Over the past few weeks I have been conducting an e-mail debate with my old friend and colleague Chris Palmer of American University.
Chris was very upset about some shocking revelations concerning the Disney Nature Film "Chimpanzee" that were published in the April 29th edition of the German magazine der Spiegel.
After a few weeks of increasingly longer and complex exchanges, we decided to edit the whole colloquy and release it to a few magazines and websites related to our field.
Have you seen the distressing article in the German Magazine Der Spiegel about the Disney film Chimpanzee?
The article states that the producers (Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield) deliberately lied when they claimed that their film is a portrayal of real-life events. The story in the film is not true but made up. The film’s melodrama is a fairy tale and invented.
To my mind, these are serious charges, but I’ve seen no follow up, no rebuttal from the producers or Disney, and little discussion about it in the press or blogosphere. What is your reading of the situation? And what is your reaction to the Spiegel revelations?
This whole incident, if true, does sound like a bit of an echo of the “bad old days” at Disney True Life Adventures. But I suspect that this is not like the kind of blatant fiction Disney perpetrated in the “lemming mass suicide” sequence in White Wilderness.
Even if they had “constructed” the plot of the film using a number of different individual animals from different locations, the plot itself had a certain “truthiness” (to use Stephen Colbert’s term) from a general audience’s point of view. And you yourself know that editing a number of animals together to depict the story of an individual character is no lapse of ethics -- provided the behaviors are all scientifically accurate.
But when Mark Linfield has the hubris to say “If we had scripted it, no one would have believed us," he is just asking to be un-masked.
Would you please clarify what you mean when you write, “…you yourself know that editing a number of animals together to depict the story of an individual character is no lapse of ethics -- provided the behaviors are all scientifically accurate.”
If the audience were to feel cheated and let down when the truth is revealed, would you still feel the same way?
Isn’t it possible a fair proportion of the audience might say to themselves, “I thought I was watching the identical animal. Now I’ve found out that it was shots of multiple animals edited together to look like one animal. My respect for the filmmaker has diminished because he or she wasn’t as clever, skillful, and dexterous as I thought. In effect, in a science-based documentary, I was lied to and manipulated.”
I hope I can explain. Using two or three different animals to construct a well edited sequence of a certain behavior is not un-ethical in and of itself. It is simply using the tools of our craft to tell stories that entertain and enlighten our audiences.
To be accurate, our work as “wildlife filmmakers” is to create a simulacrum of animal behavior which is based on scientific truth. If we really wanted to give audiences a technically accurate experience, the IMAX film of Yellowstone should be two or three days long, and you would get to see only one bear from 100 yards away just before the end credits roll! (Just like my first experience of Yellowstone!)
Obviously, there’s a reason why our films are not exactly like being in the wild.
Like most dramatic feature filmmakers, we use all the typical conventions of “montage”;
We cross-cut from one character to another
(stealthy leopard approaches unsuspecting antelope)
We compress time with long lap-dissolves
(from one season to the next)
We show a character’s point of view
(monkey nervously feeding in tree top – head suddenly jerks up and stares at sky – cut to golden eagle circling high over head)
Each of these examples are cinematic reconstructions of an experience of watching animals in the wild, but were probably filmed out of chronological sequence and then pieced together months later to give our audience a theatrical experience that might convey some understanding of what it’s like to be in the wild.
All of this does not excuse the boastful, over reaching, and (possibly) deliberate un-truths in the Disney publicity materials. Theirs was an act of hubris, and one which audiences should find hard to forgive. But let’s not push this point to the extent that we have to condemn all the good, honest films that use standard montage techniques for the sake of some sort of ideological purity.
I agree standard montage techniques, as described above, are acceptable. The reason those types of deceptions are acceptable is because audiences know enough about filmmaking that, if they were told exactly how those shots were made, they would feel OK about them and the trust they have in the wildlife filmmaker would not be diminished.
But when deceptive filmmaking techniques are used in the field or editing room that would make audiences (were they to be told about them) feel betrayed, then we have gone over a line. This may not be an egregious ethical error, but surely the audience deception involved should not be encouraged. Isn’t it the beginning of a slippery slope?
Remember, we’re talking about science-based wildlife documentaries. Audiences obviously approach narrative films with very different expectations. Using three different animals to construct one continuous behavior sequence of an anonymous, generalized animal in a wildlife documentary is acceptable (because the audience expects that).
