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On the Edge of Common Sense: Nature films

Published on 05 February 2021

“Here we are friends, on the Serengeti Plains in the wilds of Serengeti.” As the crowd leans in closer to the television, we see the swaying boab trees, an endless sea of grass waving off into the horizon.

We hear the quiet buzz of tsetse flies humming strains of “Baby Elephant Walk.” Just as we are becoming mesmerized into the peaceful surroundings on the screen, a lone gazelle suddenly bursts on the scene!

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It leaps and dives, with graceful arcs, nimble footwork and darting back and forth like a cockroach wearing cleats. Then, out of the savannah, like a big shoe, streaks the jungle’s answer to LeBron James: Charlie the cheetah. Charlie pounces on the gazelle and drags him to the ground.

Another example of nature’s survival of the fittest. But did you ever wonder how the film crew happened to be there at that exact moment? As you may have heard, nature programs are always under close scrutiny. Film makers are accused of staging scenes, of using tame or zoo animals and of staking out prey for predators to pounce on.

But may I point out to those who are shocked by this revelation that this is television, movies, show business! It’s the media of revisionist history, docudrama, infomercials and reality shows, a business where facts are altered and endings changed to make a more entertaining program.

Wanton acts of animal cruelty should be avoided. But filming an anteater licking the inside of a termite mound from the termite’s point of view takes a little more planning. I mean, how long can a camera man wait inside a termite’s living room? Anybody who’s ever tried to get a dog or kid to repeat a trick while you run and get the camera knows how hard it is to film spontaneous acts.

I’ve always assumed nature films are staged. I figured the crew gathers after breakfast and drives to a carefully selected spot. They arrive when the lighting is just right. From the back of a used stock truck (with Nairobi plates), they unload an old antelope, a gnu with footrot and six crippled rabbits. The director points to the truck driver, and the prey limps out. Then the director points to the animal trainer. He releases his leopard. Cameras roll. The leopard bounds toward the hobbling gnu, leaps for his throat and throws him to the ground. “Cut!” cries the director.

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The leopard helps the gnu up, dusts him off and they go back to the truck. Everybody packs up and gets back to the hotel by cocktail time.

Isn’t that how they filmed Jurassic Park?  end mark

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