Nature Films

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Nature Films



Nature filmmaking has a long and mobile history, from its pre-cinematic roots in nineteenth-century photographic traditions to its current status as a genre found most commonly on television, and perhaps most spectacularly in large-format IMAX cinema. Now only rarely seen in conventional theatrical release, nature films have alternatively enjoyed significant popular presence and languished in obscurity. Despite the genre's uneven presence in theaters, its thematic occupations can be clearly periodized. From the earliest years of cinema through the 1930s, nature filmmaking most often took the form of expedition travelogues, in which flora appeared as terrain to be crossed over, and fauna as objects to be filmed, captured, or killed. Meanwhile, noncommercial scientific filmmakers developed techniques through which animal behaviors could be observed and recorded for scientific study. Post–World War II nature filmmaking returned with the animal as subject, the human rendered either invisible or on standby as steward of the most fragile facets of an invaluable environment. Near the end of the twentieth century, the genre, on screens small and large, proliferated in new forms, fusing readily with reality-based and fictional genres.


Nature filmmaking derived from experiments in representing animals by motion-study photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) and Etienne Jules Marey (1830–1904), naturalist-photographers such as Cherry Kearton (1871–1915), and Victorian "camera-hunters," who shot photographic images instead of or as well as trophy kills while on safari in colonized regions of Africa. Early-cinema actualities were often filmed using exotic captive animals, as in Louis Lumière's Lions, London Zoological Garden (1895); during hunting expeditions, as in The Polar Bear Hunt in the Arctic Seas (Pathé Frères, 1910); or in feature action-oriented conflicts between human society and domesticated animals, as in Edison Kinetoscope's Cockfight (1894), The Burning Stable (1896), and Electrocuting an Elephant (1903). For the latter film, Edison staged the execution of Topsy, an elephant at Coney Island's Luna Park, who had killed an abusive handler. Violent sensationalism was thus already established as a defining feature of the nature film by the dawn of the twentieth century.

Nickelodeons and early movie theaters showed these films as newsreels. Some were comprised of authentically gathered footage. Others were staged using captive animals in controlled settings and passed off as films of fact to unsuspecting audiences. Hunting Big Game in Africa (1909), shot in William N. Selig's Chicago studio, employed a Teddy Roosevelt look-a-like, several African American actors who posed as African porters, and an off-screen gunman whose job it was to kill a lion that Selig's studio had bought from a zoo. The film, released while the ex-president was on safari, was far more successful than Roosevelt in Africa (1910) by Cherry Kearton, who did travel briefly with "T.R.'s" party. Critics for Variety and The Moving Picture World panned Kearton's authentic short as dull and, erroneously, as partly faked, further reinforcing the high standards for blood-spilling action to which the genre would be held—as well as its low ethical standards, in a market that too often failed to distinguish nefarious hoax from natural history.

Staged or authentic—often in combination—the expedition film adapted rapidly to a changing marketplace, soon appearing in the form of footage meant to accompany live lectures, feature-length silent and sound films. As early as 1912, the feature-length African Hunt (Paul J. Rainey), earned a respectable half million dollars. By the 1920s, the market for such films was dominated by the prolific husband-and-wife team of Martin (1884–1937) and Osa Johnson (1894–1953).

Martin Johnson first sailed to the South Pacific as a cook aboard Jack London's The Snark. Back home in Kansas, he met and married Osa Leighty at the theater where he gave slide-lectures featuring photographs taken on the trip. The couple soon sailed to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Footage from the trip became Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas (1918). Martin lectured alongside the film for a week at the Rivoli Theater in New York; a two-part version was distributed with intertitles replacing the live lecture. While these projects were dubious renderings of Melanesian social practices, critics were enthusiastic. Nevertheless, distributors who tended to see the ethnographic mode as too commercially risky encouraged the Johnsons to seek more tried-and-true subjects.

The Johnsons first turned to wildlife in Jungle Adventures (1921), shot in Borneo. Impressed by their work, Carl Akeley, the innovative taxidermist then collecting specimens for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)'s Hall of African Mammals, offered the Johnsons support on behalf of the museum. With AMNH's support, the Johnsons completed their best-known film, Simba (1928), which they made over the course of a four-year expedition and which featured cavalcades of animal species (and indigenous tribespeople, employed as porters and encountered in the course of the expedition) little known to American moviegoers. Despite its ostensibly educational mission, the film also contained the action that audiences expected: the intrepid couple approach their subjects armed with both camera and rifle. Martin cranks the camera as rhinoceros, later elephant, and eventually lion charge. At the last possible moment, Osa appears to kill each oncoming animal. Most animals killed in the Johnsons' films actually fell to off-screen marksmen, and cutaways of Martin helming the film camera and Osa aiming her weapon were staged following the filmed encounters.

