Natural-history programmes are kings of the televisual jungle. But are they telling the whole story?
You might say that René Araneda owes his career to a puma cub born without a tail. In 2012 the Chilean film-maker came across the bundle of tawny fluff – with its mother and sibling – in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine national park. In what was his first big commission, Animal Planet, a television channel, charged him with turning the footage into a one-hour special. He calls it “the game changer”.
More than 10 years later, Araneda, an independent film-maker, has directed and produced films, episodes and sequences for clients including Netflix, the bbc and National Geographic. He has navigated the wilds of Chile to capture footage of flamingos, blue whales and guanacos –camelids with long eyelashes that are part of the same family as llamas. And he’s stuck with pumas, filming a family in their den for Netflix’s Night on Earth series, and following several through Torres del Paine for Into the Puma Triangle. “My favourite place on Earth is Torres del Paine,” says Araneda. “It’s the place that opened my eyes and made me fight to be a wildlife film-maker. When I die I want my ashes to be scattered there.” Whether they’re filming feathers, fins or teeth in oceans, rainforests or tundras, such zeal is common among those working in this industry.
Increasingly, that enthusiasm is shared by audiences. No longer the preserve of yawn-inducing Saturday afternoon television, natural-history documentaries are more popular than ever. This shift arguably started in 2016 with the remarkable success of Planet Earth II, a big-budget bbc epic narrated by David Attenborough. Each episode amassed more than 12 million viewers in the UK and almost three million in the US. And the popularity of the genre continued in 2020 when My Octopus Teacher became an unexpected hit.
Hottest species: Big cats; sharks; predators generally (“Americans love teeth,” says Köhler); penguins; dolphins.
Hardest sell: Bats. “Always – not only since coronavirus,” says Köhler.
Most popular location: “Africa is still a powerful pull,” says Gunton.
Next frontier: Oceans. “They’re unexplored; there are unknown species and behaviour that has never been seen before,” says Araneda.
That these programmes were available to watch on Netflix is no coincidence. The evolution of the natural-history documentary industry owes much to streaming services, with Apple TV, Amazon Prime and Disney+ also releasing an ark’s worth of shows. The fact that “super-duper blue-chip” wildlife productions are in the mix of Netflix offerings rather than confined to nature broadcast and cable channels means that they are “bolted onto the zeitgeist,” says Peter Hamilton, editor and publisher of the Documentary Business newsletter. As well as opening up the genre to a younger audience, he says, the heavy promotion of premium wildlife shows by the streaming platforms means that there is generally “more awareness of natural history”. Today these shows can inspire the sort of fervour associated more with Spiderman than spiders.
Nature programmes hold many attractions for viewers. They are a balm in tough times – least of all during the pandemic – offering both escapism and perspective as they transport us to lands where animals, oblivious to humanity’s problems, go about their daily business – mainly trying to not be eaten. Plus, as concern about the effects of climate change escalates, the shows educate us about the state of the planet and are therefore often imbued with a certain poignancy.
Look who’s talking
Many people associate nature productions with the honeyed tones of David Attenborough but how important is a narrator to a show’s overall success? According to Walter Köhler, founder and ceo of Terra Mater, not very. “Attenborough is a big exception,” he says. Although in the past there have been prominent nature presenters in Germany (Heinz Sielmann and Bernhard Grzimek) and France (Nicolas Hulot, who went on to become the country’s environment minister), they’re unknown outside their home markets. Because narration is often added by national broadcasters, the person behind the voice is not a matter of particular concern to the programme’s creators. “Even if it’s a famous person, when you change the language, you lose them,” says Araneda. “And there are more than 200 languages. For marketing, it’s important at a certain level but your film has to survive because of a story, not a voice.”
“In the past four or five years the appetite for natural history has blossomed, particularly in the US,” says Mike Gunton, the creative director of bbc’s Natural History Unit (bbc nhu) in Bristol. The bbc nhu, the world’s most storied nature-film creator, recently made headlines when it announced that it will be opening a studio in Los Angeles in 2021. The logic is clear: many streaming platforms, with whom the bbc nhu is increasingly collaborating, are headquartered in California. “There is appetite for big, ambitious projects and those resources are available in that part of the world,” says Gunton. Whether it’s exploring digital options or experimenting with shorter formats, he believes that the landscape is “going to change significantly over the next five years”. “We need to have some presence where that is happening to be able to respond quickly,” he adds.
“One of the growing trends is identifying exactly what change you’re hoping to inspire and integrating that campaign into every piece of the production”
But that’s unlikely to mean conjuring up a hit show at speed: nature productions usually involve playing the long game. It’s a fairly tight-knit industry, comprised of the bbc nhu and a cluster of other Bristol-based firms, big producers and networks such as Austria’s Terra Mater Factual Studios and US-based National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Smithsonian; the streaming services; regional public broadcasters; and independent film-makers across the globe. Historically, it has been dominated by a handful of firms because creating nature documentaries is a complicated, expensive and highly specialised undertaking.
