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Adventures in Storytelling: Pushing the Boundaries at Jackson Hole

By Dianna Costello

From Big Cat Diary, which screened at the 2005 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival

In a year when both the crowd-pleasing, anthropomorphic March of the Penguins and Grizzly Man, the cautionary tale on the dangers of anthropomorphism, achieved box office success, natural history documentaries pushed the boundaries of storytelling to capture more mainstream audiences than ever before. Nowhere was this shift in storytelling approaches more relevant than at the recent Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, considered by many the premiere natural history gathering for wildlife filmmakers and network executives.

Emotion-based and Character-driven Docs

Among the many panels offered at the festival, "Survival of the Fittest: A Paradigm Shift in Storytelling " explored the trend towards emotion-based, character-driven stories. With the success of the aforementioned documentaries ,Brian Leith, head of Granada Wild, broached the question whether there's a danger of emotions getting in the way of the facts. John Ford, executive vice president of programming at National Geographic, commented, "If you don't have the facts, it will get in the way of the emotion." Mike Gunton, director of development for the BBC, maintained that audiences want an educational, informational and entertainment experience and that even though we're moving more towards the latter, it isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as it doesn't verge on melodrama.

One of festival's hot topics centered on the "culturally appropriate" versions of March of the Penguins that were released--a French version that gave voices to the three main penguin characters (mother, father and baby) and an Americanized version that opted for voiceover narration by actor Morgan Freeman. The decision to release the latter was made by National Geographic Feature Films and its distribution partner, Warner Independent Films, after they acquired the film from the French production company Bonne Pioche. "We saw it as a grand, natural history epic story," remarks Kattie Evans, director of acquisitions at National Geographic Feature Films. "We wanted a storyteller, like a grandfather or your favorite uncle, recounting this unbelievable tale to you, so that's where the notion came for creating one voice telling you the story, drawing you in with the facts but being very gentle and comforting at the same time."

What Keenan Smart, head of National Geographic's Natural History Unit, finds so ironic is that the emperor penguin story is one of the oldest stories in natural history filmmaking. Yet Smart points out, "In recent years the French have created a tradition in natural history filmmaking. It's almost as if they're re-inventing the wheel with spectacular success." The difference? "One of the reasons that I think people have flocked to March of the Penguins, apart from the human, heroic quality of the tale, is the anthropomorphic elements in one of the harshest places in the world, where 'love conquers all.'"

Yet some critics say those elements mislead people into thinking that animals and humans share similar emotions. According to Leith , "Emotion basically means anthropomorphism, identifying with things, pretending that animals have feelings like we do. There is a danger line that we could cross here into the realms of romanticizing and misleading people about nature." For Leith , that was the whole point of Grizzly Man. " Werner Herzog's film is a rather devastating investigation of the completely unrealistic idea of nature that [protagonist] Tim Treadwell had that led to his death."

Aware of criticisms leveled at March of the Penguins, Smart still believes this trend of emotion-based storytelling will continue and even indicates we may be entering a period where we will experience the world of animals through their perceptions, their trials and tribulations and the problems they encounter on a regular basis. "Those sorts of dramas are being played out day in and day out in the natural world in a way where you're conveying the reality of the animal's life," he observes. "The technique and trick will be bringing into that [drama] the true nature of the information about this creature and its relationship to its world."

Neil Nightingale, head of BBC's Natural History Unit, notes that the BBC has had great success with animal character-driven documentaries that are observation-based, such as Big Cat Diary and Elephant Diary, which in turn have led to the production of Chimp Diaryand Big Bear Diary. According to Nightingale, even though they imbue the animals with character and emotion, he doesn't feel these programs are anthropomorphic. "It's the reality of filming the animals and exactly what happens. I don't think there's anthropomorphism with those programs that have presenters. I think there's certainly a lot of empathy between them and the animals."

Tackling Complex Issues

The merits of using anthropomorphism in natural history programs to capture audiences can be hotly debated, but most would agree that a more dangerous threat looms: the inability to engage audiences with complex environmental issues. As Leith comments, "The biggest issues that face us require time to digest and disseminate. Television is in danger of becoming a trivial medium. I don't think that people will stop worrying about the big issues, but they will stop going to television to understand them."

