This week we learned that the unforgettable sound of a magisterial polar bear clomping on snow is actually custard powder and salt crystals inside a stocking. The crunch of bones as a leopard devours an impala is snapping sticks of celery; peeling an orange is the best way to replicate the sound of flesh being ripped from a carcass. This was all happily revealed by the makers of The Hunt, the BBC’s new landmark natural history series, but it has caused something of a stir. Add the sound effect revelations to the stories a few years ago from Frozen Planet (in which footage of a polar bear cub being born was filmed in a man-made den in a German zoo); and a scene from The Blue Planet (in which it emerged that lobster larvae were filmed in an Anglesey aquarium) and you have the makings of a fakery scandal: are natural history films, some of the jewels in the BBC’s crown, selling us a lie?
My own experience is that they are not. I was on a boat with a film crew from Silverback Films, the production company behind The Hunt, off the Pacific coast of Baja Mexico Sur in March this year, and all I can say is that the blue whales you will see in episode four of The Hunt are real blue whales. I have the photo above to prove it, along with the empty sachets of seasickness pills and the memories of a 10m high blowhole and an accompanying sound like the ocean itself was exploding.
The problem is how to bring that experience to the viewer at home.
“A powerful lens can bring the pictures close to you but there is no microphone on the planet that can bring the sound close to you,” says The Hunt’s producer Alastair Fothergill. “So when you’ve got big close ups of a whale or a polar bear what are you supposed to do?”
He goes on to explain the art of Foley, a technique used since the beginning of cinema, in which sounds are recreated in studio – the custard powder bit. Everyone in film-making knows what Foley is, but viewers at home may not. The question is whether it matters.
Fothergill, who produced The Blue Planet and Frozen Planet as head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and now runs Silverback Films, is adamant that it does not. He harks back to the fooforaw about baby polar bears in Frozen Planet.
“The question is should we in the narrative of the show have said, ‘filmed in a zoo?’ The answer is no. And actually the BBC did a big survey some years ago to ask people whether they wanted the magic to be broken and they didn’t.”
He also cites the comments below articles in the press this week about supposed foul play, which suggested that viewers were neither surprised nor bothered that the sounds had been augmented.
“The important thing is the behaviour you see and we film is absolutely true to nature.”
Off the pacific coast of Mexico, for example, I saw a blue whale spouting and fluking, but it is not the same blue whale that you will see taking a vast mouthful of krill at the surface. That was filmed on another trip. Does that constitute fakery, or is that simply editing?
“To show a sequence of blue whales feeding you have to film on different locations. You can’t get all of the shots at once,” says Fothergill. “We never say, ‘This blue whale,’ call him Little Jimmy and pretend that it’s the same whale throughout – films are edited. That is the nature of the film. As long as what you show is real and genuine that’s absolutely fine. How else are we supposed to do it for God’s sake?”
In some ways the BBC’s excellence in natural history documentaries – Bristol, where both the BBC’s NHU and Silverback are based, is widely acknowledged as the Hollywood of the natural history world – has become a rod for its own back. When, for example, you see a pack of African wild dogs in the first episode of The Hunt running at 40mph, chasing down a wildebeest, with the camera right there amongst them, it seems too good to be true. Likewise there is a sequence in The Hunt of blue whales feeding underwater. This has never been filmed before, yet the way it is captured is so eerie and effortless that it looks almost unreal.
“People have said when they’ve seen the blue whale footage, ‘God, it’s weird, it’s just like graphics,’” says Hugh Pearson, who produced the open ocean sequences for The Hunt. “You say, ‘No, it’s a real animal!’ All you can do is trust the audience. 99% of the them are going to take it for what it is. There’s always going to be some who will criticise, but you just have to make it for the the 99%.”
In a culture where a huge proportion of entertainment is created using computer graphics, there is so much artifice in what people watch that it is the implicit reality of Natural History films that make them special. That’s one reason why people are so quick to jump on any perceived simulation.
The problem is that with the abundance of Natural History channels, and with so much animal behaviour available in lesser detail on YouTube, the quest becomes not just for footage but for stunning footage. As Huw Cordey, Fothergill’s fellow executive producer on The Hunt, says, “When you’re doing a landmark series, and I’ve done a few in my time, people are always asking you what’s new, how you’re going to raise the bar. The expectation is enormous, especially for an ambitious series like this. People expect something different.”
But when they get that something different, it is sometimes so stunning it beggars belief. Much of The Hunt was filmed using a gyro-stabilised camera system called a Cineflex, which enables a very powerful lens to nevertheless produce sustained, exquisite tracking shots. It is so good it makes natural history films look like big-budget movies.
This was always the goal for Alastair Fothergill – “When we started Planet Earth I said I want to make TV cinematic. These are natural dramas and there’s no other way to tell them than as a drama.” But it may also be why people assume that a drama this good must be a fiction, even when it isn’t.
From The Sunday Times News Review