Chris Palmer: An insider’s account of wildlife moviemaking

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Chris Palmer: An insider’s account of wildlife moviemaking

Chris Palmer is one of the world’s most distinguished wildlife film producers, winning two Emmys and an Oscar nomination, and working with a host of Hollywood stars. Now a professor of film at the American University, he tells David W. Smith how he found a vocation and why wildlife filmmaking must not lose its ethics in the hunt for ratings.

Duration : 4 min to read

When did your passion for nature develop?

Funnily enough, when I was growing up, I never gave it a thought. In my family we rarely discussed conservation, or the natural world. I write in my new book Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker, how it evolved into a mission. For a long time, I was floundering and didn’t know what to do in life. I was an engineer in the warship design business in the UK, then I got I got into energy policy after I immigrated to the US. But I was trying this and trying that and I finally got into the TV business because I wanted to have more influence on what was going on. I became aware of the interconnectedness of all species and how saving animals can save lots of other things, too, including us. It struck me that having clean air, water and soil, and abundant wildlife were worthy goals to devote one’s life to. I wanted to make films that would influence people and get the right people elected on Capitol Hill.

Do you think wildlife films can be influential?

They can make a difference if you think hard about making them into campaigns and not just entertainments. I made a film back in 1989 with the actor Paul Newman called Rage Over Trees, which caused a ruckus and a boycott and headlines in the newspapers. It led directly to the saving of a forest in Portland, Oregon. But too often films are made as entertainments. They appear briefly and then evaporate.  Although channels like National Geographic, Discovery, History Channel, Animal Planel and Learning are all run by good, honourable people who teach their kids about the environment and recycling, they get caught up in the politics of institutions driven by ratings. It forces them into behaviours that they won’t look back on with any pride.

Can you give an example of how that influences the types of documentaries being made?

The Discovery Channel recently produced its so-called Eaten Alive episode. They promised that naturalist Paul Rosolie would be eaten by an anaconda armed with a ‘snake-proof’ suit. Of course, he didn’t even go near the animal’s jaws. But, worse than the false advertising, was the terrible example of animal-human relations in the programme. The snakes were jumped on, goaded and grabbed. Animal harassment for entertainment is increasingly common on nature reality TV shows and it’s deeply unethical. It’s an example of a documentary designed to get high ratings, but which has a negative social impact. Egged on by the broadcasters, the filmmakers seek to capture ‘money shots’ so they will be hired again and can build their careers. My book is a call to arms to persuade the networks that they have responsibilities beyond ratings.

Is this unethical behaviour true of the BBC?

The BBC has a long history of being concerned with ethics. They’ve made mistakes, like everyone, but they are a good example of how to do it properly and are way ahead of their US counterparts. It’s partly because they are funded by the licence fee and not advertising, so they chase ratings less. The BBC is not above setting up scenes, however. Even David Attenborough arranged for scorpions to mate in a studio with a painted sunset and Styrofoam clouds as a backdrop.

Have you had any hair-raising adventures?

I’ve had some fantastic experiences, including swimming with dolphins and whales, getting close to Kodiak bears and camping with wolf packs. But the truth is the most dangerous part of my job is the cab ride from my house to the airport. We’re very careful when we go into the wild. We don’t just wade deep into bear country. We take scientists as advisors and we get all the right injections. One of the key things is to be courteous and respectful when you’re around big animals. Basically, you don’t do anything stupid.

Do you see grounds for optimism about the future of wildlife filmmaking?

We’ve seen a load of good documentaries about nature in recent years in movie houses. They include Louie Psiyohos’ The Cove about dolphin hunting practices in Japan and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Psiyohos is making a new film about endangered species. These films stir up argument and are a positive development. But we must remember that not all documentaries are made by progressive people. The National Rifle Association recently made one which would not conform to my personal views…

You were also a stand-up comedian for five years? Did you use environmental material?

When I started I used quite a bit of material about wildlife, but over time I cut it down. People reacted better to material about my daughters going on dates, and getting old and decrepit. Everyone can relate to jokes about marriage, love and children. Having said that, I always included a few jokes about wildlife and filmmaking and some went down well. I would say, ‘Bears can kill you, so you always go into bear country with someone…that you can outrun’. And ‘wear tiny bells to warn bears away. And look out for bear poop, easily recognizable because it contains tiny bells’.”

Do you see a real passion for the environment among your students?

My students care deeply and they want to change the world and do something about climate change. They fill me full of hope. But my optimism is tempered because the world is facing so many dire problems, including ocean acidification, the spread of toxic carcinogenic chemicals and loss of species diversity. My generation – I’m 67 – has left the world in a shameful, embarrassing mess.

You eat a plant-based diet? Why did you make that choice?

It’s amazing how the world consumes far too much meat and dairy with disastrous effects on the environment. That’s because the meat and dairy industries have such a grip on the body politic. But it’s a taboo subject and people behave hypocritically. I was hosting an awards ceremony last year where the director of Titanic, James Cameron, made a speech about how anyone talking about climate change, but eating meat was hypocritical. He said not eating animals was the best thing we could do for the planet. Everyone nodded and applauded. Then they sat down to eat plates of meat…

Animal harassment for entertainment is increasingly common on nature reality TV shows and it’s deeply unethical… Filmmakers, egged on by the broadcasters, seek to capture ‘money shots’ so they will be hired again and can build their careers,’ Chris Palmer

We may be moving slowly towards a vegetarian diet. More and more of my students are vegetarians. My hope is that in 150 years people will look back on eating meat as we now look back on slavery as absolutely detestable, but who knows?

Have you got a piece of advice for someone floundering around as you once were?

Yes, one thing that helped me to find a fulfilling life was to create a personal mission statement in my early twenties. I found it to be a powerful, even transformative mechanism to help me focus. Every few months I fine-tune it. I try to articulate in the most powerful language what I want my life to look like, then I plan my week around it. I need to be organized as I have lots to do – I’m a full-time faculty professor, but I also do a lot of writing and lecturing and I serve on 14 non-profit boards and I run two non-profits. It’s a wonderful life and I’m very lucky.

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