The Johnsons' success—Simba earned some $2 million—would not last. Concerned that as independents they would find fewer opportunities as the powerful studio system increasingly integrated production, distribution, and exhibition, the Johnsons produced their next film, Congorilla (1929), for the Fox Film Corporation. Scenes poking fun at indigenous Africans and reports that the Johnsons had captured gorillas for use in the film without proper authority from the colonial government of the Belgian Congo sullied their reputation and standing with the AMNH. The Johnsons continued to make films (Baboona, 1935; Borneo, 1937) until Martin's death in 1937; subsequently, Osa cobbled together Jungles Calling (1937) and Tulagi and the Solomons (1943) from old footage, and then reworked the same material as a syndicated television series in the early 1950s.

But the controversy surrounding the Johnsons' work paled compared to that elicited by the titillating Ingagi (1930), banned by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America for attempting to pass off the Selig Studio in Los Angeles as an African location, a costumed actor as a gorilla, and white actresses in black-face as indigenous Africans.

While Congorilla and Ingagi scandalized, Paul L. Hoefler's Africa Speaks (1930) strove to reinvigorate the expedition film, touting its use of sound technology as a first for the genre. The much-parodied Africa Speaks (Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Abbott and Costello, and Porky Pig appeared in send-ups of the film) drew on genre traditions, mixing wildlife with ethnographic footage as racist comic relief, using rear-screen projection to enhance dramatic action, even incorporating staged scenes in which the party's Maasai gun bearer appears to be killed by lions, which are then shot by Hoefler and sidekick Harold Austin.

This decline into hoary formulae occurred alongside shifting patterns of production and distribution, economic and political conditions that affected the leisure travel from which these films derived, and new priorities for independent nonfiction filmmakers. Nevertheless, remarkable nature filmmaking continued to take place, much of it outside the United States. Noteworthy figures from British scientific and cinematic worlds collaborated on The Private Life of the Gannet (1934), an unusual divergence from the expedition format. The film focused on a colony of diving birds located on an island off the Welsh coast rather than on the adventures of the naturalist-filmmakers trekking after them. The biologist Julian Huxley (1887–1975) wrote the script for the short film, which was produced by Alexander Korda (1893–1956) to be released with his own Scarlet Pimpernel (1934); John Grierson (1898–1972) shot the final scenes.

Meanwhile, scientists and naturalists produced vast stores of nature films that would be used by researchers and distributed within the largely educational, nontheatrical market. These films tended to focus on single species—most notably Ethology of the Greylag Goose (Konrad Lorenz, 1938) and The Social Behavior of the Laughing Gull (Gladwyn Kingsley Noble, 1940), which skillfully captured animal behaviors on film and made them available to specialists, students, and interested amateurs for future study. In France, the experimental filmmaker Jean Painlevé (1902–1989) advanced underwater cinematography with shorts such as The Sea Horse (1934) and Freshwater Assassins (1947). In Sweden, Arne Sucksdorff (1917–2001) completed the first film of his prolific and innovative career in 1939. At the end of the 1940s, nature filmmaking would return, in new forms, in the United States.

b. Stockholm, Sweden, 3 February 1917, d. 4 May 2001

Arne Sucksdorff was Sweden's leading documentary filmmaker. His career began with studies in the natural sciences and painting, but he devoted himself as a young man to photography and film. His first short film, Rhapsody in August (Augustirapsodi, 1939), completed when he was only twenty-two years old, led to a contract with Svensk Filmindustri, then Sweden's leading studio.

