The producer of one of the most celebrated nature documentary segments in recent years has admitted to heavy editing and multiple pieces of footage being stitched together to heighten the drama.
The award-winning Iguana vs Snakes, part of BBC’s Planet Earth II, depicts a baby iguana being hunted and largely outnumbered by a group of blood-thirsty snakes in a suspenseful chase for survival.
During an appearance at the Media Production Show in London on June 13, BBC producer Elizabeth White divulged that it was not a single iguana being chased, as the film portrays.
“It wasn’t the same iguana, no … often we have to augment it with other clips,” Ms White said, according to UK media reports.
“Unfortunately lizards, snakes and iguanas aren’t good at ‘takes’.
“For continuity, it was better to crop the scenes together based off of the two cameras we had at the time to create the best possible scene.”
While many viewers might watch wildlife documentaries with the expectation they strive to capture nature at its most raw, film experts revealed to The New Daily that this is often not the case.
Monash University associate professor in film studies Belinda Smaill told The New Daily that in filmmaking, there is no rulebook.
She said she was “not really surprised” that footage of multiple iguanas had been pieced together to create the ultimate survival chase.
“And I think wildlife filmmaking, it’s kind of a sub-genre of documentary that’s quite different than documentaries about human events like politics that you expect to be truthful,” she said.
“I think that in the age of reality TV and fake news, we’re well-versed as consumers and it’s up to the viewer to discern what’s true.”
Ms Smaill said it was common practice for programmes such as BBC’s Planet Earth II to heavily edit footage for documentaries, especially when it comes to nature films and camera-shy reptiles.
“Wildlife documentaries are highly crafted — it’s not a matter of ‘point the camera and shoot'”, she said.
“And it’s the mastery of the audio-visual, footage being sped up or slowed down to tell a story and make a spectacle.”
University of Sydney film studies lecturer Dr Richard Smith backed Ms Smaill’s assessment, claiming that documentaries are “stitched together all the time”.
“The nature documentary is really only ever about one thing: death and survival — the primal forces of natural life. This is perhaps one of most dramatic and universal stories we have,” he said.
“Most nature documentaries try to show the survival of the fittest in the most readily understandable form — a challenge, an annual pilgrimage, a miraculous escape.
“The clip from Earth is absolutely compelling filmmaking, it is suspenseful, its production values are impeccable and it makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it is stitched together.
“It feels staged in a direct way. The wide tracking shot as the iguana makes it escape as the snakes come out of the earth — I experienced it as a kind of horror film. We can see the camera move, we can see changes of perspective, , we see close-ups turn to wide shots and vice versa.”
Ms Smaill added that there was, however, an ethical line that filmmakers should not cross.
“When it goes further than editing footage to crews intervening with nature and potentially harming animals, that’s where it crosses the line,” she said.
“In one case a crew tied down a ferret to a rock to lure a hawk.”
In a classic example, Walt Disney’s lemmings sequence portrays hundreds of the animals committing mass suicide in the sea, which was later proved to be a myth.
It was revealed that the crew had in fact disturbingly paid children in Canada’s northern Manitoba region to round up some lemmings. They were eventually taken to the Bow river and pushed off the bank, the Guardian reported.
Walt Disney’s brother Roy admitted: “There was a time when we were presenting a lot of footage – that we knew was staged – as having occurred naturally.”