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. Sometimes they are about wild animals, plants, or ecosystems in relationship to human beings. Such programs are most frequently made for television, particularly for public broadcasting channels, but some are also made for the cinema medium. The proliferation of this genre occurred almost simultaneously alongside the production of similar television series.
Robert J. Flaherty's 1922 film Nanook of the North is typically cited as the first feature-length documentary. Decades later The Walt Disney Company pioneered the serial theatrical release of nature-documentaries with its production of the True-Life Adventures series, a collection of fourteen full length and short subject nature films from 1948 to 1960. Prominent among those were The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954), both written and directed by James Algar.
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. The Silent World, shot in 1954 and 1955 by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle, was first released[by whom?] in 1956.
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.
Television nature documentaries started on CBC television with the series Fur and Feathers (1955–1956), hosted by Ian McTaggart-Cowan. At approximately the same time, nature documentaries also 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[update]. 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. Yet film and television critics and scholars have largely ignored them.
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 nature documentary films or television 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. In a few instances they are in presented in ethnographic film formats and contain stories that involve humans and their relationships with the natural world - as in Nanook of the North (1922), The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), and Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925).
Although almost all have a human presenter, the role varies widely, ranging from explanatory voiceovers to extensive interaction or even confrontation with animals.
Most nature documentaries are made for television and are usually of 45 to 50 minutes duration, but some are made as full-length cinematic presentations.
Such films include:
- Among The Great Apes With Michelle Yeoh
- Animals Are Beautiful People
- Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927)
- Coral Reef Adventure (2003)
- The Cove (film) (2009)
- Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
- Grizzly Man
- The Last Paradises: On the Track of Rare Animals
- The Leopard Son
- The Living Desert
- March of the Penguins
- Microcosmos (film) (1996)
- Sharkwater (2006)
- Serengeti Shall Not Die (1959)
- The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003)
- Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925)
- The Vanishing Prairie (1954)
- The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003)
- White Wilderness (film) (1958)
- Winged Migration
In some cases, nature documentaries are produced in the short subject form and are subsequently screened in theaters or broadcast on television. Often they are about the relationship between humans and nature. Notable examples include:
- Agafia's Taiga Life (2013)
- Grand Canyon (1958 film) (1958)
- In Beaver Valley (1950)
- The Land (1942) 45-minute documentary made for the U.S. Department of Agriculture
- The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)
- The River (1938)
- Seal Island (film) (1948)
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) and it hasn't stopped there.
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 filmmakers
Among the many notable filmmakers, scientists, and presenters who have contributed to the medium include:
- James Algar
- Sir David Attenborough
- Gordon Buchanan
- Richard Brock
- Jacques Cousteau
- Jeff Corwin
- Gerald Durrell
- Alastair Fothergill
- Robert Flaherty
- Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente
- Bernhard Grzimek
- Tim Haines
- Judy Irving
- Steve Irwin
- Hugo van Lawick
- Neil Harraway
- Jasper James
- Nigel Marven
- Greg MacGillivray
- Ian McTaggart-Cowan
- Desmond Morris
- Neil Nightingale
- Marlin Perkins
- Jacques Perrin
- Louie Psihoyos
- Eugen Schuhmacher
- Heinz Sielmann
- Marty Stouffer
- Mark Strickson
- David Suzuki
- Valmik Thapar
Sir David Attenborough's contributions to conservation are widely regarded, and his television programs have been seen by millions of people throughout the world. Series narrated and/ or presented by him includes:
- Life on Earth (1979), 13 episodes
- The Living Planet (1984), 12 episodes
- The Trials of Life (1990), 12 episodes
- Life in the Freezer (1993), 6 episodes
- The Private Life of Plants (1995), 6 episodes
- The Life of Birds (1998), 10 episodes
- The Life of Mammals (2002), 10 episodes
- Life in the Undergrowth (2005), 5 episodes
- Planet Earth (2006), 11 episodes
- Life in Cold Blood (2008), 5 episodes
- Life (2009), 10 episodes
- The Crocodile Hunter (1992–2004), 74 episodes
- The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002), Movie
- Crocodile Hunter's Croc Files (1999), 52 episodes
- Ten Deadliest Snakes In The World (2001)
- The Crocodile Hunter Diaries (2001–2003), 30 episodes
- New Breed Vets (2005), 6 episodes
- Ocean's Deadliest (2006)
List of nature documentary series
In addition to those listed above, the following is a sampling of the genre:
- Andes to Amazon (2000)
- Animal Atlas (2004-)
- Ark on the Move (TV series) (1982)
- Banded Brothers (2010)
- The Bear Family & Me (2011)
- Big Cat Week (2013)
- The Blue Planet (2001)
- British Isles - A Natural History (2004)
- Corwin's Quest: Animal Planet 2005.