Throughout the 1940s, Sucksdorff examined Swedish wildlife in short films produced for the studio, including En Sommarsaga (A Summer's Tale, 1941), Reindeer Time (1943), Gull (Trut, 1944), and En kluven värid (A Divided World, 1948). Foreshadowing the direction his work would take in the 1950s, The Shadow of the Hunter (1947) and Shadows on the Snow (1949) staged encounters in which hunters track but decline to shoot deer and bear, respectively. These works closely observed and dramatized animal behavior, treating animals as characters locked in life-or-death struggles, punctuated by humor and tenderness, and carried along by florid musical scores. Sucksdorff accomplished first what Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures are often credited with innovating—and without the advantages of Disney branding or budgets; while the True-Life Adventures hit the silver screen in Technicolor, Sucksdorff worked throughout his career in sumptuous black-and-white tones and eschewed windy voice-over narration in favor of pictorial storytelling.

Sucksdorff also took on urban and ethnographic subjects in the Oscar®-winning Människo i stad (Rhythm of a City, 1946), Uppbrott (The Open Road, 1948), and Vinden och floden (The Wind and the River, 1950). In Journée scandinave (The Living Stream, 1950), the filmmaker traced the flow of goods and services throughout Scandinavia in a project co-produced by the Economic Cooperation Administration to promote the postwar Marshall Plan. He first tackled feature filmmaking with Det stora äventyret (The Great Adventure, 1953), casting his sons and himself in important roles. In the film, which won awards at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, nature and culture collide as two young farm boys raise an otter that must eventually be returned to the wild. Sucksdorff followed The Great Adventure with En Djungelsaga (The Flute and the Arrow, 1957) and Pojken i trädet (The Boy in the Tree, 1961), his last film shot in Sweden.

In 1962 Sucksdorff relocated to Brazil to teach filmmaking under the aegis of UNESCO. He stayed for nearly three decades, writing volumes but completing only one film, Mitt hem är Copacabana (My Home Is Copacabana, 1965), which earned the Best Director Guldbagge Award back in Sweden. Sucksdorff did, however, contribute charmingly intimate scenes of penguins nesting, mating, and raising their chicks to the otherwise tedious fiction film, Cry of the Penguins (Mr. Forbush and the Penguins, 1971).


A Summer's Tale (1941), The Shadow of the Hunter (1947), A Divided World (1948), Shadows in the Snow (1948), Det stora äventyret (The Great Adventure, 1953), Cry of the Penguins (Mr. Forbush and the Penguins, 1971)


Cowie, Peter. Swedish Cinema. New York: Barnes, 1966; London: Zwemmer, 1966.

Davidson, David. "The Step Backwards: Arne Sucksdorff's Divided Worlds." Scandinavica 20, no. 1 (1981): 87–97.

MacDonald, Scott. Cinema 16: Documents toward a History of the Film Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.

Young, Vernon. On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972.

Cynthia Chris


How Walt Disney (1901–1966) got into nature filmmaking is the stuff of Disney legends. Disney's inspiration for the True-Life Adventures may have been wildlife footage that Disney animators sketched from while

developing Bambi (1942). Maybe Disney was inspired by nature itself, while on vacation in Alaska. Or perhaps the move was more calculated: nature filmmaking provided an affordable means (compared to labor-intensive animated films) through which Disney could continue to produce new titles during a general downturn in the film industry. In any case, Disney hired the amateur filmmakers Alfred and Elma Milotte to gather the footage that would become Seal Island (1948). In 1949, this short bacame the first of many in the True-Life Adventure series to win an Academy Award® (in a documentary category) and to enjoy a surprisingly lucrative theatrical release. To capitalize on its success, Disney expanded the series to include the shorts Beaver Valley (1950), Nature's Half-Acre (1951), The Olympic Elk (1952), Water Birds (1952), Bear Country (1953), Prowlers of the Everglades (1953), and Islands of the Seas (1960), as well as the features The Living Desert (1953), The Vanishing Prairie (1954), The African Lion (1955), Secrets of Life (1956), White Wilderness (1958), and Jungle Cat (1960).

The series repopularized the nature film in a form that was new in a number of ways. First, the True-Life Adventures melded close observations of animal behavior that was already endemic to scientific nature films, footage gathered through both patient fieldwork and frequently imperceptible stagings, and dramatic storylines derived from already classic Disney formulae. While the series employed scores of scientific advisors and nature filmmakers, it was overseen by directors and writers such as James Algar (1912–1998), who had worked on Disney classics such as Fantasia (1940) and Bambi. Under Disney control, the classic form of the nature film shifted from expedition travelogues based on human activities to the struggle for survival or the coming of age of anthropomorphized animal protagonists.

