Going Wild!

Wildlife-MIPTVFeature-417Andy Fry checks in with producers and distributors of wildlife docs about innovations in the genre.

Natural history is a genre that constantly surprises. Just when you think producers have covered every inch of wildlife habitat and behavior, along comes a series that hits new storytelling heights.

In 2016, for example, the BBC Natural History Unit’s Planet Earth II became one of the year’s most acclaimed series. A spectacular exploration of the world’s wildlife, it has rated strongly in every market where it has aired to date. It was BBC One’s highest-rated natural-history documentary in 15 years. In the U.S., on BBC America, it was the most-watched nature program in five years.

“It’s been a huge success,” says Patricia Fearnley, the head of natural history and factual content at BBC Worldwide. “And there are still a lot of territories where it is yet to air. One of the most exciting things about Planet Earth II is the way it became appointment viewing for both families and hard-to-reach young audiences.”

Fearnley attributes the show’s appeal to a number of key factors. “The NHU has always had a reputation for using technology to get as close as possible to animals, and that paid off in Planet Earth II, where you get to see some amazing behavior. The show’s stylistic approach was also important because it told the story from the perspective of the predators and prey. This allowed the audience to become completely immersed in the series.”

The fact that the show was narrated by the comforting voice of wildlife icon David Attenborough was also significant. “I think the show fulfilled a particular need,” Fearnley continues. “Against the backdrop of Brexit and the U.S. Presidential election, it offered some escapism.”

Coming up is another landmark series, Blue Planet II, a BBC Studios NHU production, co-produced with BBC America, WDR and France Télévisions. Attenborough returns to narrate, 16 years after the original Blue Planet aired. “There have been more underwater discoveries in the last ten years than in the previous hundred,” says Fearnley, “because of the advances in diving and camera technology. So there’s never been a better time to deliver a show like this. It’s another example of the NHU constantly raising the bar higher.”

ZDF Enterprises is also looking to push the boundaries with Big Pacific, an NHNZ production premiering at MIPDoc. “Distributing a blue-chip like Big Pacific is always a distributor’s dream,” says Ralf Rückauer, the VP of ZDFE.factual at ZDF Enterprises. I still remember when I saw the first sizzle two years ago. I just couldn’t stop watching it—and I had goosebumps for hours.” The five-parter is a co-production with PBS and CCTV, among other partners.

Like Fearnley, Rückauer stresses the importance of innovation in the genre. “Every time there is a technical innovation providing better pictures, wildlife benefits. There have been various technical inventions over the course of the last few years: HD, 3D, UHD, 4K, VR, drones, HDR (High Dynamic Range), photogrammetry, MPEG-H 3D Audio and so on. Referring specifically to 4K, we see it as a necessary investment to secure sales in the near future. With Big Pacific, Deep Ocean, Senses of Danger: How Animals Can Save the World and Children of the Wild we have four 4K programs in our lineup, with Why Size Matters to follow later.”

Japanese public broadcaster NHK has been at the forefront of innovations in the genre for a number of years. On the subject of 4K, Gen Sasaki, the head of the natural history unit at NHK Enterprises, notes, “We’ve been using 4K in our wildlife documentaries since 2014, ahead of other genres. With the commencement of regular 4K/8K broadcasts starting in 2018, we expect a dramatic increase of 4K program production in the fiscal year 2017. All of our documentary specials will be produced in the 4K format.”

Looking at NHK’s regularly scheduled weekly slots for 2017, for example, 20 out of 45 programs in Nature Wonder Land are produced in the 4K format, says Sasaki. It’s a similar situation with the Wildlife slot (16 out of 30), Four Seasons in Japan (29 out of 35) and Satoyama in Japan (all 32 in 4K). Also, he says, “our new natural-history specials are all produced in 4K. These include Orda Underwater Cave, Deep Ocean, Geo Japan and Mitsuhiko Imamori: Life in Satoyama.”

NHK, of course, is not stopping at 4K. “8K technology, developed by NHK, is gathering great attention in Japan,” says Sasaki. “8K has 16 times higher resolution than the current HD, and four times higher than the 4K format. Together with 22.2 surround sound, we believe 8K technology will be the core of near-future broadcasting, giving viewers a feeling of actually ‘being there.’ Natural-history documentaries are expected to be one of the core contents that will be suitable for this 8K and also giant-screen viewing.”

Significantly, says Sasaki, “The equipment used in 4K filming, such as drones, stabilizers like MoVI—a small, vibration-controlled camera that can be mounted to an animal—and low-light cameras that can film color images under starlight, will eventually be developed to 8K. And so everything that we can do with 4K filming, we are sure we will be able to do with 8K soon.”

