If you’ve watched high quality natural history filmaking, and especially those concerned with the wildlife of our oceans, then the chances are you’ve seen something produced by Mark Brownlow. Mark is series producer of the acclaimed Ocean Giants and has been making world class documentaries for the BBC Natural History Unit in England for nearly twenty years including the landmark Planet Earth. He appeared at WhaleFest 2011 and in 2012 has been telling us where he believes the moving image can take us in our relationship with whales, dolphins, the sea and the planet. He also tells us what he thinks WhaleFest might achieve. Mark was talking to Colin Williams.
There are no two ways about it, most of the population never even go to the seaside and wildlife films still provide a very important function: to give people access to the big picture and impossible places. They can transport people and show them the wonder of nature, while filming technology has opened up huge opportunities for us.
Just around the corner, building on satellite tagging technology, cameras are beginning to appear that we’ll soon be attaching to species like sperm whales as well as other cetaceans. With the downscaling of hard drives and camera size, and as camera systems get better and better, ground-breaking imagery will appear of behaviour that has previously been impossible to capture. It might not be beautiful but will be hugely valuable. However, because you’re attaching something to the animal, there are some controversial ethical issues and it’s not something that any filmmaker should undertake lightly. It should only be done if it’s part of a project, but at that point there’s a reality check involved, and that’s budget.
So if you’re asking me why I do what I do, its because there is always new imagery to go after. There’s a permanent hunger to film new species and new behaviour, but it’s expensive. The reason why people film bottlenosed dolphins so much is that they’re easy to film and therefore affordable. It’s only very rare projects like Planet Earth or Frozen Planet that have the budget to allow you to take a gamble and attempt something new, like the wave washing killer whales that normally you wouldn’t be able to afford to do. We’d all love to film new behaviours and new species but the costs involved are prohibitive.
But when you get it, there is no question that the ground-breaking footage changes attitudes.
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean. At one time everyone liked to think that chimpanzees were benign, warm, positive role models with their friendly nature, scavenging for termites. But when Wildlife on One showed them capturing other monkeys and dismembering them it was a seminal moment. The audience had their cosy preconception of chimps turned on its head and it introduced the reality of chimp biology which meant eating meat which involved pulling apart a live monkey.
There was also a great film about the bottlenosed dolphins of Shark Bay [link not available in some countries] in western Australia and again, perhaps even more than chimps, people like to think of dolphins as smiling, gentle creatures of the ocean. But this film showed male dolphins, as a group, effectively kidnapping females and holding them captive. Films showing this kind of gritty, shocking behaviour turns people’s attitudes.
To shy away from it would be wrong and filmakers have a huge responsibility to present a balanced view of any animal. For instance, the sequence in Planet Earth of killer whales drowning and eating the tongue of a grey whale calf was a memorable one because it presented huge drama in a programme that also contained lighter moments. But it has to be put into context that killer whales have young who have to eat to live – they provide a positive function in the ocean keeping things in check, just like the lions of the savannah. It would be a very different story without these apex predators.
Yes, I do accept a degree of criticism in our industry about what we show. Many filmakers, like me, are ex scientists and perhaps we’re hardened to the realities of nature. We have to be mindful that our audiences are not always as open minded but at the same time, we’re not going to shy away from those realities.
The nature of wildlife filmaking has changed. The good news is that there used to be a complete aversion to environmental issues by programme makers and commissioners. But the environment is much more headline news now, in the public conciousness and no longer an issue for a marginalised audience. There is an awareness creeping in that unless we do something drastic for our planet, that’s it, and I think that TV would look foolish if we ignored environmental issues.
You know as well as I do that within the industry it’s a debate that still goes. We’re not Greenpeace. We’re not paid to make campagning films. We are bound by commercial pressures and we always have to be aware of who is paying the bills. We’re paid to make journalistic films for the viewer to make up their mind where they want to go with it but with that comes huge responsibility. These films can send powerful messages and it’s a very interesting psychology: why do people care about saving pandas when they’re never going to go to China – never going to see one in the wild? Wildlife filming provides that window, it gives an access.
I’m reflecting on all this becuase I know that people are busy planning WhaleFest right now and I can see that although it is in its infancy it is an idea that can bring together the whale industry, media and the general public and can be powerful movement. There is a dilemma between tourism pressure and cetacean well-being and I’ve seen it many times now where unregulated ecotourism is hugely detrimental to the cetaceans. What I love about WhaleFest is that you are addressing the problem and a lot of your work is with ecotourists. I feel that together you are going to promote responsible ecotourism.
I suppose the last thing for me to say is that I believe that ecotourism is key to saving whales and dolphins because it helps if you can attach an economic value to these creatures. There was a model done on caribbean reef sharks. Apparently every reef shark was worth was $30,000 because of the amount of money they generated on shark dives. This stopped fisherman taking the sharks because they were too valuable. I’m a bit of cynic: I think everything’s got to have an economic value to make it on this planet and I think ecotourism will provide that as long as it’s done responsibly. WhaleFest is an open platform to discuss these issues and hopefully we can all work together for the greater good of whales and dolphins.