Animals & Wildlife Magazine

The Evolution of the Wildlife Documentary: Part One

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

This week Frontier takes a look at wildlife’s ongoing relationship with television and film. In this feature, we explore the history of the wildlife documentary from its humble beginnings in the late 19th century through to the big-budget offerings we see on our screens today.

Just like the nature it explores, the wildlife documentary has evolved over time. Seemingly simplistic early attempts have been replaced by a new breed of highly ambitious productions, as aesthetically pleasing as they are scientifically informative. But this progression has been a steady one; regardless of how simple the efforts of the pioneering documentary makers may seem nowadays, they once represented the cutting edge of wildlife film-making and played a vital role in the development of the genre.

Ever since Eadweard Muybridge invented the Zoopraxiscope to display a series of photos taken to settle a dispute about whether a horse’s four legs ever simultaneously leave the ground when galloping, various technological breakthroughs have repeatedly revolutionised the potential of the genre. Muybridge’s ‘A Horse in Motion’ (1882) was the first ever animal to be shown in a moving format, and served as an important stepping-stone towards motion-pictures and cinematography. Advances elsewhere are still used today, albeit in an advanced form. For example, Percy Smith’s experimental approach to film-making produced one of the earliest examples of time-lapse photography in ‘The Birth of a Flower’, amazing audiences when it was shown in cinemas in 1910.

Perhaps the most influential and respected producer of wildlife film has been the BBC, whose Natural History Unit (NHU) was founded in 1957. One of its first productions was the ‘Look’ series, a live broadcast with Peter Scott that saw the birth of the now familiar wildlife series. A major technological advance came in 1967 when the NHU broadcast its first colour programme. ‘The Major’ was an emotional account of a huge English oak tree that was due to be felled, focusing on the wildlife it supported.

The BBC has gone on to make some of the most important and impressive wildlife documentaries to date. A key figure in this success has been the involvement of Sir David Attenborough, whose first major natural history production was the BBC’s incredibly popular and pioneering series, ‘Life on Earth’ (1979). The series’ ambitious and in-depth style is largely recognised as having paved the way for the success of future productions of a similar style. An array of revolutionary technology combined with Attenborough’s unique appeal proved to be a huge success with the viewing public. Attenborough’s incredible career with the BBC has seen him travel all over the world to report on a huge variety of wildlife.

The BBC has created countless examples of big-budget, high-production wildlife documentaries, securing their reputation for being the best in the business. However, various other highly successful formats have shown us that natural history television is not all about the money.

Children have been a significant audience for wildlife programmes for a long time. An early example is ‘Bird Watching for juniors’, a 1953 film by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds aimed at encouraging kids to observe birds in their natural habitat rather than collect their eggs. Probably the most iconic children’s wildlife programmes to appear on British television was ‘The Really Wild Show’, first airing in 1986 and running for an impressive 20 years. Its unscripted format with a live studio audience was massively popular, with the series launching the careers of many of our current wildlife television presenters such as Nick Baker, Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan.

Another of the show’s stars, Steve Backshall, is the face of the latest Children’s BBC wildlife offering, ‘Deadly 60’. The programme sees him travel the world in search of candidates for his list of only the deadliest of animals. With so many close encounters, such as catching the Goliath Bird-Eating Spider and being bitten by a caiman in the swamps of Argentina, this show is a genuinely exciting education for today’s children.

By Alex Prior

Stay tuned for the second part of this article on Friday as we explore modern documentaries and film-makers attempts to push the boundries with new formats and new technologies.


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