Ben Sledge 25th October 2017
Earlier this week, we discovered that parts of the new series of Blue Planet, the BBC nature documentary narrated by Britain’s favourite naturalist Sir David Attenborough, had been filmed in laboratories rather than in the wild. While this could seem like a con bigger than the Italian Job, there is more to the story than immediately meets the eye.
As expected, very little of the programme was not filmed on location, and, without wishing to cause offense to either the tiger mantis shrimp or one certain piece of coral, the most exciting and/or memorable parts of the series are not those that have been recreated. The section where they filmed close-up footage of coral bleaching was filmed in a lab because the effect they wanted to show was so microscopic that it was impractical to film in the wild.
What difference does it make if the Fangtooth was filmed on board a research vessel rather than in its natural habitat?
Blue Planet has always utilised cutting edge equipment and constantly innovates new ways to film never-seen-before creatures for our viewing pleasure, so what difference does it make to you or I if the Fangtooth was filmed on board a research vessel rather than in its natural habitat of the depths of the ocean, so far down that there is no light? I’d prefer to see a crystal clear image of it swimming, as if in the wild but actually on a boat, than struggle to see it do the same thing in the actual ocean, but on a dark, low-quality film because of the lack of light.
Additionally, it is nothing less than the duty of wildlife filmmakers to preserve and protect the habitats and creatures that they film. The creators found that filming rock pools would disturb the wildlife too much if they were to get the close-ups that they wanted, so they painstakingly recreated the pools in a lab in Vancouver. It is also worth noting that at every recreation, at least six professional scientific advisors were present, in order to maintain accuracy.
More than 6,000 hours of footage were filmed on location in the wild, versus minutes of close-up and microscopic footage which was filmed carefully and accurately in a lab.
TV and film has a long history of faking animal behaviour for the sake of entertainment, so it’s unsurprising people are a bit touchy about the subject of misrepresentation. The Disney documentary White Wilderness from 1958 is a perfect, if horrifying, example of this. Thousands of lemmings were deliberately drowned by film crews who couldn’t get footage of the furry creatures throwing themselves off cliffs (which we now know is because they don’t do that). The film won an Oscar and was only exposed as fake in 1982.
It would be nothing short of hypocritical to endanger anything or anyone while filming the programme
If the safety of both the creatures in front of the camera and the crew behind it could be at risk, it’s important to ensure the welfare of both by whatever means. With episodes showing the effects of global warming and plastic pollution, it would be nothing short of hypocritical to endanger anything or anyone while filming the programme.
The executive producer of Blue Planet, James Honeyborne, insisted to BBC News that viewers were not being misled, and that “the vast majority of our audience prefer for us not to ‘break the spell’ in the commentary”. While this may well be the case, I might argue that it is important for the viewer to know if a shot was filmed in controlled conditions rather than the wild oceans, whether this be via a subtitle or Sir David’s calming narration. Perhaps the viewers don’t want to be told if some shots are not as “real” as they might think, but they deserve to know nonetheless. I highly doubt that this knowledge would impact the viewer’s experience to such an extent that they would stop enjoying the visual extravaganza given to them every Sunday night. After all, you can take the filming out of the sea, but you can never take the magic out of a David Attenborough documentary.
Ben Sledge 25th October 2017