20 May 2007

How to Make a Good Nature Documentary

Today, the Discovery Channel has been airing the BBC series Planet Earth. I had heard about the series before, but I'd been skeptical: it couldn't really be as good as everyone claimed it was, could it? Turns out that yes, it is. Here's why:
  • As the narrator is never tired of reminding you, the cinematography in the series is nothing short of stunning. There are gorgeous landscape shots (like a top-down view of Angel Falls and a flyby of a fog-shrouded coastal forest right here in the Northwest), close-ups catching animal behavior "in the act" (like macaques diving for food in Indonesia or the mating display of a bird of paradise), or - best of all - combinations of the two (the most spectacular example being a snow leopard hunt on a sheer cliff face in the Himalayas). The producers also do a great job of using slow-motion footage (of a great white shark leaping to catch a seal, for example) and stop-motion (to show a sunflower sea star chasing brittle stars across the California seafloor).
  • Many nature documentaries focus on one individual or group. While this might make for a good story-line, it also opens the door for anthropomorphism and presents logistical problems (one documentary on baboons is notorious for having used five or six other individuals stand-ins for the "main character," of which they just didn't have enough footage). Planet Earth takes a much more holistic approach, with each episode focusing on an entire biome. While much of the documentary is still devoted to animals, other organisms get plenty if air time as well, as does the physical environment itself.
  • The producers aren't afraid to show "nature, red in tooth an claw." It's always annoyed me that most documentaries will show only the appealing bits of the natural world, cutting away from footage hunts just before the kill, for example. Planet Earth, on the other hand, doesn't skimp on the carnage, whether it's a chimp cannibalizing an infant from another troop or a parasitic fungus erupting out of the head of an ant (in stop-motion, no less). It may be gruesome to some people's eyes, but a documentary that shows only those aspects of the natural world that they think viewers will want to see are, at best, telling only half the story.
  • Many nature documentaries also like to drive home their conservation message with a sledgehammer. I'm as pro-conservation as the next guy, but finger-pointing and guilt-mongering are annoying at best, and more commonly are entirely counterproductive. Planet Earth most certainly has the same goal, but it is much more nuanced and subtle about it. One of the producers stated that the aim of the program was to show people that there are still places out there worth saving, and there can be no doubt that Planet Earth does so masterfully. It would take a truly hard-hearted person to watch this and not be moved on some level, and to paraphrase the old adage, there is no better way to inspire conservation efforts than to first inspire appreciation.