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Bring 'em back ... alive? The BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs brings extinct species back to life--or something like it.

In their one-hundred-plus year history, wildlife and natural history films have not always been filmed in wild or natural settings. Neither have they always depicted completely natural behavior. Harsh conditions, expensive film stocks and equipment, and most of all the uncertain behavior of animals, have driven many wildlife filmmakers to long for the control enjoyed by their colleagues in feature films. It was this lack of control, in fact, that led many critics to dismiss wildlife films unfairly as being "amateurish." Clearly, there is nothing amateurish about today's wildlife filmmakers, but even those most determined to film authentic wild behavior in the natural settings have found themselves forced by competitive pressures to shoot close-ups, missed shots, dramatic angles, and subtle bits of behavior in enclosures, zoos, laboratories, television studios, and now, finally, in cyberspace. The second century of wildlife films may well be the one in which the wild and often unpredictable behavior of some of the most awesome and ferocious creatures can be made to conform to any scripted scenario, brought under control at last--by a mouse.

Yet well before the age of computer generated imagery, indeed, from the start there have been those wildlife filmmakers who have tried to make animal behavior conform to audiences' preconceived notions, and to the dramatic conventions of mass market entertainments. Many have resorted to manipulations more severe than the digital kind. In the 1930s, for example, a Barnumesque American named Frank Buck achieved notoriety with a trio of wild animal "capture" films, Bring 'em Back Alive (1932), Wild Cargo (1934), and Fang and Claw (1935). The popularity of these with audiences rested largely on the dramatic way in which they "proved" widely held notions that animals in the wild exist in a state of constant interspecies warfare (a "never ending arms race," as a more recent wildlife film put it). Buck's specialty was staging dramatic fights in small enclosures between animals who would normally have avoided each other in the wild, but who reacted to shared confinement by attacking each other with audience-pleasing ferocity. Armand Denis, who directed the second Buck outing, later recalled his reaction to Buck's plan for one such a battle. "How's about a fight to the death between a tiger and an orang-utan?" Buck asked.

"Well," I said cautiously, "orang-utan occurs in Borneo and Sumatra; there are tigers also in Sumatra, so it is not inconceivable that an orang-utan and a tiger could meet--but surely if they did, they'd just avoid each other. Animals don't normally fight to the death for nothing."

"Don't they, eh?" replied Buck.

"When I'm around they do." (1)

In the world of mass market entertainments, where wildlife films still reside today, accuracy continues to rest uneasily on the same slippery slope. That is, in Denis's phrase, if it is "not inconceivable" that something could occur, then, according to the logic of film and television it probably has occurred, or could very well at any moment. The fact that extraordinary circumstances would be required to produce its occurrence is irrelevant. The implied conclusion is, simply, that such things do occur. Every climactic rescue, epic gun battle, and apocalyptic explosion in film and television thus carries with it an implied, if muddled, statement of probability: such things could occur, therefore such things do occur. This is, in a way, the basis of film and television realism. "Realistic" drama has long been seen as the meeting point between fantasy and truth, but today it seems ever more to be engulfing documentary, journalism, and even natural history exposition.

The problem is especially evident in the recent six-hour BBC production Walking with Dinosaurs (1999), which aired in the US in April, 2000, on the Discovery Channel. This "high concept" production combined the conventions of wildlife and natural history films with digitally produced dinosaur images of the sort seen in Jurassic Park (1993), The Lost World (1997), and Disney's Dinosaur (2000). (2) At its Walking with Dinosaurs website, the BBC described the series this way:
 this isn't some dry lecture from
 paleontologists, nor is it a movie-style
 action-drama. Incredibly, it's a complete
 recreation of the dinosaur era, filmed like
 the natural history documentaries for
 which the BBC is renowned. (3)


Instead of talking heads and close-up examinations of fossil fragments (typical of the expository conventions associated with television science documentary (4)), the series instead allowed viewers to sit back and be entertained by dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes in full, lifelike motion and vivid detail. At last they could be seen hunting, feeding, fighting, migrating, reproducing, and dying, just as viewers had seen so many other animals in "blue chip" wildlife films about life in the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, the Galapagos, the rainforests of South America, and elsewhere.

Some sequences in Walking with Dinosaurs even followed the wildlife film convention of creating individual characters, and then using their experiences to dramatize those of an entire species. Viewers could thus become emotionally involved in the story of an aging ornithocheirus, for example, as he struggled to find a place among the younger, stronger males from where he could make one last attempt to attract a female. Dramatization of this sort is a common enough device in literature, film, and television, where abstract concepts (good, evil, love, hate), social issues (homelessness, child abuse, alcoholism), and even minority groups (racial, ethnic, and sexual) are represented through individualization and personification. Even science, perhaps especially natural history science, has never been a stranger to techniques of dramatization, from Aristotle to Rachel Carson and well beyond. Although the issue was hotly debated nearly a century ago in the "nature faker" controversy, when writers of animal stories were taken to task by Theodore Roosevelt and others for systematically misrepresenting animal behavior, their techniques of personifying and individualizing, and of creating individual "animal biographies" to illustrate species behavior, became the foundations of contemporary wildlife filmmaking. (5)