- Congo (BBC TV series) (2001)
- Dark Days in Monkey City (2009)
- Earth: The Power of the Planet (2007)
- Earthflight (2011)
- Escape to Chimp Eden (2008)
- Europe: A Natural History (2005)
- The First Eden (1987)
- Frozen Planet (2011)
- The Future is Wild (2002)
- The Great Rift: Africa's Wild Heart (2010)
- Ganges (BBC TV series) (2007)
- Going Wild With Jeff Corwin: Disney Channel 1997–1999.
- How the Earth Was Made (2009)
- How the Universe Works (2010, 2012, 2014)
- The Human Animal (TV series) (1994)
- Human Planet (2011)
- In the Womb (2005-2010)
- Insectia (1999)
- Inside Life (2009)
- The Jeff Corwin Experience (2001-)
- Journeys to the Ends of the Earth (1998)
- King of the Jungle: Animal Planet 2003–2004.
- Kingdom of Plants 3D (2012)
- Land of the Tiger (1997)
- Last Chance to See (2009)
- Lemur Street (2007-2008)
- The Living Edens (1997)
- Madagascar (TV series) (2011)
- Meerkat Manor (2005)
- The Most Extreme (2002)
- Nature (TV series) (1982-)
- Natural World (TV series) (1983-)
- The Nature of Things (1960-)
- Nature's Great Events (2009)
- Nature's Most Amazing Events (2009)
- Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin: ABC 2011-14.
- Oceans (TV series) (2008)
- Orangutan Diary (2009)
- Orangutan Island (2007)
- Penguin Island (TV series) (2010)
- Planet Earth: The Future (2006)
- Really Wild Animals (1993-98)
- The Really Wild Show (1986)
- River Monsters (2009)
- Saving Planet Earth (2007)
- Sea Rescue (2012-)
- The Secret Life of Elephants (2009)
- South Pacific (TV series) (2009)
- State of the Planet (2000)
- The Stationary Ark (1975)
- Supernatural: The Unseen Powers of Animals (2008)
- Survival (TV series) (1961)
- Suzuki on Science (1971)
- Weird Nature (2001)
- Wild Africa (2001)
- Wild About Animals (1995-)
- Wild Caribbean (2007)
- Wild Down Under (2003)
- Wild Kingdom (1963-1988)
- Wild Russia (2009)
- Yellowstone (TV series) (2009)
- Zoo Quest (1954-1964)
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.
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.
- True-Life Adventures
- Sesto Continente as mentioned at the IMDB website
- 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.
- Ian McTaggart-Cowan bio shines light on pioneering TV nature program host
- Ethnographic film
- BBC Press Office: Planet Earth set for movie release
- "BBC defends indoor lobster footage". BBC News Online. 14 October 2001. Retrieved Apr 18, 2012.
- "FAKERY in Wildlife Documentaries". the fifth estate. CBC Television. Nov 26, 2008. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
- Information on King of the Jungle series. Tv.com (2005-07-14). Retrieved on 2012-09-05.
- Official show page for Ocean Mysteries. Georgiaaquarium.org (2011-08-31). Retrieved on 2012-09-05.
- 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
- Light & Shadow Productions: German nature documentary company
- "The Mysterious Bee" An award winning documentary about Honey Bees
- Trouble in Lemur Land – a professional 50 minute HD film about illegal rosewood logging in Madagascar and the impact on the silky sifaka lemur
- List of Nature Documentaries
- Nature at BBC
- Nature at PBS
- TV/Radio Programmes at BBC