Using three or more different animals but explicitly telling the audience that it is all the same animal called “Rufus” may not be. The audience may identify with “Rufus” and feel real empathy towards this creature that they have come to know quite intimately. Were they to find out “Rufus” was an amalgam of several different animals, audiences might well begin to suspect that nothing the filmmaker says can really be trusted.
Maintaining and strengthening the high trust between wildlife filmmakers and their audiences is key to the future of our industry.
I accept your use of the word “simulacrum,” but the real test in all this is not what you and I think, but what audiences think. You can get a good sense of that from the Spiegel essay on Chimpanzee.
If the Spiegel article is to be believed, then the producers of Chimpanzee brazenly lied in order to promote their careers and fatten their own wallets. You call it “hubris” and “deliberate untruths,” which is true. It is dishonorable and done on the assumption that the rest of us are credulous and gullible. That kind of behavior does the wildlife filmmaking industry irreparable damage. Perhaps the Spiegel essay got it wrong, in which case I retract what I’ve written here.
As you know, I often like to start off a semester by confronting my students with this statement; “Everything you see on Television is a fabrication. Everything!” Usually the students disagree, saying that the “”news” or “documentaries” can’t be fabricated – they have to be true.
“No,” I say, “Everything you see on Television is fabricated – every single second – even wildlife films!” Typically, a heated discussion ensues, where some students think that what I am saying about documentaries is nothing short of blasphemy.
Eventually I point out that when I say something is fabricated, it has no bearing on whether it is true or false. It is often very easy to forget (especially watching a blue-chip natural history film) that a television program is a man-made object – something someone fabricated. The degree to which the images or words in the program relate to actual truths in the “real world” rests entirely with the intentions of the producer.
Every viewer of a documentary must be willing to place their trust in the integrity of the producer. This does not mean that filmmaking is an act of deception, but rather, that the act of watching a documentary is, at its core, an act of faith. Place your trust with the right storyteller, and you are richly rewarded with a high-quality intellectual and artistic experience. Choose the wrong storyteller, and you may feel cheated, deceived, and betrayed.
So, have Alastair and Mark been guilty of being “dishonorable” in their filmmaking? Perhaps. But, we should remember the many fine, upstanding films they have made in the past; Planet Earth, Blue Planet, etc – all of which, by the way, have artfully used the techniques of montage I seek to defend here.
I rather suspect that they have been swept along by the inexorable force that is the Disney Hollywood Public Relations machine. While they may not be wholly innocent in this act of deception, we owe them a little bit of slack. After all, wasn’t it someone in Hollywood who taught us that “the lure of the dark side” is irresistibly strong?
I agree that the word “fabrication” has two distinct meanings. One is “to concoct in order to deceive,” and the other is “to make or create.” Your students assume you are using the first definition, when in fact you are using the second. This is a good pedagogical technique to get your students to think and to participate in class discussions. You use these distinctions to help your students, among other things, ruminate on the difference between a film that is “true” and a film that is “false.”
But I wonder if other distinctions (other than true and false) might be more useful when exploring the ethics and effectiveness of wildlife films. For example:
* When a film is irresponsibly sensational, how can we make that assessment, and against what standards? (Into the Pride on Discovery.)
* When a network is driven predominantly by ratings and profit, and subsequently makes a film which disregards common standards of good journalism and sound science, when is the public interest jeopardized? (Mermaids on AP.)
* When a film uses techniques or a filmmaker tells lies that audiences would find offensive and duplicitous were they to find out about them (and I’m not meaning here the accepted techniques of montage which you are defending), where do we draw the line? (Chimpanzee, assuming the Spiegel article is accurate)
* When the exercise of a filmmaker’s skills also involves animal harassment and cruelty, can’t we agree that animal abuse and suffering is something to be abhorred and detested, regardless of what is “true” and what is “false”? (Yukon Men)
You describe watching a documentary as an “act of faith.” My contention is that increasing numbers of wildlife films are betraying that faith and traducing our audiences through audience deception, animal harassment, and misleading or absent conservation messages.
I do agree that Alastair and Mark are hugely accomplished and thoroughly decent people who have done outstanding work. I would like to see them respond to the Spiegel article criticizing their film Chimpanzee, and would hope they can repudiate and rebut every charge.
I think we agree that any filmmaker who is irresponsibly sensational, disregards common standards of good journalism, tells lies that audiences, or harasses innocent animals has crossed the line of ethical behavior -- no matter how profitable that kind of behavior might be.
Truly egregious behaviors are easy to spot. The real ethical challenge comes at the fuzzy margins of ethical behavior, from filmmakers who think they know how to skirt the line while not crossing it. No doubt, the films you cited were made by people who profited from convincing themselves they were being “ethical enough” for television, and thought that they stayed on the right side of that fuzzy line.