Costly and ever-more-advanced gear – drones, long-lens cameras and stabilisers – is required to capture that smooth overhead shot of a migrating herd of wildebeest or zero in on a tiger’s iris. And obtaining the necessary footage is, notoriously, a test of endurance. “If you fall under 100 or 200 shooting days for an hour of publishable content, you’re lucky,” says Walter Köhler, founder and ceo of Terra Mater. “Teams are out there for unbelievably long times. In 24 hours a lion is active for four; you are sitting doing nothing for 20 hours a day,” he says, grinning. Weather adds problems: in snowy mountains, or on blustery seas, visibility is an issue. That is partly why sunny Africa is such an attractive option for productions. All that time in the field means that, according to Köhler, producing a good blue-chip programme “for less than €400,000 is nearly impossible and super blue-chip production, like the episodes for [Netflix show] Our Planet might go up to something like £3m [€3.3m].” But with good execution and intelligent distribution, this is a lucrative business. In terms of revenue, television and streaming platforms are “much more important” than cinemas, says Köhler. And because nature is the only documentary genre that is “absolutely universal” – animals aren’t confined to one language – films and shows can be distributed anywhere, making for a highly efficient model. (This doesn’t apply to productions for streaming platforms which tend to involve exclusive rights.) Terra Mater always creates one version with an English-speaking host and one with none. “The only thing you have to do is add your narrator and, suddenly, everybody in the world is understanding,” he says. “In no other business is it that easy.” He likens hit nature productions to “a blockbuster franchise,” with play across platforms, dvd versions and spin-off soundtracks, merchandising and child-related entertainment.
In addition to commissions for big studios, independent film-makers produce and syndicate their own films to boost income. “Our own films are not Planet Earth III but they’re good enough to be distributed,” says Araneda, explaining that for an hour of footage, “maybe one country pays $5,000 [€4,117], another $10,000 [€8,238] and another $20,000 [€16,477].” He likens films to songs, in that film-makers receive royalties every time their work is sold, if they own it. “It’s a good business if you know how to manage the various options.”
“The ones that we really need to get through to are those who live next to these animals. They’ve had an ancient relationship with nature and it’s prudent for them to protect that in the future”
Some creatures, such as sharks, big cats (especially cubs), penguins and certain cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are fail-safe options. But a great nature film does more than document animal behaviour; it puts its subjects in a broader context and has a clear goal. “A growing trend is identifying exactly what change you’re hoping to inspire and integrating that campaign into every piece of the production,” says Lisa Samford, executive director of Wyoming-based wilderness film festival Jackson Wild. For some viewers, being informed about issues is, itself, a step in the right direction. Yet increasingly the point is to inspire actual change – in viewers, governments and corporations.
“It’s a finely adjusted knob on the dial because people come to these programmes for a number of reasons,” says Gunton. “Part of it is to enjoy the wonder of the natural world. There’s lots of internal debate about the ratios of [providing] wonder to identifying the challenges. Some advocates say that natural history should only be talking about the climate crisis; I don’t share that view. If you just talk about problems, audiences can feel frustrated.” But because of the numbers of eyeballs they draw, he accepts that such programmes can be a “powerful tool” to help shift behaviour.
Sometimes the effect of a film is clear. Terra Mater has created the role of “impact producer” on its productions, and two of its thriller-style documentaries have prompted government action. As a result of 2016’s Ivory Game, China banned its legal ivory trade. And after Sea of Shadows, about the illegal trading of the tiny vaquita porpoise by Chinese mafia and Mexican cartels, most of the criminals involved were jailed.
Köhler says that the industry needs to not only feature environmentally conscious stories but reduce its own carbon footprint. This means flying crew around the world less and working with talent in the locations that are being covered – a practice that has been encouraged as borders have closed during the pandemic. This means more stories from people like Fiona Tande. In 2020 the 33-year-old Kenyan produced and directed Enanyokie, a short film about Maasai people and their relationship with nature and the colour red. She also founded Pridelands Films, a platform connecting Kenyan film-makers with big-budget studios. “There’s a need for a film agency that represents the locals,” says Tande. “[Overseas companies] kept using non-Kenyans who set up in Kenya; it was frustrating.”
Tande is Maasai and says that, having always lived “among this wildlife,” she and her compatriots have access to stories that foreigners do not. She wants her films to resonate with African audiences, who are often overlooked. “The Western audience is very much in love with wildlife,” she says. “The ones that we really need to get through to are those who live next to these animals. They’ve had an ancient relationship with the natural world but the new generation is mostly disconnected to nature; it’s prudent for them to protect that in the future.”
When asked why it’s tricky to inspire action in audiences, she blanches. “It’s not really difficult but for a long time we’ve had blue-chip series that only told the stories of the animals and removed the people,” she says. “If you show the connection we have to wildlife, you tap into another level. I’m looking to encourage the human stories of wildlife – because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”