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Life on stage

Richard Bray, President of the Natural History Society, relays his interview with Simon Bell from the BBC


With the latest BBC blockbuster documentary series, Blue Planet II, set to grace our screens this autumn, I found myself wondering how such series’ are made and produced. Such intrigue led to a very fortunate interview with the BBC producer, and Exeter alum, Simon Bell, regarding his work on the BBC series ‘Hidden Kingdoms’.

Having a chance to speak to Simon led to an interesting discussion about one of the biggest controversies surrounding modern documentary production; the debate between factual vs. fake footage. Now, when I say fake, I don’t mean to conjure Trump-like-associations of deliberate misinformation for some darker purpose, but instead reference a necessity to stage footage due to the difficulty, or danger, in obtaining the real thing. For example, one of the most notable instances of controversy surrounding staged footage was that of a particular scene in Frozen Planet, whereby a seemingly wild Polar bear family unit was filmed sleeping, when, in reality, it was shot in a Dutch zoo. Such faking, however, was deemed necessary due to the rather obvious risks of filming, and potentially waking, a defensive, half-tonne, brooding, apex predator.

‘I would argue the benefits of using staged environments really outweighs the criticisms it has unjustly received’

As Simon went on to discuss, danger in filming is not the only consideration that goes into staging footage, with programs such as ‘Hidden Kingdoms,’ actively staging footage so as to capture behaviors that would otherwise be impossible to film in the wild. In charge of the production of episode one, Simon chose to venture to the African Savanna to capture the secretive and speedy life of four diminutive, and particularly endearing, elephant shrews. This little long-nosed rodent lives its life scurrying along and maintaining manicured grassland tracks, delicately removing obstacles such as pebbles and overhanging blades of grass, so as to maintain unimpeded access through its network of paths. The maintenance of these networks allows for easy access to food that is unfortunate enough to crawl or fall into the shrew’s paths, whilst also providing unobstructed routes to flee from potential predators at speeds in excess of 30km/h – a reflex that makes filming them in their natural habitat impossible.

The impossibility of filming this enigmatic little subject led to Simon and his team constructing a grassland environment of their own, thereby allowing them to shoot the scene they needed within the confines of a controlled environment. This process involved painstakingly planting the grassland habitat by hand, landscaping the tracks for the shrews to use, and placing cameras at specific angles to capture them, all within the confines of a raised board. Thankfully, the four subjects took to this staged environment like ducks to water, with the team even dropping small objects into the set just to observe their natural tendency to tidy and maintain their tracks (an experience that Simon described as being one of his most rewarding to date).

Elephant shrew. Source: flickr

Beyond allowing the capture of these unseen behaviors, the benefits of filming in controlled environments also allows for the dramatization of natural history; an aspect that Simon feels is particularly important, but has also been slightly overlooked. Dramatisation within natural history documentaries, although previously a lesser consideration, seems to be on the up, with BBC worldwide even recruiting a Pixar employee to consult with the Hidden Kingdoms team during pre-production. With dramatisation becoming more important, the use of staged environments also seems to be on the rise, with the benefits of having a controlled environment allowing for a degree of forethought and planning with a narrative in mind, thus allowing for the improved communication of “tricky scientific ideas in a manner that is visually stimulating.”

In short, although the use of staged environments has drawn scorn in recent years due to its alleged dishonesty, I would argue the benefits of using staged environments really outweighs the criticisms it has unjustly received. Through using staged environments natural history filmmaking has been able to diversify, itself thereby capturing previously unseen behaviours and presenting the natural world in an engaging medium.

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