The financial rewards for “playing close to the edge” seem very tempting, and might tend to blur one’s view of which side of the line your film is on.
If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Lord save us from filmmakers who intend to be “ethical enough” to not cross the line. I for one, intend to stay well enough away from the fuzzy edge with my films -- I’m used to the diminished financial returns by now...
The Day following the publication of the Der Spiegel article, the Max Planck Institute (where Dr. Christophe Boesch is on staff) posted this press release as a response/correction/rebuttal;
30 April 2013
Next week the Disneynature film "Chimpanzee" opens in German cinemas. An article that appeared in this week’s issue of DER SPIEGEL is making waves and, for this reason, we would like to take this opportunity to make the following clear: while this film is not a documentary, its contents are not made up. The story is based on the results of more than 30 years of pain-staking research on these and other extremely exciting aspects of the lives of our closest living relatives. For practical reasons the filmmakers were not always able to capture the story in exact sequence but this is common with wildlife films.
In order to tell a story that is coherent enough to be carried by a feature film, the story had to be collated from the wealth of authentic footage that Disneynature had accumulated. To researchers studying chimpanzees, for instance, it is obvious that “it is impossible to film a hunt with 30 apes in the trees and four to six hunters on the ground all moving in different directions with just one camera in one day,” as Christophe Boesch, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, puts it. Of course the wildlife filmmakers had to edit different hunts together in order to have a complete hunt sequence for the film. The same applies to the territorial fights between neighbouring groups of chimpanzees. While these regularly take place in the Taï rainforest, there were practical reasons for choosing a group of chimpanzees in Uganda for the "rivals" shown in the film: the forest is more open there and it is possible to see and film the interactions that the filmmakers were genuinely witnessing in Taï.
The film shows the first 6 years of “Oscar’s” life – Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, however, only had 2.5 years to film in the Taï rainforest. It should therefore be clear that Oscar’s story could only be told by including episodes from the lives of other young chimpanzees to fill in the gaps. The time spent in the rainforest was an immense technical and physical challenge for the film team and the reproaches made by DER SPIEGEL should not diminish their performance.
As chief scientific adviser, Christophe Boesch made sure that the scientific facts in the film were presented correctly. However, the researchers did not have any influence on the dramaturgical design of the film. Since it is a family film, "Chimpanzee" of course has a happy ending. Unfortunately though, this is not always the case in the wild. Indeed, very few orphaned chimpanzees survive, even despite adoptions like this.
Anyone who wishes to explore the science behind the film in more depth should visit www.schimpansen.mpg.de, a website specially prepared by the Max Planck Society.
Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
Department of Primatology
Prof. Dr. Christophe Boesch
Tel.: +49 (0)341 3550-200
Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
Press and Public Relations
Tel.: +49 (0)341 3550-122
The wildlife filmmaking world is a very small community, and we always endeavor to treat one another with great respect. I think you can tell that Chris and I admire the great work Alistair and Mark have done at the BBC over the years.
Here's a picture from the 1997 Jackson Hole Film Festival where Alastair and I appeared on a panel chaired by Chris discussing the relationships between filmmakers and scientists - evidently something still topical sixteen years later...
My beard is even more grey, but Chris looks just as fit today - and Alastair still has that same haircut...
From Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (June 2013)
The last addition of Wildlife Film News published an email conversation between Chris Palmer and Tom Veltre concerning a recent article in the German magazine Der Spiegel about the DisneyNature movie Chimpanzee. It is unfortunate that before their email conversation was published neither of Chris or Tom contacted the directors as we could have given them better information. We feel it important now that the readers of Wildlife Film News get the truth behind the Der Spiegel article and Chris and Tom’s speculations.
The movie centers round one key character, a young chimpanzee that we called Oscar. The extraordinary story we filmed was the adoption of a young chimp we called Oscar by a dominant male called Fredy, after his mother had died. Der Spiegel places great weight on the fact that “Oscar didn't lose his mother -- nor was he ever adopted by any male chimpanzee whom he didn't know” and uses this as a cornerstone of its allegations. However Der Spiegel was not even talking about the same chimpanzee. The scientists we worked with had named our young chimpanzee Victor - commonly an old man's name in the UK; as a consequence, when Fredy and Victor where together, test audiences assumed that Fredy was the infant and Victor the older male and this caused great confusion. Clearly we had to find another name. There was another young chimpanzee in the forest named Oscar, we liked the name, so we borrowed it. The 'Oscar' that Der Spiegel are referring to is the chimpanzee we borrowed the name from. A name is simply a label and changing one so an audience can better follow a story is not misleading the audience. It is standard procedure in our profession.