Blue Ant International has placed a lot of emphasis on 4K, says Solange Attwood, the company’s senior VP. Its current offering includes 350 hours of 4K nature and wildlife series and, by the end of 2018, it will add almost 500 4K hours to its slate. “Blue Ant International’s catalog includes the first round of deliveries from Blue Ant Media’s Camp Zambia 4K natural-history production project with Plimsoll Productions,” says Attwood. “The Zambia-based production camp is home to a team of the world’s best directors, story producers and wildlife camera operators with a mission to create 50 hours of content under our Love Nature brand.” Aside from 4K, Attwood points to important innovations like HDR content, with Alaskan Summer becoming available at MIPTV.

Everything Terra Mater Factual Studios makes is in 4K “because it future-proofs our archive,” says Sabine Holzer, the company’s head of TV. However, she stresses that it’s important not to let developments in technology drive the creative process. “There are all kinds of new camera technologies that bring us closer to animals, but, for me, the priority is still great storytelling and camera skills. I see real potential in VR for natural history, but the craft will still be important. There’s a lot of bad VR already.” Such was the case with 3D initially, Holzer adds.

On the issue of VR, ZDF Enterprises’ Rückauer says, “We started distributing 360-degree experiences like Volcanos: An Immersive Experience and Children of the Wild. Further clips will be released later this year. We are very excited about VR, which is a new medium that can rival or partner other media like cinema, television, radio and the gaming industry. But we shouldn’t forget that we are in a very early stage. We need to see where it will take us.”

Celine Payot Lehmann, the head of international distribution at ARTE Sales, believes wildlife is an area that lends itself well to VR because of the immersive nature of its subject matter. “ARTE is very active in VR through its ARTE360 app. I can see the opportunity for new kinds of storytelling that will appeal to the education market and museums as well as the at-home audience, which can view content with cheap VR glasses.”

NHK has also begun experimenting with VR, according to Sasaki. “In January 2017, we aired a program about dinosaurs in Nature Wonder Land. The program used CGI to depict the behaviors of dinosaurs, and we made use of this in the VR promo. Also, the VR contents were posted on NHK’s Facebook page and attracted audiences of all ages, especially children. We plan to produce more programs about the ecology of ancient animals using CGI and would like to make use of the CGI for VR promos, as we did for the dinosaur one.”

Based on this experience, NHK would also like to try using VR for its live-action images of wild animals, says Sasaki. “We could take a 360-degree camera to places where animals gather—for example, a colony of seabirds, macaques in an enclosure, snow monkeys in a hot spring, a group of meerkats—and that kind of VR content could be quite powerful in terms of showing our viewers something new in wildlife programming.”

While technological innovation is certainly driving the genre forward, there are plenty of other traits required to get commissioners and buyers to open their wallets. And, as Danny Tipping, the director of programming and development at Sky Vision, explains, “Audiences have very sophisticated tastes, so if you are going to get involved in a blue-chip project, you have to make sure it is genuinely groundbreaking. Projects like Planet Earth II require a lot of resources, so they don’t come along often.”

Tipping says Sky Vision’s portfolio at the top end of the market has included Snow Monkeys, a PBS production that followed a group of snow monkeys in Japan’s Shiga Highlands. “That show was four years in the making. It was a fantastic production that sold really well. The issue with natural history is that a lot of behavior has been seen before, so you either back a show that contains something completely new or one that uses innovations in production technology to get closer than ever to the animals.”

ARTE’s Payot Lehmann mentions the newly recorded behaviors on display in Into the Shark Pack, a 90-minute special that explores remarkable shark behavior in the seas around Polynesia. “We are looking for presales on this project. It revolves around a team of world-class divers and scientists who have discovered the largest grouping of sedentary sharks in the world. In the film, they dive among the sharks and capture amazing night-time behavior. We have the added advantage that the same director [Gil Kebaili] has already made The Marbled Grouper Mystery, an award-winning film looking at unusual grouper fish behavior in Polynesia. That production sold to key broadcasters, including NHK in Japan.”

BBC Worldwide’s Fearnley acknowledges that it’s not possible to bring an event like Planet Earth II to the market every year. “But we are in the fortunate position of having a steady supply of superb wildlife shows. For example, we are currently promoting Spy in the Wild, the latest series in John Downer’s award-winning Spy franchise.”

Downer’s approach is to use robotic animals (known as Spy Creatures) to achieve an in-depth look at unsuspecting animals. In this show, his most ambitious to date, he deploys more than 30 spies. “By doing so, he is able to show how animals mirror humans in terms of love, intelligence, friendship and mischief,” says Fearnley.

ZDF Enterprises also benefits from having a diverse wildlife slate, Rückauer adds. “We are the only distributor with a wildlife catalog focusing on European wildlife and nature. And we benefit from building large sales packages with our Nature Now! brand.” The company is also bringing to MIPTV releases from Jörn Röver’s Studio Hamburg DocLights such as Wild Spain, South Africa and Germany’s Underworld; the Gruppe 5 production Ocean Heroines; and WildBear’s The Amazon of the East and Animals That Changed History.

