With Bristol’s Wildscreen Festival in full swing, Jon Creamer finds that natural history TV is reaching new audiences with fresh storytelling techniques while staying at the forefront of production technology
For a long time, back in the ‘golden age’, natural history television was synonymous with the blue chip and the behavioural. ‘No people’ natural history was the form that most viewers would think of when they thought about wildlife telly.
Fast-forward to the present day and natural history TV covers a lot more ground. The blue chip still exists, and has pushed its production values further and further into the stratosphere with every new landmark show, making sure it’s at the forefront of each advance in production technology from HD, to 3D to 4K and from time lapse to slo-mo to low light.
But natural history TV means many more things now as viewers and channels demand a greater variety of formats and producers borrow from different genres to come up with new forms of wildlife shows.
The move of natural history into new storylines and structures has sprung, in part, from a criticism of blue chip natural history that while it always pushed itself to produce breathtaking imagery, it was less inventive when it came to narrative structure. BBC commissioning editor for science and natural history, Kim Shillinglaw, says that her latest commissions like Hidden Kingdoms and The Great Bear Stakeout address this. “In natural history, you’re blessed with natural narrative – birth, struggle and death is inherent to the content” which can mean that the narrative structure can get “less attention than other aspects of the production. New kit is vital. It’s the lifeblood of natural history but it can sometimes allow you to neglect other areas. If we can pull our storytelling up to the same heights as our visual capture that will lead to all sorts of interesting things for natural history.”
And it’s audiences that are demanding different forms of storytelling, says Wendy Darke, head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit. “As the audience has become more sophisticated, so the tone and style needs to be more bespoke to hit the different demographics. That’s challenged us editorially to think about combining natural history with other genres like adventure travel with Deadly Sixty or [with the upcoming] Hidden Kingdoms, which will be like animal dramas.”
Because the worry among broadcasters is that traditional natural history forms, although still popular and lucrative internationally, do often skew old. The BBC’s recent Planet Earth Live, an attempt to use the Springwatch format on a grander scale, was also an attempt to reach out to a different audience. “Frozen Planet showed there’s a great deal of life in the mega landmark yet,” says Shillinglaw. “But Planet Earth Live was aimed at a different segment of the audience. I’m very conscious that natural history can sometimes skew a little bit older and a little bit AB, so it was a deliberate attempt to see if we could reach a different audience. [Planet Earth Live] was significantly younger and more C to D than a lot of natural history output.”
It was also, crucially, more interactive. “Some of our audience welcome the opportunity to sit quite passively and be blown away by a classic natural history piece,” says The NHU’s Darke. “But we’re also recognising that people are watching telly in so many different ways, particularly the young audience who expect to be engaging during and after.”
Different iterations of natural history also mean it can be more lucrative on the international stage. Adventure/natural history or natural history with a comedic twist or fact ent/natural history means that wildlife programming can work in different slots on different channels and reach different audiences that wouldn’t generally consider themselves fans of animal programming.
Effectively, natural history’s horizons have widened. “Audiences have a wider filter in terms of what they see as natural history content to begin with,” says executive VP and general manager of Nat Geo Wild, Geoff Daniels. “So many people see the wild as wherever you find it whether it’s in your backyard or in Antarctica. That’s what’s driving such a wide range of shows doing well.” He cites shows on his network that range from Fishtank Kings, about ornate fishtank builders in Miami, to Wild Mississippi, a blue chip special about the impact of floods on wildlife.
But it’s not just audiences that have been driving innovation in the genre, producers have been doing that independently too. UK indies operating in natural history face the monolith that is the BBC Natural History Unit whose idea of blue chip means huge investment, long development periods and three years in production – a business plan that’s unsustainable for an independent.
As a consequence, “we slightly survive in the margins,” says Tigress md, Dick Colthurst. “The big stuff, the obvious stuff is getting done by the Natural History Unit so we do things like Hippo: Natures Wild Feast [a show that filmed the animals that feast on a hippo carcass]. We’re not going to do the obvious so what’s the interesting way in?”
