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The tricks that nature documentaries use to keep you watching

It may feel deceptive to some viewers, but there’s a good reason these tricks are used.

Nature documentaries are full of little tricks to grab viewers’ attention.

In the video above, filmmaker Simon Cade (of DSLRguide) walks us through some of the techniques nature documentaries use to get viewers hooked — even if it means taking some, well, artistic liberties.

Consider the sounds of a documentary. As Cade explains, there’s a basic problem with how nature documentaries are filmed: “It’s really difficult to record sound when you are far away from something. Cameras can zoom in, but the microphones can’t.”

Cade gives the example of filming a wolf hunting from a helicopter. The actual sound the camera picked up is probably just a helicopter’s loud rotor. But if the filmmakers kept this sound in the documentary, it wouldn’t be very good for the viewer — since no one wants their ears blown out by the noise of a helicopter. Instead, filmmakers later add sounds to the scene, which imitate what’s going on in the footage.

Indeed, BBC, for example, has admitted to doing this in Planet Earth 2.

It’s not just sounds, either. For example, say that documentarians want to capture a kangaroo fight. Getting this kind of footage can take a long time — maybe days or weeks of filming kangaroos doing normal, boring kangaroo things. During that time, filmmakers can get a bunch of footage that can complement the eventual fight: a joey hiding in a mother’s pouch, close-ups of two kangaroos looking at each other, and so on. Then they combine this footage to make a much more emotional scene — one that tells a story with characters.

“The point is these editors have hours of footage for a scene like this — filmed over many days, usually weeks,” Cade said. “And then they just choose a few moments that provide the maximum emotional impact.”

“This shot,” he added, referring to the joey hiding in his mom’s pouch, “might have been filmed a week earlier than the fight, but the editor sees it as an opportunity to humanize the animals, much like Pixar films have been doing for years. So they are manipulating the footage.”

These tricks can feel deceptive. After all, documentaries are meant to show us the reality of nature. How can they mislead viewers with fake sounds and manipulated scenes?

But Cade ultimately concludes that these tricks, as deceptive as they can be, are good.

“If these shows were just a string of facts about animals, most of us wouldn’t watch,” he said. “That’s why they carve out stories in editing, why they use intense music, and why they recreate the sound effects — because storytelling is what engages us, not facts and figures. And so what some people could see as fakery becomes something we can actually learn from.”

Or as BBC’s David Attenborough explained in 1984, “There is precious little that is natural … in any film. You distort speed if you want to show things like plants growing, or look in detail at the way an animal moves. You distort light levels. You distort distribution, in the sense that you see dozens of different species in a jungle within a few minutes, so that the places seem to be teeming with life. You distort size by using close-up lenses. And you distort sound. What the filmmaker is trying to do is to convey a particular experience. … The viewer has to trust in the good faith of the filmmaker.”


Watch: How BBC makes Planet Earth look like the movies