Most of the True-Life Adventures featured North American wildlife and landscapes, whereas pre–World War II expedition films had emphasized more exotic locations. The True-Life Adventures hinted far more often than their expedition predecessors that wild species were not endlessly plentiful and expendable but instead threatened by shrinking habitats and other factors as well as inherently valuable. They also infused explicit conservationist values into the genre. Despite these innovations, which influenced later generations of nature filmmakers, Disney jettisoned the constraints of nonfiction and launched a short-lived True-Life Fantasy series with the squirrel story Perri (1957). In the long term, the Disney studio favored fictional stories employing trained animals—mostly cats and dogs—interacting with humans.


Even as Walt Disney returned nature films to movie theaters, the wider film industry began facing competition from the new medium of television in the post–World War II era. In 1945, the Lincoln Park Zoo's director, Marlin Perkins (1905–1986), began taking animals to a Chicago TV station for occasional live broad-casts. By 1949, Perkins had convinced the local NBC affiliate, WNBQ, to help transform the staid show-and-tell format by shooting at the zoo itself, under the title Zoo Parade. By the time the show was cancelled in 1957, a few episodes had also been filmed in African conservation parks. Perkins and other nature filmmaking pioneers, such as Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910–1997), who began contributing oceanographic segments to CBS's Omnibus series in 1954, and David Attenborough (b. 1926), in his first of many series for the BBC, Zoo Quest (1954–1964), moved out of the studio and zoo and into the field with film crews in tow. The technological, aesthetic, and narrative features of cinematic and televisual nature filmmaking for a time became more or less indistinguishable. Perkins's next series, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, which premiered on NBC in 1963 and continued in syndication until 1988, visited conservation parks worldwide, where his crew sometimes participated in tagging animals for research purposes, adding fast-paced chase scenes and action, harking back in style (if differing in purpose) to pre-war expedition films.

Nature filled a niche for programming that was educational as well as entertaining. CBS launched the long-running National Geographic Specials in 1965; ABC began to host The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau specials in 1968; Bill Burrud's Animal World (1968–1980) and a host of imitators joined Wild Kingdom in the market for half-hour syndicated programs after the Federal Communications Commission forced the networks to acquire some of their programming from independent sources. But in the 1970s, with the relaxation of the federal Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, commercial demand for the genre waned. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) became the primary home in the United States for nature filmmaking: in 1974, the science-oriented series NOVA premiered with Oxford Scientific Films' "The Making of a Natural History Film," which had been made for BBC-2's series Horizon as its first episode. In 1975, the series National Geographic Specials moved to PBS. In 1982, PBS redoubled its commitment to nature subjects, adding the series Nature (produced by WNET and frequently airing programs acquired from or coproduced with the BBC Natural History Unit), David Attenborough's Life on Earth, and Marty Stouffer's Wild America to its schedule.

It took a booming cable television industry to reposition nature as a TV genre with commercial potential. In 1985, The Discovery Channel went on the air with a schedule full of nature, science, and exploration documentaries. The cable Discovery Channel was then a fledging upstart; it eventually became one of the most widely distributed of cable channels, reaching almost 90 million homes in the United States and another 385 million homes in some 160 countries. Discovery used nature as a kind of flagship, consolidated under the series title Wild Discovery. Thanks to its heavily promoted, high-rated specials, such as the annual Shark Week, other cable channels began to follow suit. These successes laid the groundwork for the launch of a spin-off channel, Animal Planet, in 1996. Animal Planet is a joint venture involving the BBC in global markets and features classic wildlife filmmaking. It has made minor celebrities of a new generation of on-camera hosts (foremost, Steve Irwin of The Crocodile Hunter, a hit for the channel launched in 1996); provides hours of programming about pets as well as "wild" animals; eagerly hybridizies nature with other genres, including so-called reality TV (Animal Cops, beginning 2002), game, and talent shows (Pet Star, beginning 2002); and frequently consists of productions shot on video rather than on film. The Discovery–BBC alliance has also resulted in high-profile programs such as Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (2001), speculative dramatizations about the daily lives of long-extinct life forms rendered through computer-generated imagery, and Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Ocean (2002), a gorgeously produced eight-part survey of marine life.