In many ways the extraordinary heights of production excellence at the top end of the blue chip that the NHU produces, have made it pointless for other indies to play the same game. “The quality of production and kit and the extraordinary nature of what you’re able to achieve at the high end is on a par with cinema. There is an expectation that natural history at one end of the spectrum will be a perfect art form,” says Icon Films md, Laura Marshall. “If you haven’t got that budget you have to tell stories differently. So it’s a time of great creativity. When you’re presented with a challenge as filmmakers you have to get out there and deal with that challenge. You do that by finding different ways of telling stories or different techniques.”
And while the costs of making the very high end of natural history have risen beyond most producers grasp, the costs of kit in general have plummeted. It’s democratised the genre, allowing new entrants in and made different types of programmes more possible. “Now you can go out with a 5D for three days and make yourself a natural history film,” says Icon’s creative director, Harry Marshall. “The technology has democratised the field and the proliferation of channels has spread the butter more thinly. You don’t have dollops of very highly funded natural history in just a couple of places as was the case. There’s more competition and different people coming in from different genres and bringing a different perspective to natural history. Natural history for ages sat in its own little bubble and didn’t feel like it had to tell a story, that it was enough you saw this magnificent beast. For a long time it was lazy.”
And for Tigress’ Colthurst it’s cheap kit that’s revolutionized the genre far more than advances at the high end. “In the more adventure side we’re using self shooting by the people involved because the cameras are so brilliant and easy to use. We tape over all the buttons and say ‘just turn it on’. That to me is one of the big breakthroughs. You can say to Freddie Flintoff ‘ take this camera and go off into the bush for three days’ and he comes back with great material.’ You don’t want to be writing off £2k cameras but you can and that allows you to be a bit more brave in how you use them.”
John Downer Productions, makers of the Spy franchise, does survive at the technological high end, but is again forced to be creative to keep up. “We do high end but there’s no point doing what the natural history unit do, we wouldn’t be commissioned if we did,” says JDP’s John Downer. “We have to offer something different. We try to be ahead of the curve on methods of filming and I think our viewpoint’s always different.”
And even the NHU is under pressure, says Wendy Darke. “The marketplace is changing pretty aggressively now and we have some pretty serious competitors in Disney and Discovery who have all woken up to the fact that these [blue chip films] are lucrative. And they will always have more money than I will have in a public service broadcaster.”
Fundamentally, natural history producers have been drawing in all the influences from around them. “They are absolutely aware of all the trends that are happening in commercials and in scripted and all those areas,” says Nat Geo Wild’s Geoff Daniels. “The best filmmakers out there are very aware of what audiences are connecting to in terms of production styles, storytelling and innovative techniques. That’s been a really big part of driving a renaissance of interest in the genre.”
It’s also been driven by major changes that have happened to the big US specialist factual channels. Throughout the US factual networks, huge success has been had by long running shows focused on groups of colourful American characters with Deadliest Catch and Pawn Stars obvious examples. The influence of those shows has been felt through natural history too with most networks now looking for shows about interesting people who interact with animals in some way. “Those really interesting, driven personalities who interact with animals in a fairly unique way are the kinds of stories we’re after,” says Discovery head of programming, Western Europe, Dan Korn. “People who are very passionate that’s what we’re gunning for rather then straight pictorial or behavioural studies. It’s that interaction between humans and animals that’s so interesting.”
And those “authentic characters” have the added advantage of drawing in new viewers to wildlife shows too. “We’re looking for real people that the audience connects with in a very visceral way, and it’s also very entertaining,” says Nat Geo Wild’s Daniels. “They also help widen the audience and bring in new people to the genre for us who might not ordinarily come to us.”
“They’re just trying to do it [natural history] in a way that appeals to the audience that enjoy the Gold Rushes,” says Tigress’ Colthurst. “It is different compared to five ten years ago. If you’ve got a channel that everyone turns on to watch Deadliest Catch and then you put Frozen Planet on… The majority of people who turn on to Discovery are not necessarily Frozen Planet viewers.”
There are financial reasons too. Natural history TV with people in is easier, quicker, and therefore cheaper to make. “If you do blue chip, which perhaps means ‘no people’ natural history, it’s probably twice or three times as expensive because animals will not do what people will do on cue,” says Icon’s Harry Marshall. “People will be on location at a certain time and go where you want them.” Whereas animals are naturally less co-operative.
