The appeal of Planet Earth, which returned last year for its long-awaited second installment, is not merely its dazzlingly photographed images of nature; it’s the way the documentary series compiles that nature footage into coherent narratives. We remember it for individual images of sharks and wolves and birds doing amazing things, but if it didn’t also tell a story about why that shark or wolf or bird did that amazing thing, no one would stick around for 10 hours of it, no matter how high they got beforehand.
But there’s a lot of trickery that goes into turning raw footage into a story that people will relate to, and, like all documentaries, nature films have to grapple with how much they can manipulate that footage and still consider their finished product to be a factual representation of the real world. For example: Most nature films feature fake sound effects, recorded after the fact by someone in a room, since in the wild they’re set up much too far away to record, say, footsteps in the grass. This short video essay digs into this misdirection, finding some surprising conclusions that will totally kill your buzz next time you are just trying to watch a nature documentary.
Narrator Simon Cadre details how a deer is humanized by being shown taking fumbling baby steps, but then the wolf chasing it is denied this backstory. He draws a comparison the way filmic antagonists tend to wear masks; without a backstory, we can more easily hate these villains. Techniques like these, Cadre concludes, help sell us on the true nature of, well, nature, even if they do slightly misrepresent what actually occurred. Documentarians such as Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Orson Welles have explored this tension fully over the years, but it’s interesting seeing the conversation brought to nature shows. It only tips toward the nefarious when they use computer-enhanced imagery without telling the viewer, or create staged events, or drastically mis-portray the animals, such as the tendency of nature documentaries to show all sharks as human-eating nightmares with nine rows of teeth.
On the other hand? Sharks are terrifying. You don’t even need filmmaking trickery to show that.