The problem with all of this in a film about extinct species, indeed, long extinct species, is that much of what gets presented as science fact, especially in depictions of behavior, has never actually been observed, and so is largely theoretical. The (presumably) lifelike digital images in Walking with Dinosaurs depict body postures and movements, as well as intricate patterns of social behavior (preening, vocal communication, courtship display, mating, and other interactions) that are little more than hypothetical, or that rest largely on analogies to creatures living today. In an interview posted at the BBC website, one of the series producers, Tim Haines, acknowledged its speculative aspects:
 There are scenes that really are very
 good science and there are those which
 are more speculative, like mating.
 How on earth will we ever know how
 they mated? We're not always
 showing people stuff that we know is
 right, we're showing people our best
 guess. There is much that science
 does not know for sure and our
 approach to this was to make informed
 speculations about how animals
 behaved. (6)


Another producer on the series, Mike Milne, confessed that they had to some extent generalized from creatures living today: "We took a day out at a safari park and watched an elephant walk round to see how her weight moved as she went from foot to foot. We also filmed her and watched that again and again to help us understand how large animals move." (7) The use of comparative anatomy is, of course, common among paleontologists seeking clues about dinosaur locomotion and behavior, but more often than not involves a good deal of reasoning by analogy--more than by homology. This is clearly the case, for example, in literature posted at the Discovery Channel website in conjunction with the Walking with Dinosaurs series, when, based on little more than evidence of facial scars found on fossil remains, the social hierarchy of some dinosaur species was compared to that of wolves.

Milne went on to remark the program's achievements in "capturing the behaviour" of different dinosaurs who (although animated) were "just acting naturally." Clearly, however, the behavior depicted in the series has not merely been "captured," and the animals are not just "acting naturally." The whole scenario has been fabricated based on selected interpretations of fossil data. Even among paleontologists, however, there remain a number of conflicting interpretations of these data.

Ultimately, despite technically brilliant production values, Walking with Dinosaurs helps blur the differences between capturing and fabricating, fact and the assertion of fact, and evidence and interpretation. Its combination of visual "evidence" with authoritative sounding voice-over narration leaves little room for doubt or questioning. Each acts to bolster, if not intensify the other, and to eliminate signs of speculation or hypothesis. Walking with Dinosaurs cannot even be called a "factual re-creation," for we simply do not know enough facts to re-create on film the world as it was several millions of years ago. What we end up with, as in so much of film and television, is not a depiction of the realities of animal behavior, but the construction of yet another possible world.

References

"Computer Graphics." (April, 2000). www.bbc.co.uk/dinosaurs/tv_series/graphics.shtml

Denis, Armand. (1964). On Safari. London: The Companion Book Club.

Gardner, Carl, and Robert Young. (1981). "Science on TV: A Critique." In Popular Film and Television, eds. Tony Bennett et al. London: BFI, 171-193.

Hornig, Susanna. (March, 1990). "Television's NOVA and the Construction of Scientific Truth." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 7 (1): 11-23.

Lutts, Ralph H. (1990). The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science, & Sentiment. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum.

"The Making of Walking with Dinosaurs." (April, 2000), www.bbc.co.uk/dinosaurs/tv_series/making_of.shtml.

"Production." (April, 2000). www.bbc.co.uk/dinosaurs/tv_series/production.shtml.

Silverstone, Roger. (October, 1984). "Narrative Strategies in television science--a case study." Media, Culture and Society 6 (4): 377-410

(1) Denis (1964: 58).

(2) Producer Mike Milne compared Walking with Dinosaurs to its more expensive Hollywood counterparts: "All of the animators working on Walking with Dinosaurs look up to the animation in Jurassic Park and The Lost World as being second to none ... [but we] think that in the realism of the skin textures and muscle movement we pushed the envelope further." Significantly, the series was animated not on high-end expensive equipment, but on "standard, off-the-shelf computers" using Softimage[TM]3.7. See: "Live Chat--Transcript ... (April 5, 2000).

(3) "The Making of ..." (April 5, 2000). The series was not, however, produced by the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, which makes the wildlife and natural history films referred to in the quotation.

(4) On television science documentary, see Gardner and Young (1981), Silverstone (1984), and Hornig (1990).

(5) On the "nature faker" controversy, see Lutts (1990).

(6) "Production." (April, 2000).

(7) "Computer Graphics" (April, 2000).

Derek Bouse earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, and is the author of Wildlife Films (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), and several articles on media depictions of the natural environment. He also contributed chapters to the recent edited collections Market Killing: What the free market does, and what social scientists can do about it (Longman, 2000), and Image Ethics in the Digital Age (University of Minnesota, 2001). He lives in Salzburg, Austria.
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Publication:The Behavior Analyst Today
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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