Nature documentary

A natural history film or wildlife film is a documentary film about animals, plants, or other non-human living creatures, usually concentrating on film taken in their natural habitat. Sometimes they are about wild animals, plants, or ecosystems in relationship to human beings. Such programmes are most frequently made for television, particularly for public broadcasting channels, but some are also made for the cinema medium. The proliferation of this genre occurred almost simultaneously alongside the production of similar television series.


In cinema

Robert J. Flaherty's 1922 film Nanook of the North is typically cited as the first feature-length documentary. Decades later, The Walt Disney Company pioneered the serial theatrical release of nature-documentaries with its production of the True-Life Adventures series, a collection of fourteen full length and short subject nature films from 1948 to 1960.[1] Prominent among those were The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954), both written and directed by James Algar.

The first full-length nature-documentary films pioneering colour underwater cinematography were the Italian film Sesto Continente (The Sixth Continent) and the French film Le Monde du silence (The Silent World). Directed by Folco Quilici Sesto Continente was shot in 1952 and first exhibited to Italian audiences in 1954.[2] The Silent World, shot in 1954 and 1955 by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle, was first released in 1956.[3]

Many other nature-documentary films followed in subsequent years, such as those made by Nicolas Vanier (The Last Trapper, 2004), Luc Jacquet (March of the Penguins, 2005), and Alastair Fothergill (African Cats, 2011), among others.

In television

Television nature documentaries started on CBC television with the series Fur and Feathers (1955–1956), hosted by Ian McTaggart-Cowan.[4] At approximately the same time, nature documentaries also started on BBC television with the long-running series Look, a studio-based magazine-program with filmed inserts, hosted by Sir Peter Scott from 1955 to 1981. The first 50-minute weekly documentary series, The World About Us, began with a color installment from the French filmmaker Haroun Tazieff, called "Volcano". Around 1982, the series changed its title to The Natural World, which the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol continues to produce as of 2014. In 1961, Anglia Television produced the first of the award-winning Survival series. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, several other television companies round the world set up their own specialized natural-history departments, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Melbourne, Australia and TVNZ's unit in Dunedin, New Zealand — both still in existence, the latter having changed its name to "NHNZ". ITV's contribution to the genre, Survival, became a prolific series of single films. It was eventually axed when the network introduced a controversial new schedule which many commentators have criticized as "dumbing down".

Wildlife and natural history films have boomed in popularity and have become one of modern society's most important sources of information about the natural world. Yet film and television critics and scholars have largely ignored them.

The BBC television series Walking With, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, used computer-generated imagery (CGI) and animatronics to film prehistoric life in a similar manner to other nature documentaries. The shows (Walking with Dinosaurs, Walking with Beasts, and Walking with Monsters) had three spinoffs, two of which featured Nigel Marven: Chased by Dinosaurs and Sea Monsters: A Walking with Dinosaurs Trilogy. Robert Winston presented Walking with Cavemen.



Most nature documentary films or television series focus on a particular species, ecosystem, or scientific idea (such as evolution). Although most take a scientific and educational approach, some anthropomorphise their subjects or present animals purely for the viewer's pleasure. In a few instances, they are in presented in ethnographic film[5] formats and contain stories that involve humans and their relationships with the natural world - as in Nanook of the North (1922), The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), and Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925).

Although almost all have a human presenter, the role varies widely, ranging from explanatory voiceovers to extensive interaction or even confrontation with animals.

Most nature documentaries are made for television and are usually of 45 to 50 minutes duration, but some are made as full-length cinematic presentations.

Such films include:

In addition, the BBC's The Blue Planet and Planet Earth series have both been adapted for theatrical release.[6]

In some cases, nature documentaries are produced in the short subject form and are subsequently screened in theaters or broadcast on television. Often they are about the relationship between humans and nature. Notable examples include:

Every two years the Wildscreen Trust, of Bristol in the UK presents the Panda Awards for nature documentaries.

Staged content

Some nature documentaries, particularly those involving animals, have included footage of staged events that appeared to be "natural" but were contrived by the filmmakers or happened in captivity. The most famous example is Walt Disney's White Wilderness (1958) where lemmings were hurled to their deaths but there are examples in modern nature documentaries, such as The Blue Planet (2001)[7] and it hasn't stopped there.[8]

Notable nature documentary filmmakers

Among the many notable filmmakers, scientists, and presenters who have contributed to the medium include:

Sir David Attenborough's contributions to conservation are widely regarded, and his television programs have been seen by millions of people throughout the world. Series narrated and/or presented by him include:

Steve Irwin's documentaries, based on wildlife conservation and environmentalism, aired on Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet. The series comprises:

Bindi Irwin inherited her father Steve Irwin's responsibilities after he died. The following documentaries are based on wildlife and aired on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

List of nature documentary series

In addition to those listed above, the following is a sampling of the genre:

Current production

In recent years, most traditional style 'blue chip' programming has become prohibitively expensive and are funded by a set of co-producers, usually a broadcaster (such as Animal Planet, National Geographic, or NHK, Japan) from one or several countries, a production company, and sometimes a distributor which then has the rights to sell the show into more territories than thI. e original broadcaster.

Two recent examples of co-productions that were filmed by the BBC are The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, the latter being the first series of its kind to be made entirely in high-definition format.

Production companies are increasingly exploiting the filmed material, by making DVDs for home viewing or educational purposes, or selling library footage to advertisers, museum exhibitors, and other documentary producers.

See also


  1. True-Life Adventures
  2. Sesto Continente as mentioned at the IMDB website
  3. In 1956 The Silent World was released in three different countries: France (May 26, 1956), Japan (August 15, 1956) and the United States (September 24, 1956). See the release information page at the IMDB website.
  4. Ian McTaggart-Cowan bio shines light on pioneering TV nature program host
  5. Ethnographic film
  6. BBC Press Office: Planet Earth set for movie release
  7. "BBC defends indoor lobster footage". BBC News Online. 14 October 2001. Retrieved Apr 18, 2012.
  8. "FAKERY in Wildlife Documentaries". the fifth estate. CBC Television. Nov 26, 2008. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
  9. Information on King of the Jungle series. (2005-07-14). Retrieved on 2012-09-05.
  10. Official show page for Ocean Mysteries. (2011-08-31). Retrieved on 2012-09-05.

Further reading

External links

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