New narrative and production techniques are being used in wildlife filmmaking, with messages of conservation front and center.
With its ability to bring viewers up close and personal with mighty jungle animals, endearing woodland creatures, terrifying ocean predators and awe-inspiring insects alike, nature programming has long been a solid draw with audiences. But the days of a narrator quietly whispering over delicate images of elephants drinking from a waterhole have given way to something much more dynamic. Today’s popular wildlife programs are bigger, bolder and more ambitious than the genre has ever been. And rightfully so, as the messages they can carry are pressing to be heard in this time of environmental threat and looming extinctions.
“As a genre, natural history is going from strength to strength,” says Patricia Fearnley, the head of natural history, unscripted and content partnerships at BBC Studios. “It used to be seen as attracting only the older demographic, but since Planet Earth II, younger audiences and families have been coming to natural history in a way we haven’t seen before.”
While the images themselves have always been arresting, it’s become more imperative nowadays that the stories are too. “Natural-history content is more character-driven than it was five or ten years ago,” Fearnley says. “We are far more likely to care about an individual animal with relatable characteristics rather than a generic group of animals.”
Narratives around climate change, carbon emissions and environmental issues at large are now “inevitably woven into most natural-history content,” she adds. “Even five years ago, that is something that would have been less palatable to audiences. It’s now an expectation. It’s virtually impossible to tell a story about the natural world without illustrating how behavior has changed in response to the changing environment.”
Indeed, there has been a rise in green thinking all across the world, “in particular by the younger generation,” says Anne Olzmann, managing director of Albatross World Sales. “People have become more environmentally conscious and thus are more interested in seeing what is going on on our planet, what it has to offer and what is at stake. So, there is an even higher need for wildlife and nature programming at the moment.”
Olzmann believes that with the current environmental movement, “the C-word”—meaning conservation—is no longer a no-go. “Five years ago, we had buyers who were only looking for beautiful landscape films where the story didn’t really matter, and especially environmental issues did not work for them,” she explains. “Since this has now changed, we’ve been doing really well with wildlife films that feature a conservation story.”
“Humankind’s future on our planet Earth is undoubtedly at stake, and we as a media industry bear a specific responsibility by covering the diversity of life,” says Armin Luttenberger, the head of content sales international at ORF-Enterprise. “By presenting high-quality documentaries in the field of nature and wildlife to the public, viewers all over the world experience the flora and fauna regardless if it’s right on their doorstep or in faraway places. We are raising awareness about the fragile balance of nature, not only by showing its beauty but also by acknowledging our responsibility in preserving it for future generations.”
Ralf Rückauer, ZDF Enterprises’ VP of ZDFE.unscripted, agrees that there’s been a shift in how people view wildlife and nature, and this is being reflected back in natural-history programming. “The perspective has dramatically changed from just saying, yes the Earth is nice and we love cute animals,” he says. “Now, we’re shifting in another direction, where we really think about the state of our Mother Earth and almost worship it.
“On the other side, people are a little bit fed up with all of the climate-change discussions,” he continues. “So, we have to balance that. The question is more, can people learn while they watch TV programming about wildlife, nature and the changes that humankind has brought to the Earth?”
Céline Payot-Lehmann, head of international distribution at ARTE France, also acknowledges that wildlife programs should help promote ecological messages, “but it has to stay entertaining,” she cautions. “You don’t want to overwhelm or depress the viewer. The way you can do that is to show the beauty of nature, what’s fascinating about it. We need to say what the problem is, but also what the solution is, or at least say what is being done, keeping a positive take on things.”
Payot-Lehmann emphasizes that it’s important to have a strong story at the heart of the program. “It’s not just about putting your camera up and watching nature,” she says. “There has to be a story—a beginning, middle and ending, with a storyline that gets viewers attached.”
Backing that up with science is also increasingly crucial, she adds. “There has to be scientific facts and a scientific base.”
For as much as narrative techniques are evolving, technological advancements have had an even greater impact on the natural-history genre. Albatross’ Olzmann is particularly enthused by the new low light/high ISO cameras, which can capture animal behavior in twilight and even almost complete darkness.
And while she admits that the move from HD to 4K has been a bit slow on the broadcaster side, Olzmann asserts that for wildlife, it is the way forward. “I strongly recommend any producers to produce in 4K now, as this will become the standard in the next year or two. Since it usually takes several years to finish a film, it is important to keep up with the latest technology as it gives you more possibilities to sell the film afterward. There are more and more buyers now who will only buy 4K, while others prepare to test 8K.”
“Every time there has been a next-step scenario, like with the move to HD, for example, people have gotten more interested in wildlife—the same is true with 4K,” says ZDF Enterprises’ Rückauer. “Now we have 8K around the corner, so people are looking at nature again because there are all these beautiful pictures and they are getting even more detailed than ever before. Plus, there’s HDR, and this is very interesting.”
Heat-sensitive cameras, drones and stabilized rigs are all part of the filmmaking arsenal helping to capture new angles and get closer than ever to the action. The MoVI Pro stabilizer used on BBC Studios’ Planet Earth II, for example, gave viewers an on-the-shoulder perspective. “The intimacy this added to the series was tangible,” says Fearnley. “Seven Worlds, One Planetused this same technology alongside some incredible advances in drones, which meant they could fly longer in the air, to places further away and with far more accuracy. They were also much quieter, meaning so much more could be shot with them, offering a perspective we hadn’t had previously.”
Of course, none of this comes cheap, making co-productions necessary. Most of the wildlife films in Albatross’ catalog have been commissioned or co-produced by German and international partners, according to Olzmann. “With lower budgets from the broadcasters’ side, it is now crucial to get more than one partner on board to get a project off the ground, and with the needs of different partners, it takes some time to get the financing.”
Bigger budgets mean shows can be more ambitious, which is essential for cutting through in the market today. “The times are over when you can just show beautiful pictures of the planet and be happy with that,” Rückauer asserts. “You have to do more because people have a different perspective now. One way could be that you become a little bit more political and really make a statement about extinction or hunting animals. On the other side of that spectrum, it can be more about the personal involvement and relationship; you could show people who are trying to preserve animals of any kind of species around the world. The connection, or really the reconnection, with nature is more and more in the foreground.”