When Animal Planet reached global markets, National Geographic Television countered by partnering with NBC and News Corporation to launch its own cable channel, first shown in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia in 1997–1998, and reaching US markets in 2001. Nature now sprawled throughout television, as both broadcast and cable channels experimented with cost-cutting "reality-based" and other nonfiction genres and competed ever more fiercely for demographic niches (especially for that of young adult males) thought to cluster around this kind of programming. In 1991, the Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) hosted Attenborough's popular BBC series The Trials of Life; the highbrow National Geographic Specials returned to NBC in 1995; the Fox broadcast network dabbled with lowbrow miniseries and specials such as When Animals Attack (1996–1997); and MTV's Jackass crew remade itself as Wildboyz (2003–2004), which set its roughhousing stunts amid wildlife (and sometimes ethnographic) filmmaking conventions.


While animal programming boomed on TV, nonfiction nature ventures in theatrical distribution remained scant, with the exception of an emerging specialty market. In the 1970s, the IMAX Corporation had introduced a new 70mm cinema format; theaters capable of screening the towering image were installed mainly in natural history and science museums. Both format and context proved particularly friendly to sweeping land- and seascapes. Accordingly, many IMAX films have featured nature subjects, such as Beavers (1988), Blue Planet (1990), Everest (1996), Island of the Sharks (1999), Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees (2002), and the 3-D Bugs! (2003). Occasionally the format has turned to computer-generated imagery and dramatic storylines, as in T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998) and China: The Panda Adventure (2001).

Once animal TV proliferated and nature subjects found new outlets in large-format cinema, filmmakers with careers in other genres began straying into nature productions. For example, the French-German television network Arte premiered Impressionen unter Wasser (Impressions of the Deep) by Leni Riefenstahl

(1902–2003), director of Nazi propaganda films including Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938), as part of a celebration of Riefenstahl's hundredth birthday in 2002. After waterbound dramatic features such as the aquatic sci-fi flop The Abyss (1989) and the stunning success of Titanic (1997), James Cameron (b. 1954) began to experiment with documentary and undersea projects in the IMAX format, eventually directing Aliens of the Deep (2005). Others borrowed nature filmmaking techniques and aesthetics for animal-centered dramas. L'Ours (The Bear, 1988), by the eclectic French director Jean-Jacques Annaud (b. 1943), employed Bart the Bear, who also appears in Legends of the Fall (1994) and a dozen other films, as an adult male who adopts an orphaned cub. Entirely a fiction, The Bear contains many features derived from classic Disneyana: as in Bambi, the animal protagonist's mother is killed, while the surrogate father and the cub evade hunters; the coming-of-age narrative also echoes elements of the True-Life Adventures. Annaud's second dramatic wildlife feature, Deux frères (Two Brothers, 2004), features an equally unlikely tale of twin tiger cubs, separated upon their mother's death, abused in captivity, then reunited and returned to the wild.

Few late twentieth- and early twenty-first century nonfiction feature films enjoyed theatrical releases: Microcosmos (1996), a lush exploration of insect life produced by the French actor Jacques Perrin, was distributed by Miramax in the United States to disappointing earnings of $1.4 million. Discovery briefly tried its hand with The Leopard Son (1996), filmed by the Baron Hugo van Lawick, which opened even more modestly and was quickly recast as a Discovery Channel special and home video title. Still, nature filmmakers continued to brave the theatrical market. Le Peuple migrateur (Winged Migration, 2002), produced and directed by Perrin and released by Sony, earned $10 million in the United States. The film, containing footage obtained from inventive aerial camera units, and sometimes using imprinted geese, ducks, cranes, and storks hand-raised for use in the film, suggested that significant audiences could still be drawn to theaters around especially spectacular nature projects. Miramax timidly edged the BBC Natural History Unit's Deep Blue (2005), a less impressive follow-up to the Blue Planet series by veteran Alastair Fothergill, into theaters, while La Marche de l'empereur (March of the Penguins), directed by Luc Jacquet for Bonne Pioche, was released in the United States by Warner Independent and National Geographic films in 2005 to wide acclaim. March, said to have been made for $2 million, earned $70 million in the United States within three months, was awarded an Academy Award® in 2006, and became a best-seller as a home video release. Despite these exceptional theatrical releases, nature remains in the twenty-first century a predominately televisual genre.

SEE ALSO Animal Actors;Documentary;Walt Disney Company


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Cynthia Chris

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