And networks want the films they order quickly, not after three years of filming in the field, hence the popularity of the ob doc on many networks. “We need these shows to pay off almost in the year they’re produced, i.e. we want to get on air so getting that access is all important,” says Discovery’s Korn. “Once you’ve got that access we want to have people in there getting that film. We don’t want to have to wait for two years to get the film delivered.”
Straight behavioural filming has also risen in cost over time, says Marshall. “So many of the places where you can film natural history are charging a lot of money. If you want to go to a park in Sri Lanka and film leopards they’ll charge 5000 dollars a day.” Marshall, whose current project is a film about leopards surviving on scraps in a shanty town in India also reckons that films that show human interaction with the animal world are perhaps more honest. “If you watched the last ten years of filmmaking you would think that everything was fine and dandy on planet earth and there weren’t any people there. It’s not the Disney, rose tinted view of nature that was the fare being peddled. People are part of the story and audiences are interested in that.”
But whether it’s natural history focused on human characters or animal behaviour, UK producers will still have to keep pushing the boundaries of inventiveness to make a living in the genre. After all, every producer in the US is trying to make those character driven shows too. “There are production companies in the States with teams of talent finders going out and finding these crazy characters so we’re not in the best position to do that,” says Oxford Scientific Films’ creative director Caroline Hawkins. “So we’re trying original ideas and things they haven’t really thought of by mixing up the genres and trying to think about what the next big thing will be rather than trying beat everyone else at their own game. If you want to build a business you’ve got to be looking at other areas and expanding the genre a bit.”
BBC Commissioning Editor, Science, Natural History
What’s worked well recently? Frozen Planet showed there’s a great deal of life in the mega landmark yet. But Planet Earth Live was aimed at a different segment of the audience. I’m very conscious that natural history can sometimes skew a little bit older and a little bit AB, so it was a deliberate attempt to see if we could reach a different audience. It was significantly younger and more C to D than a lot of natural history output.
What’s important to your future commissions? What excites me about both [the upcoming] Hidden Kingdoms and The Great Bear Stakeout is that as well as harnessing new technology, both will take storytelling to a new height. Storytelling has always been important to natural history programming but it’s no secret I feel it’s beholden on us to keep pushing the boundaries of storytelling to get better at it. Audiences have become incredibly sophisticated in their understanding of plotlines and narrative development across all genres and we need to keep pace with that in natural history.
How does it break down between channels?
On BBC1 there is the landmark, the blue chip the really big pieces. The second is more popular, more cheeky but still rooted in all the integrity of the BBC’s natural history output but popularising it and looking at the science of natural history. On BBC2 it’s depth and specialism. Like Secrets of a Living Planet. On BBC4 there’s a layer of intelligence and ideas and also a slightly quirkier approach.
Geoff Daniels, Executive VP and General Manager, Nat Geo Wild
What do you want from producers?
The first thing I want is for the producers in this genre to make us the first port of call for anything new, unusual and fresh. What I really want to see are shows that bring us into the secrets of animals’ lives and deliver characters in entertaining and unexpected ways. We’re going to continue to push the genre forward and wider into other audiences with some of these great characters, these authentic personalities and stars who connect to the wild in fun, new, inspiring ways. With natural history sometimes people want to say that it’s niche programming, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. There is something universal and intrinsic with our relationship with animals and the wild. Our mission is to deliver all those stories and great ways of doing these shows as broadly as possible.
Are you after shows about big characters that interact with animals?
It’s more than big characters, it’s authentic characters. We’re not looking for cartoon characters, were looking for real people that the audience connects with in a very visceral way.
Do you also need blue chip natural history?
That is a real strong interest and desire, because of our brand and reputation for doing the best blue chip innovative programming. For us that’s always got to be a really critical part of what we do so we’ll continue to look for those kinds of stories. It’s all about balance.
