Nature documentary

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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.


In cinema[edit]

Robert J. Flaherty's 1922 film Nanook of the North is typically cited as the first feature-length documentary. The Living Desert written and directed by James Alger is often considered as one of the first full-length cinematic nature-documentaries. Produced by the Walt Disney Company, it was first released in 1953.

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 released[by 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.

In television[edit]

Television nature-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, The World About Us, began with a color installment from the French filmmaker Haroun Tazieff, called "Volcano". Around 1982, the series changed its title to The Natural World, which the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol continues to produce as of 2014. In 1961 Anglia Television produced the first of the award-winning Survival series. During the late 1970s and early 1980s several other television companies round the world set up their own specialized natural-history departments, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Melbourne, Australia and TVNZ's unit in Dunedin, New Zealand — both still in existence, the latter having changed its name[when?] to "NHNZ". ITV's contribution to the genre, Survival, became a prolific series of single films. It was eventually axed[by whom?] 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.[citation needed] Yet film and television critics and scholars have largely ignored them.[citation needed]

The BBC television series Walking With, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, used computer-generated imagery (CGI) and animatronics to film prehistoric life in a similar manner to other nature documentaries. The shows (Walking with Dinosaurs, Walking with Beasts and Walking with Monsters) had three spinoffs, two of which featured Nigel Marven: Chased by Dinosaurs and Sea Monsters: A Walking with Dinosaurs Trilogy. Robert Winston presented Walking with Cavemen.


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, David Suzuki, Desmond Morris, Mark Strickson, Neil Harraway, Steve Irwin, Nigel Marven, Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente and Marty Stouffer.

The Panda Awards for nature documentaries are given every two years, by the Wildscreen Trust, in Bristol, UK.

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:

In addition, the BBC's The Blue Planet and Planet Earth series have both been adapted for theatrical release.[3]

Staged content[edit]

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]

Built for the Kill[edit]

Main article: Built for the Kill

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).

Notable nature documentary series filmmakers[edit]

Among the many notable filmmakers and scientists who have contributed to the medium include English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, Canadian scientist and environmental activist David Suzuki, English zoologist Desmond Morris, American conservationist Jeff Corwin, and Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin.

David Attenborough[edit]

Sir David Attenborough's contributions to conservation is widely regarded, and his programs have been seen by millions of people throughout the world, most notably his BBC's 'planet earth' series. That series includes:

Jeff Corwin[edit]

American conservationist has produced and hosted a number of series about nature and wildlife, including:

Steve Irwin[edit]

Irwin's documentaries, based on wildlife conservation and environmentalism, aired on Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. The series comprises:

Bindi Irwin[edit]

The following documentaries are based on wildlife and aired on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. Bindi inherited her father Steve Irwin's responsibilities after he died.

Desmond Morris[edit]

English zoologist Desmond Morris was an early contributor to television nature documentary series by writing and hosting such shows as:

David Susuki[edit]

Canadian scientist and environmentalist hosted a number of series devoted to educating the public about nature and environmental issues,including the following:

Television nature documentary series list[edit]

In addition to those listed above, the following is a sampling of the genre:

Current production[edit]

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.

Two recent examples of co-productions that were filmed by the BBC are The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, the latter being the first series of its kind to be made entirely in high-definition format.

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.


  1. ^ Sesto Continente as mentioned at the IMDB website
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ BBC Press Office: Planet Earth set for movie release
  4. ^ "BBC defends indoor lobster footage". BBC News Online. 14 October 2001. Retrieved Apr 18, 2012. 
  5. ^ "FAKERY in Wildlife Documentaries". the fifth estate. CBC Television. Nov 26, 2008. Retrieved April 18, 2012. 
  6. ^ Official show page for Giant Monsters. (2008-09-10). Retrieved on 2012-09-05.
  7. ^ Information on King of the Jungle series. (2005-07-14). Retrieved on 2012-09-05.
  8. ^ Into America's West
  9. ^ Into Alaska
  10. ^ Feeling the Heat with Jeff Corwin.
  11. ^ Future Earth | MSNBC. Retrieved on 2012-09-05.
  12. ^ Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin. Food Network. Retrieved on 2012-09-05.
  13. ^ Official show page for Ocean Mysteries. (2011-08-31). Retrieved on 2012-09-05.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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

External links[edit]