Der Spiegel goes on to state that “A young male chimp was in fact orphaned during the filming and was adopted by an older male chimp, but this animal died a few months after losing its mother”. In fact, Fredy successfully looked after Oscar for 7 months before going missing. The film covers those 7 months of Oscar's adoption by Fredy and is true to events in this period, it never sought to deal with Oscar's life after that period and had no obligation to do so.
The Der Spiegel goes on to criticise the film because “the orphan star was played by five different chimpanzees”. However their claim is misleading because it implies we were juggling animals at random. In reality, the key story line is played by just one young chimpanzee. In a couple of instances we used stand-ins for generic scenes and some of the back-story. For instance, the tiny newborn chimp at the start of the movie is not the same young chimp that features in the large part of the movie. Mother chimpanzees are extremely shy with their newborn babies and you very rarely see them in the wild. We were extremely lucky to film a newborn of any chimpanzee mother at all and since the scene was generic we felt the use of a stand-in was justifiable. In reality, chimpanzees are sufficiently distinctive that we would have struggled to 'cheat' identities to any significant degree. In fact, we would suggest that most mainstream natural history TV documentaries that follow animal characters are a great deal more 'flexible' with the identities of their named animals than was Chimpanzee!
Der Spiegel go on to claim that some of the footage was shot in Uganda and intercut with the main location in the Ivory Coast. This is something we never sought to hide, indeed we drew attention to in the credits, the DVD extras and extensively in the book. The sequences Der Spiegel were referring to are the battles between the males in our group and rival males in a neighboring group. These battles are an important dynamic of chimpanzee society and we did observe and film them in the Ivory Coast. However, the forest in this main location is so thick and the light so poor, that we were unable to film more than a few grabbed moments. However in Uganda there is a location where the forest is much more open and the behaviour happens more frequently making it possible to film the same behaviour more comprehensively. We could have chosen not to include footage of these hostile encounters but we felt the audience would benefit from seeing this part of the story correctly illustrated with appropriate material, rather than not seeing it at all - especially if we did not attempt to conceal it. Which we did not.
A big organization like Disney will always be an attractive target for journalists searching for a story, but it is worth stating that Disney behaved impeccably throughout our collaboration and allowed us to make exactly the film we wanted to make. We enjoyed exactly the same editorial freedom as if we had been working for a respected TV broadcaster – in other words, we came under no pressure from the studio to ‘sex things up’.
An important point to make is that we were not trying to make a scientific documentary for the cinema; we were trying to make a movie. Cinema is a very competitive market and we believe that natural history will only succeed in this space through very strong story telling and really engaging characters. But that does not mean the story in Chimpanzee is not scientifically accurate. From the very start of the DisneyNature label, its founder and executive producer at Disney, Jean –Francois Camilleri, has been totally supportive of our need to ensure that these movies are 100% scientifically accurate. In fact, in our contracts with Disney, we retain the right of
Chimpanzee was a great success in the US and introduced chimpanzees to a large audience of cinema goers who rarely watch natural history on television. We know from audience research that viewers came out of the cinema with a new appreciation and love for chimpanzees and the rainforest. A key part of this success was the massive amount of marketing effort Disney puts behind these movies. Further, we were delighted that both in the US and a number of European countries, Disney gave a proportion of the box office in the opening weeks to the Jane Goodall Institute and the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation. All of the DisneyNature movies have had similar “Give Back Campaigns” and all of these have made very significant contributions to conservation. The sheer scale of these contributions and the care with which they are administered is unmatched by any other media distributer that we are aware of. If you are interest to learn more please go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=MA6_gDPsiok
We are proud of Chimpanzee - not so much for ourselves but for the amazing team that worked on the movie. In particular, we are proud of our two key cameramen, Martyn Colbeck and Bill Wallauer as well as their team of field assistants who overcame extraordinary challenges to capture this material. We have no doubt that working in that rainforest with those animals was the most demanding job we have ever asked of a camera team and the story they managed to film surpassed even our most optimistic dreams at the start of production. Making wildlife movies that work in cinema is extremely difficult for all those involved and it greatly disappoints us to read such misleading press being perpetuated on these pages.
In future we hope that Chris and Tom will contact film makers directly to get the story first-hand before publishing their speculations.