Dan Korn, SVP programming, UK and Western Europe, Discovery
What are you looking for now? Character led observational documentaries. A very successful show by Icon was Animal Airport, based at The Arc at Heathrow Airport. It’s the combination of really unusual animal rescue and animal treatment. One of the shows I very much admire is Bionic Vet. That’s a terrific example of somebody doing something pioneering in the animal world. Then we are looking at some big conservation stories. [The recent Rhino Wars] was hugely dramatic. The people who have grown up with these animals and feel they have a special relationship are so engaged and passionate in protecting these animals there’s something hugely admirable about that. I think they’re inspirational stories.
What other elements do your shows have to have?
It has to have more stories and characters – people who are very passionate, that’s what we’re gunning for rather then straight pictorial or behavioural studies. It’s that interaction between humans and animals that’s so interesting.
Are specials still on the shopping list?
We’re very up for specials as well. An authored piece fits well for us. There’s a real appetite to see one off beautiful crafted films on natural history.
Do you have a big push for content now?
I’m wary. It’s not like there’s a massive fund devoted to Animal Planet and natural history. We will commission but there’s no bonanza. But for the right series, characters and scenario we’re up for that.
Wildlife in the third dimension
Natural history filmmakers have always been on the cutting edge of acquisition technology and so 3D filming has certainly captured their imagination
3D has moved on massively in natural history in the last couple of years. Atlantic/Collosus’ Anthony Geffen, in the midst of filming Galapagos 3D with David Attenborough, says what can be filmed in 3D has moved to a whole new level, from relatively stationary animals shot close up to the point where “we’re now shooting animals that move. We capture bird flight and so we have to bring in a lot of infrastructure and helicopters. It’s a whole different way of doing it and you’re pushing the cameras to a new level. But the results already look extraordinary.” John Downer too is in the middle of making a 3D version of his recent Earthflight show that involves close up filming of birds in flight. “We’re approaching it from the view that there should be no compromise in 3D” so the shots are “what we would do in 2d in 3d.” It’s about “not believing there are barriers technically.”
But at the same time as natural history producers find new ways to film in 3D, they’re also discovering new business models to make it work. Sky remains the major buyer in the UK with 3Net the main partner in the US. The show also has to sell in 2D but producers have to be inventive to fund beyond these customers. OSF’s Caroline Hawkins, who’s currently making a 3D panda film for Sky, Nat Geo and Nat Geo Cinema Ventures also looks to “special venues, museums, theme parks” to make up any shortfall. Anthony Geffen looks to “the cinema and beyond” to fund 3D projects. “Yes, you show it on Sky, that’s very important but Flying Monsters has taken $8m at the box office. The next one will probably take $30m. There are only a couple of channels around the world that have 3D so you’ve got to skin in lots of ways. Kingdom of Plants was a 3D series; a 2D series for HD; it then became an app we did with Kew and we’ve done a deal with Nintendo so kids will get some of the content with every Nintendo that’s bought. The 3d tablet hasn’t arrived yet but it’s not far away.” Geffen says that 3D is a year or so from really hitting its stride. “There are now prototype televisions which are about a year away from being cheap and glasses free, that’s a massive game changer.”
The Big Screen
At this week’s Wildscreen Festival in Bristol, a group of natural history producers showcased their upcoming theatrical features and talked through the learning curve they went on when making the jump from the small screen to the cinema.
The BBC’s Mike Gunton, who’s converting the BBC Natural History Unit’s 2009 series Life into a theatrical feature called One Life, said it was felt the series could become a cinematic doc because of the sheer size of the story. He said the most important part of the entire process of making a feature is the writing and that, unlike a TV series, where narration explains more, the narrators task was more about guiding and signalling the emotion in each scene. Daniel Craig supplied the voice over for the film and during his reading, Gunton thought that Craig was underplaying the narration but realised when seeing the finished product on the big screen it’s important to “turn the dial right down.”
He said the music also becomes much more important and the pacing of the film can be slower than TV with less necessity to spoon-feed the audience.
Ex BBC NHU producer, Keith Scholey who made African Cats for Disney Nature said that the big challenge for him when making a theatrical film was understanding cinematic storytelling and the “hugely complex” task of scriptwriting for the medium.
He worked with script doctor John Truby who explained that plot is secondary and that character is the most important aspect. Scholey said that there must be more than a strong central character but a strong group of characters and that the opponent has to be as big as the hero.