Video Ethics by David Attenborough


This short article is an excerpt from the famous David Attenborough. I post it here because I can’t find it anywhere else on the web and I think it’s a great read, especially for us wildlife filmmakers.

Natural history filmmakers should be allowed to manipulate images but not distort the truth

by David Attenborough

Do natural history programs on television distort reality? Of course they do. Go for a walk in a tropical rainforest after watching a program about one and you will be in no doubt of that. On television, all kinds of animals appeared continuously all over the place.

In reality, you may be lucky to see a single bird or monkey. But are there distortions that are more serious than that? Does it matter that a program about the life of a polar bear, filmed for the most part in the Arctic, includes shots of a mother bear giving birth that were taken in a zoo – and that the commentary did not say so? That depends on the program. If the program claimed to be recording the actual adventures of an Arctic explorer then that would clearly be wrong. But if its aim was to document the life history of the polar bear then I believe that could be acceptable. Filming a polar bear birth in the wild is virtually impossible. Trying to do so might well endanger the lives of both the cameraman and the cub, were the mother to be disturbed. So the only way to include shots of that crucial event in a bear’s life is to film it in captivity.

Is it acceptable – on occasion – to use film to suggest that something happened which did not? Sometimes it is. That swoop by a peregrine falcon did not, in fact, result in the death of a grouse. The puff of feathers rising into the sky was thrown into the air by one of the film crew. With such a shot at his disposal the skillful film editor was able to create a sequence representing a successful peregrine hunt – without it costing the life of a bird. But such stagings must be done with care. Sometimes, a film shows an event that not only did not take place on that occasion, but has never happened – ever. The most notorious example comes not from television but from the cinema.
Producers working for Disney in the years when the organization regularly produced natural history documentaries, made a film about the Arctic. Its highlight was a sequence featuring lemmings. Every few years, according to a widely-believed story, lemming numbers increase to such an extent that the animals, swarming over the tundra, eventually deliberately commit suicide by swimming out to sea and drowning themselves .

So the Disney film team working in northern Canada paid local children to collect live lemmings. A few dozen were then taken down to an enclosure on the banks of a river and filmed in such a way that the few dozen appeared to be a plague. They were then chivvied until they came to the edge of a river bank and tumbled over it into the water. And the

film-makers had their sequence. But two things were wrong. First the lemmings that gave rise to the story were not Canadian ones but a quite different species that occurs in Scandinavia. And second the story is, in any case, a myth.

Populations of Scandinavian lemmings in some years, do vastly increase in numbers. And then they do indeed start searching for food with such desperation that they will occasionally swim across rivers. But they don’t commit suicide at sea. None the less, the film gave such a convincing portrayal of the story that many still believe it – on this

evidence alone.

The need for such tricks has, over the years, become less and less. Lenses have become more powerful. The large film cameras driven by clockwork that we had to use a few decades ago have been replaced by electronic cameras, some no bigger than a lipstick that can be strapped to an eagle’s back or lowered down a mouse-hole. We can now, with infra-red light, record what goes on in what appears to both animals and ourselves to be total darkness. But, paradoxically, these huge advances in our ability to record reality have coincided with other developments that enable us to falsify more convincingly than ever.

Just as computer imaging can bring long-extinct dinosaurs back to life, so the same techniques could also make living animals appear to do things that a cameraman failed to film in reality – maybe because he was unlucky or because, in spite of what some book said, the animal in fact never behaves that way.

We can now combine pictures so perfectly that a natural history presenter could appear to be crouching within a yard of a ferocious animal that he has never ever seen. That has not happened yet – as far as I know. It would be nice to say that if you or I looked closely enough we could spot it. But electronic techniques are now so ingenious that such deceptions could be almost undetectable.

In these circumstances, television producers and the organizations which transmit their work have to guard their reputations for honesty with greater care than ever. The BBC Natural History Unit already has a code governing the treatment of animals during filming. The welfare of the subject is more important than the success of the film. There should be no lighting that makes it easier for one animal to hunt another. It also lays down rules about deceptions. Telling the story of an animal identified as an individual but using shots of several is now impermissible. Other tricks and techniques we have used
in the past, no matter how well-intentioned, are no longer acceptable.
And quite right too. The natural world contains enough astonishment. Who would believe that spiders throw silken lassos at their prey, that dolphins work in well-drilled teams to drive fish up on to a mud bank, that baby shrews dance the conga with their mother in the lead to make sure they don’t get lost.

“But we saw that in a program the other night” some will say. Let’s not get to the stage when someone else can reply, “You don’t want to believe what you see on the telly – even in natural history programs.”

As film-makers trying to illuminate the natural world, we must be allowed to manipulate images and use all the devices that recent technological advances have given us. But we must also recognize our responsibilities to scientific truth. The events and the creatures we chronicle are more than just entertainment that can be jazzed up to taste.

Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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