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Fake-umentary? BBC and Frozen World

By Mark Carnall, on 15 December 2011

Another quick post, many of you may have seen the news coverage about a sequence showing polar bear cubs in the BBC’s excellent Frozen Planet documentary that was filmed in a zoo, not in the wild. The footage has been called out as being misleading and the authenticity of some snow has also been called into question. It’s hard to pick out whether this is grabbing media attention because the Beeb has its fair share of enemies in the press or whether viewers are genuinely outraged. The BBC has posted this video showing BBC bosses defending the sequence. The Telegraph has this to say about it, posted here for balance.

Is this practice wrong? We’re currently asking whether it is okay for museums to lie in one of our QRator cases and recently I posted about intellectual transparency in CGI documentaries touching on similar issues that are being raised by what I am surprised isn’t being called Polar Bear Gate (probably because that’s already been usedsadly).

The documentary makers quite rightly point out that it would be dangerous not to mention unethical to get that kind of footage in the wild- the interference with a real den could cause harm to the animals. I’d say that it is extremely naive not to suspect an element of artifice in anything you see on the idiot box. Using the same arguments that are being employed to condemn the BBC we could easily reduce sticking to authenticity to the absurd limit and seriously question the ‘authenticity’ of most ‘documentaries’ and ‘educational shows’ on the television and the web. Often they are guided by a code of ethics but documentaries certainly aren’t subject to the same kind of rigorous regulation as peer-reviewed journal articles are.

A simple line in the script stating that this sequence was filmed in captivity would have prevented this getting column inches at all but I can’t help but think this show is being unfairly targeted. After all, Planet Dinosaur is edited and marketed in the same way as Frozen Planet but I don’t remember a disclaimer at the beginning of the show flagging up that sequences seen are not shot from ‘nature’. What does ‘shot from nature’ mean anyway? Clearly a captive animal is different from an animal that is free to roam around but where do we draw the invisible line between what needs to be flagged up as “not natural”? Animals in National Parks receive some form of fencing in and protection from hunting and poaching so they can be considered ‘captive’. This caused some trouble last year for the winner of The Wildlife Photographer Of The Year winner who was stripped of his award for not announcing that the animal photographed was captive.

Lastly how important is immersion and a smooth pace to edutainment? We do a lot of work with film companies across UCL Museums and Collections and when I first started I was surprised at the huge effort that goes into constructing a shot or sequence that doesn’t look staged when almost every aspect has been carefully artificed for the screen; what the talking head needs to say, how subjects are lit or repositioned, what the background looks like and how two hours of footage is edited into a couple of minutes. For those of you old enough to remember PoP-Up videos on VH1, I can assure you that documentaries would be completely ruined if documentary makers, worried about being accused of fakery or being misleading, included pop up facts letting the viewer see everything that was artificed for the final cut. Firstly, you’d be hard pressed to follow what was going on on-screen with so many pop up bubbles- ‘this scene was shot four times and edited together to make this sequence’, ‘this tree was cropped back for this shot’, ‘this person was told to look cold for this sequence’, ‘these whales were followed for seven hours to get this footage’, ‘this hedgehog was lured across the frame for this sequence’ and so on.

What do you think? Deliberately deceptive or artistically allowable?

5 Responses to “Fake-umentary? BBC and Frozen World”

  • 1
    Dominic Stiles wrote on 15 December 2011:

    Perfectly acceptable. I do not doubt that it is a story based on nothing but headline grabbing & kicking the Beeb. Every time you see a slow motion clip of an insect flying against a black background, you have to suppose that it was film captured in some sort of a studio set up.

  • 2
    Catherine McGuinness wrote on 16 December 2011:

    Eeeeeeeh…. it’s a tough one. Working with the public in museums and zoos for the last few years I think it’s really important to be honest and point out when something is “real” and something is a “set-up”, mainly because of the distrust the public have of science.

    That said this has been blown out of all proportion, and as you say Mark, one line in the script would have avoided it.

  • 3
    UCL Museums & Collections Blog » Blog Archive » Specimen of the Week: Week Eleven wrote on 26 December 2011:

    […] Read a fascinating debate in a previous blog by our curator, about polar bears in the recent documentary Frozen Planet. […]

  • 4
    UCL Museums & Collections Blog » Blog Archive » Specimen of the Week: Week Thirteen wrote on 9 January 2012:

    […] it in stereo? Eitherway, inspired by this fantastic series (coincidentally mentioned in fact in a recent blog about the validity of such documentaries), this week’s specimen of the week […]

  • 5
    MaxB wrote on 11 January 2012:

    ‘the authenticity of some snow has been called into question’ ; honestly does anyone watch this just to see real snow ?!! It’s not that warm yet!

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