Behind the scenes on a BBC nature documentary

by • July 1, 2013 • General, Personal MusingsComments Off9640

I spent last week on the island of Bimini in The Bahamas together with a film crew from the BBC, and witnessed nature documentary sausage being made. They were on Bimini to shoot sequences for an upcoming science/nature documentary on animal intelligence, and were following along with the research that my research org (the Dolphin Communication Project) conducts with wild spotted dolphins.

Now I’ve watched plenty of BBC nature documentaries, and have always been happy with the BBC’s ability to make science sexy without resorting to sensationalist or anti-science practices. Things like pawning off fake documentaries as real ones (Mermaids), or suggesting that the presenter is ‘abandoned’ in the wild when he is actually staying in a nearby hotel (Bear Grylls), or having a presenter ‘rescue’ snakes from a pool that had been purposely thrown in there by the producers (Turtleman). I’m pleased to say that nothing I saw on Bimini resembled these types of shenanigans. Sure they needed to re-shoot a few interviews in order to re-create a previous conversation that had happened right after swimming with the dolphins, but these are the necessary evils when shooting in the field. Sometimes the lighting was just not right, or the audio was masked by boat engines, or the presenter was out of breath. But it was all above board. And being behind the scenes on a documentary shoot made me appreciate the amount of work that goes into this type of project. The crew were working flat out for days on end, spending hours and hours prepping for shots that will only be onscreen for a moment or two in the finished version.

Only one aspect of the process left me feeling uneasy. Perhaps it was my own naivete when it comes to these things, but I had expected our researchers to sit down with the producers and presenter and spend hours discussing dolphin science over a couple of beers. In my head, I thought that these conversations would be used to shape the final outcome of the documentary. But once we got into the business of filming, it was obvious that the background research had already been conducted, and the crew was there to breathe life into the script by filling it up with shots of dolphins swimming around the presenter, and recording a handful of interviews with DCP researchers as they answered specific questions. Obviously the interviews and the dolphin behavior will form the basis for the documentary, but I had the feeling that there was not much room to explore topics that were off-script. I suppose this makes sense insofar as it costs a lot of money to send a film crew out to a field site, and you can’t just wing it once you’re out there. You need structure. You need a plan.

The problem is, I was never 100% clear what the plan was. I know that this documentary is about animal intelligence, and social behavior in particular. And I know they’ve interviewed other dolphin researchers like Lori Marino and Diana Reiss. But I was unsure as to the exact angle or message that the documentary was going for. Not that the BBC folks were necessarily being tight-lipped, but they were not in the habit of sharing all of the details of the project with the scientists they work with. Unfortunately, all this vagueness left me wondering what their end-game was. Would the shots they filmed with us end up in some sensationalist puff-piece about dolphins being the second most intelligent animal on the planet? Were they going to suggest that humans and dolphins will one day be able to hold two-way conversations in the way John Lilly had predicted? Would they address the current legal battles concerning dolphin personhood? How were they planning to tackle controversial subjects like captivity? None of this was clear. I know that I – as well as my colleagues at DCP – could have helped them explore these ideas. But I fear that our input would only have received polite smiles. The plan, whatever its details, had already been set in stone before they arrived on Bimini.

Now I do trust the BBC. And I trust the director of this documentary – he came across as a science-minded guy with a serious academic interest in animal behavior. But the current spate of Mermaids/Grylls/Turtleman foolishness has made me nervous. We just have to keep our fingers crossed that the science is not going to be distorted for the sake of compelling television and wind up as docu-nonsense. I don’t expect it will. I am very much looking forward to the final product, and to seeing our research on film.

UPDATE: The documentary is now being aired – it’s titled Inside the Animal Mind. I saw the first episode last night, and they did a wonderful job with it. The science is spot on, and the subject matter is compelling. More updates after our Bimini footage airs, but so far the BBC has lived up to expectations.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I’ve now seen the third episode which highlights DCP’s work on Bimini. Overall, it was another well produced episode with solid scientific info. It veered a bit into the ‘dolphins have a language’ gray area, but I thought Vincent Janik‘s overview of the differences between human language and animal communication was spot on. Final conclusion: they did a great job with the material and I recommend this series!

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