or suggestive of truth. And I agree with the fact that once you manipulate photography, it's no longer a truth of the state of a media.
ADAMBut I would venture to say this. That's actually something that I believe that consumers want. They want to say really nice photo realistic rendered environments with more beautiful than beautiful skies and backgrounds than what a photograph can provide. And I would encourage students to try Photoshop in trying to do these things, but yet have the same grounding and respect to the media that if you're going to be documentary, you have to understand documentarians need to stay to the line.
ADAMYou know, you're photographing something, it's being framed in the context of a script that's founded -- based on truth, you need to stay with that. But if there are certain scenes where you're doing simulations, for example, people put on the bottom of the screen, dramatization, you have some flexibility to use those tools to do some pretty amazing things that will sell eyes and ears. I just wanted to add that.
MITTERMEIEROh, I absolutely agree. And I don't think anybody's objecting to that. I think what we are trying to promote is the idea of truth in captioning and full disclosure so that there is no audience deception. I think that's the main point.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Chris?
PALMERJust also to add to the good point that Cristina just made. The other point is we want to have more attention given to animal welfare.
NNAMDIAnd Chris, you argue that just because it's a nature film, it does not mean it helps promote conservation. By the way, Adam, thank you for your call.
PALMERYes. You know, the role of conservation is very important here. One of the reasons we make these films is to increase people's awareness of the natural world. This is very important at a time when shark populations are plummeting, when we got acidification of the oceans, overfishing, so many problems that are going wrong. We need to -- these films need to have a bigger purpose than simply making money and entertaining people.
PALMERThey need to let people know about the natural order and what's happening to it, the threats to it and what can be done about that. And so there are a lot of films out there that don't promote -- about the natural world, which don't promote conservation. I have a bit of a problem with that. I think these films should do more for conservation.
NNAMDIAt the same time, Cristina, as we're seeing more images of nature on screens and photos, it looks like we're spending less and less time in actual nature.
MITTERMEIERThat's absolutely the truth. And you know, I was going to say that, to me, when looking at a great photograph, I mean, part of the thing that attracts me to a nature image is the adventure behind the making of that image. I want to know what the photographer went through and there's great storytelling there as well. But I have to agree with you. A lot of people are not spending enough time in nature and that is their loss.
MITTERMEIERBut that also means that we're relying on images brought in by these amazing photographers to share the natural world with people who don't have the time or the resources or the inclination to go out and go camping or go hiking, although there is no substitute for that.
PALMEROne of the -- talking about conservation, Kojo, one of the problems is some of these films can actually give a wrong impression. I'm thinking of Blue Planet. It's a very series about the oceans, but have nothing -- no conservation message whatsoever. And a friend of mine, Hardy Jones, was at a fundraising party for the oceans in Los Angeles and a donor came up to him and said, I don't know, Hardy why we are having this fundraiser. I've just been watching Blue Planet, everything is fine. So some of these films can give a wrong impression of the true nature of what's happening out there and that is misleading. I call that audience deception as well.
NNAMDICristina, where do wildlife photos, both the game farm pictures and those taken in the wild, end up?
MITTERMEIERYou know, photographs are used in a variety of ways. Of course, we know about wonderful publications like National Geographic magazine or the BBC. They're used in books and they're, of course, used in places like exhibitions and galleries and museums. And what photographs allow us to do, Kojo, is they allow us to convene audiences around important conservation issues.
MITTERMEIERAnd they allow us to hold conversations with people who care about these things and people who don't know about these things. And, you know, when we talk about captive wildlife, I want to make a little disclaimer and say that there's wonder institutions like zoos and rehabilitation centers that actually care for animals where it's possible to make these images as well. And I would encourage photography students to go to those places, instead of going to game farms.
MITTERMEIERAnd, you know, there's camera clubs and photography associations in the end that can promote or discourage these types of ethical breaches, but first, they need to understand about...
NNAMDIFinally, Chris Palmer, you're a producer who has come clean. You know about many of the tactics because you've used them over the course of your career. But what has been the reaction among documentary film makers to your book?
PALMERIt's been mixed, Kojo. On the one hand, many people are hugely relieved that at last someone on the inside is talking about these issues in a public way. On the other hand, there are some people, for example, who run game farms, who are very upset by my book. I received an e-mail just last week from somebody who called me a parasitic bottom feeder, someone biting the hand that fed that.
MITTERMEIEROh, I've been threatened with being sued, Chris.
PALMERYeah. So some people are upset because I'm rather like the magician giving away the trade secrets and I can understand their feelings. But I think, overall, we are beginning to move in the right direction to have more transparency and more attention to the way animals are treated.
NNAMDIChris Palmer is the director for the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University and author of the book, "Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom." Chris, thank you very much for joining us.
PALMERIt was a pleasure. Lovely to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDICristina Mittermeier is the president of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Cristina, thank you for joining us.
MITTERMEIEROh, it was fun. Thank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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