It was that concern that prompted Sea Studios Foundation's David Elisco, series producer of Strange Days on Planet Earth,to explore new storytelling techniques. "Interestingly enough, through the research, we began to realize that the scientists themselves were actually addressing major global issues in the same way that the series is," he notes. "They were seeing an increase in African global dust, and then they were seeing heat rising in the Indian Ocean . They were seeing the rose of asthma in the Caribbean , and they were making all these connections. So, it was by following what was really happening in the world that we began to realize that there is this great mystery that's unfolding. There are these great detectives out there putting this stuff together, and wouldn't it be a great starting point to tell our stories."

With co-production partners National Geographic Television and Film and Vulcan Productions, Sea Studios Foundation designed Strange Days on Planet Earthas detective stories, with each of the four one-hour programs tackling a different issue: invasive species, global climate change, predators and toxins in water.

According to Smart, "The first priority was to get a sense of what the real stories were and then, how do we tackle those in a way that would make them entertaining and keep viewers curious about where the story was going and how it would resolve itself ? " The stories were developed by asking a series of questions for each of the programs. "We say, ' Okay , an hour on global climate change, what are the mysteries?'" explains Elisco. "Who are the protagonists? What are the natural history sequences that we're going to utilize to help tell the story?"

Elisco points out that before pre-production began, Sea Studios Foundation did a lot of upfront research to figure out what was going to resonate with audiences. "At the foundation, we do a good amount of meta-analysis of public opinion polls, but we also hire out independent research firms to help us do front-end evaluation. They not only help us develop and understand where our audience is but they help us hone our message."

Elisco credits Vulcan Productions for pushing Sea Studios Foundation to take this series beyond just creating public awareness of problems to creating measurable impacts or actions. "We cannot continue to make films about the natural world that show it apart from us, beautiful and wonderful in its detail and intricacy, and ignore that that place is falling apart," declares Elisco. The foundation's efforts to create successful impact campaigns paid off with eBay. "People were buying plants and animals from one part of the world and bringing them to another part of the world with the potential to wreak havoc," says Elisco. " eBay , to their credit, wanted to know what they could do, so we worked with them to develop a protocol. If you go on eBay now and try to sell or buy some of the top 10 invasive species, you'll be stopped; you'll be pointed to a website that will explain why."

Interacting with Younger Audiences

While motivating audiences to take action is certainly a big challenge, so is capturing the attention of younger audiences who spend more time surfing the Internet than they do watching television. What's more, it's an audience that's been brought up on reality TV, which creates a more personal, closer-to-the-action experience. David Doyle, vice president of production and development at Animal Planet, hopes to attract the younger generation through storytelling with younger presenters. In 2006, Animal Planet will debut Caught in the Moment with natural history filmmaker Tristan Bayer, whose Earthling film won the "Best Children's Program" award at the festival. Bayer, the son of renowned wildlife cinematographer Wolfgang Bayer, will travel around the world with Vanessa Garnick, his naturalist/artist girlfriend, to capture great moments in the lives of animals. Not only does this series hope to capture the twenty something crowd with a mix of travel, adventure and romance, but each episode is designed to be fast-paced, with a three-to-five minute, MTV-style music videos recapping the show.

Doyle also hopes to attract the "lean-forward" youth generation on their preferred turf--the Internet and mobile entertainment devices. "We always look for ways to pull into the mix with Web chat, or 'mobisodes' for cell phone technology, whether it's great moments in shows or coining a theme song to become a ring tone."

The BBC, which has long been on the cutting edge with its websites designed for public outreach and interactivity, is taking it one step further in 2006 with Spring Watch. States Nightingale, "The audience will be sending in e-mails, digital photos and video to our website. We're turning this into a big resource so the audience is now creating content."

That interactive connection has also been the guiding principle behind A Year on Earth. Produced by Katie Carpenter and John Heminway, this feature documentary follows the adventures of three high school teenagers on a round-the-world exploration of the wildest places and most endangered creatures. According to Carpenter, the big challenge was to design a program that would engage a new generation around environmental issues. "If there was to be a next generation of environmental innovators, they were going to have to be reached now, with media that would truly inspire and motivate them to action.

"We did not dwell on any one concept for too long, no matter how cool it was," Carpenter continues. "This age group thinks fast, processes raw data fast, moves onto the next thing fast and is ready for a whole new discussion after a shorter period of time than the rest of us."

If new technologies are the way to reach younger audiences, Elisco believes it's still all about story: "The trick for us is to not get intoxicated by the technology but to keep thinking about what we want to accomplish, what are the goals, then matching that technology with the message."


Dianna Costello is a Los Angeles-based writer/producer who received an Academy Award nomination for her film Graffitti. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for IDA.