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. Such programs are most frequently made for television, particularly for public broadcasting channels, but some are also made for the cinema, medium, in fact, where this genre started almost simultaneously alongside television series.
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 1954.1 The Silent World, shot in 1954 and 1955 by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle, was first releasedby whom? in 1956.2
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.
Television documentaries 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 was The World About Us, which began with a color installment from the French filmmaker Haroun Tazieff, called "Volcano". Around 1982, the series changed its title to The Natural World and is still in production today at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol. In 1961 Anglia Television produced the first of the Survival award-winning series. During the late 1970s and early 1980s several other television companies round the world set up their own specialized natural history departments, including ABC 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 was Survival, 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 they have been largely ignored by film and television critics and scholars. The BBC television series 'Walking With' used Computer Generated imagery and Animatronics to recreate prehistoric life in a similar manner to other nature documentaries.They were narrated by Kenneth Branagh .The shows were Walking with Dinosaurs, Walking with Beasts and Walking with Monsters. They also included three spinoffs, two of which featured Nigel Marven. They were Chased by Dinosaurs and Sea Monsters: A Walking with Dinosaurs Trilogy. Walking with Cavemen is presented by Robert Winston.
Most programs or 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.
Although almost all have a human presenter, the role varies widely, ranging from explanatory voiceovers to extensive interaction or even confrontation with animals.
Well-known nature documentary makers and presenters include Oscar-winning Bernhard Grzimek, Sir David Attenborough, Richard Brock, Jacques Cousteau, Marlin Perkins, Heinz Sielmann, Hugo van Lawick, Jeff Corwin, Mark Strickson, Neil Harraway, Steve Irwin, Nigel Marven, Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente and Marty Stouffer.
Most documentaries are for television and are usually of 45–50 minutes duration, but some are made as full-length cinematic presentations.
Such films include:
- Animals Are Beautiful People
- Serengeti Shall Not Die
- The Last Paradises: On the Track of Rare Animals
- The Living Desert
- March of the Penguins
- The Leopard Son
- Among The Great Apes With Michelle Yeoh
- Winged Migration
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)4 and it hasn't stopped there.5
A series on animal predation that takes a different, more graphical, approach than to most nature documentaries. This award winning series is one of the most comprehensive ever made about predator/prey relations and is popular with a range of audiences worldwide. Originally made by Granada Wild for the National Geographic Channel, it now exceeds 30 episodes, each 48 mins in length, a total of 1488 mins (24 hours and 48 mins).
Some documentaries are also presented as television miniseries. The most notable of these are the BBC's 'Life' series, written and presented by Sir David Attenborough, whose contribution to conservation is widely regarded, and whose programmes have been seen by millions of people throughout the world. The series comprises:
- Life on Earth (1979), 13 episodes
- The Living Planet (1984), 12 episodes
- The Trials of Life (1990), 12 episodes
- Life in the Freezer (1993), 6 episodes
- The Private Life of Plants (1995), 6 episodes
- The Life of Birds (1998), 10 episodes
- The Life of Mammals (2002), 10 episodes
- Life in the Undergrowth (2005), 5 episodes
- Planet Earth (2006), 11 episodes
- Life in Cold Blood (2008), 5 episodes
- Life (2009), 10 episodes
- The Crocodile Hunter (1992–2004), 74 episodes
- The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002), Movie
- Crocodile Hunter's Croc Files (1999), 52 episodes
- Ten Deadliest Snakes In The World (2001)
- The Crocodile Hunter Diaries (2001–2003), 30 episodes
- New Breed Vets (2005), 6 episodes
- Ocean's Deadliest (2006)
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 the original broadcaster.
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.
- Sesto Continente as mentioned at the IMDB website
- 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.
- BBC Press Office: Planet Earth set for movie release
- "BBC defends indoor lobster footage". BBC News Online. 14 October 2001. Retrieved Apr-18-2012.
- "FAKERY in Wildlife Documentaries". the fifth estate. CBC Television. Nov 26, 2008. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
- Gregg Mitman: Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classics), Paperback (Second Edition), Combined Academic Publishers, 2009, ISBN 0-295-98886-X
- Chris Palmer: Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom, Sierra Club Books, 2010, ISBN 1578051487
- Light & Shadow Productions: German nature documentary company
- "The Mysterious Bee" An award winning documentary about Honey Bees
- Trouble in Lemur Land – a professional 50 minute HD film about illegal rosewood logging in Madagascar and the impact on the silky sifaka lemur