Terra Mater Factual Studios generally focuses on blue-chip miniseries, Holzer notes. “Three parts is probably our preferred length, but sometimes stories need to be told across four or five episodes. We don’t ever go above six episodes because that is more difficult for broadcasters to schedule.”

In the experience of ARTE’s Payot Lehmann, singles and series can both sell well, though the latter tend to be more magazine-led and are usually more suitable for daytime scheduling.

Sky Vision markets several shows with more of a magazine feel. “We have a family series called Zoo Juniors that is now in its seventh season,” Tipping explains. “It’s produced by a German company at Berlin Zoo and sells well for us on the international market.” Also at the magazine end of Sky Vision’s content market is Caught in the Act, an Aquavision production that has created a TV franchise out of the kind of footage usually seen on social media.

Blue Ant’s Attwood says there is room in the market both for singles and longer-run productions and has found strong demand for “character-driven stories about specific animal behaviors. Growing Up Wild is a prime example of a character-driven story line. Great Blue Wild, meanwhile, follows a colorful array of species as they are born, mature and have families of their own.”

Blue Ant International has also identified buyer interest in hybrid genres, says Attwood. “We see an influx of nature content mixed with science and history.”

For NHK Enterprises, the strongest seller is the long-running series Wildlife, which now has over 100 episodes, Sasaki says. “Some of the signatures of this series are footage shot over the long term, never-before-seen visual expressions using the latest equipment, and innovative storytelling from unique viewpoints.” Sasaki says there will be new episodes at MIPTV, “including the story of the battle of lions and hyenas in the African savanna. More than a half of our new episodes are filmed in 4K, and its amazing Ultra HD images give you a front-row seat to get views of the dwarf mongooses in the African savanna, gharials from the Himalayas in Nepal, and the flightless cormorant in the Galapagos Islands.”

At MIPCOM 2016, ORF’s commercial arm, ORF-Enterprise, secured sales for titles such as Garden Wild! (RTL Germany) and Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib (Thai PBS Thailand). In addition, TVE Spain acquired a package that included Making an Ancient Forest and Vanishing Kings (an HD co-pro involving Interspot Film, ARTE and Smithsonian, among others). Marion Camus-Oberdorfer, the head of content sales international at ORF-Enterprise, says 2016 was an exceptionally satisfying year that offered “more and more opportunities in the nonlinear business.” Illustrating the point, she says Amazon Prime in the U.S., U.K. and Japan has added more than 30 new ORF titles to its offerings.

On the issue of whether broadcasters prefer presenters, the consensus is that they’re usually not needed—though the BBC’s Attenborough is a famous exception. “The appeal of presenters is always difficult to predict in advance,” ARTE’s Payot Lehmann says. “You just don’t know who the audience is going to like. If you are going to use a presenter, I think English-speaking is probably the best idea, and someone who really gets involved with the subject.”

In the post-standard definition world, wildlife docs don’t date quickly, “which is one reason why we tend to prefer non-presenter-led programming,” Sky Vision’s Tipping says. “Animals don’t wear flares. That said, presenter-led shows work in some markets, so there’s always an option of making two different versions.”

Others take a similar view to Tipping on the issue of presenters. “We think it depends on the target audiences,” says NHK Enterprises’ Sasaki. “If the program is targeted to those audiences who love authentic natural-history documentaries, we don’t think a presenter is needed. On the other hand, if the program is trying to appeal to a wider audience, including those that are not necessarily interested in wildlife, it may be a good idea to use a presenter.”

Terra Mater’s Holzer agrees that presenter-less wildlife tends to be most in demand. “But there are situations where using a presenter is right for a specific project. We made a show on bioluminescence with David Attenborough. He was exactly the right person to make a complex subject simple to understand and stimulating for the audience. We’re working with him on another project [Ant Mountain] now that looks at colonies of ants.”

She also cites examples of shows where the onscreen talent is part of the story. “We’re making a one-hour special [From Cubs to Kings] with South Africa-based conservationist Kevin Richardson, about his efforts to save two lion cubs that have been tortured. We’ve worked with Kevin before, but he is not a presenter, he is part of the story.”

For Rückauer at ZDF Enterprises, “A presenter can help sell a program—provided they are a big name. I like celebrity-led series like In The Wild [with Julia Roberts and others] that Tigress Productions released two decades ago. But in
80 percent of cases, clients just want to go for a presenter-free wildlife program. If you are able to show the pure beauty of mother nature, why include human beings?”

Pictured: ZDF Enterprises’ Big Pacific.