In this section, I will closely visually analyse some of the scenes from the series which depict nature in its typically blue-chip tendencies in order to establish the particular viewpoints that nature documentaries afford us as viewers, and how this might shape or reflect our understanding of nature.
In this visual analysis I will be looking predominantly at Episode one, One Ocean first briefly addressing the opening sequence then approaching the episode as a whole, and providing a closer analysis of a key scene. In doing this I can analyse the phenomenon as a whole object, shaped and categorised by the way it links and intertwines scenes and places and animals. With this approach I can understand the whole ‘packaged’ image of nature it produces. By providing a deeper analysis of a key scene, I can address the deeper more specific tensions that lie in the processes of narrative that help to produce nature as a spectacle.
The narration component of nature documentaries has been argued to produce a distinction
The Presence of David Attenborough, as a figure who was Voted in 2006 Britain’s most trusted celebrity, (Brockington 41). In this sense, the viewer is less likely to question the extent of manipulation the images received in the post production and just enjoy the “nature as a spectacle,” This is not necessarily a bad thing, as we are also more likely to be engaged and listen to any environmental warnings he might suggest. However, it could be argued to lead to the viewers as passive observers, as the narration creates a flow stitching together composite editing techniques. This is in contrast with an active interpretation, which could be argued to serve to strengthen a distinction between human/nature.
The representation of nature as an unexplored, untouched wilderness is visually present in Blue Planet II. For example, Episode One of Blue Planet II begins with an opening wide shot is of the highly specialised ship alone travelling across a vast uninterrupted sea, (with the exception of dolphins) the effect of this is that the viewer feels a sense of ‘exploration,’ and adventure into a vast ‘people-less,’ new territory. (Welling 38-39). This creates an idea of nature as unexplored, and could be argued to produce a construction of “wilderness,” untouched by human involvement (Hinchliff 10). Indeed, the narration alludes to this commenting that the ocean is vastly unexplored. This could enforce the idea of nature as “out there” (Fig 1).
Bousé has argued that when nature filmmakers place action or ‘spectacle’ packed sequences beside each other, condensed into an hour show it is problematic for the representation of nature, as it given an unrealistic impression of how wildlife moves in real time. This is evident in One Ocean, which features, different scenes of action such as the first four, which includes a surfing dolphins, bird hunting fish, a ‘Tool’ using Tusk fish, and manta rays in luminescent plankton. These are pieced together by transitions of high drone shots of coastlines and accompanying narrative (Fig. 2). If we consider Jenks’ approach to the spectacle in which he writes, “looking, seeing and knowing here have become perilously intertwined” (1) It would not be remiss to suggest the busy sequences suggest a stable, flourishing environment which presents an idea of nature as ‘self regulating’ and independent. As well as this, devoting particular species and locations short segments of attention, doesn’t tend to visually address the wider external factors contributing to those ecosystems and species (Bousé 7). In terms of the spectacle, these “Fragmented version of reality, group themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo world that can only be looked at,’ (Debord 32) In this sense the packaged episode doesn’t leave much room for interpretation or engagement. In an environmental context, this format contradicts Attenborough’s opening warning narration that our “oceans are more at risk now that ever.” As the warning is undermined by hypnotising sequences of nature devoid of human interference or any signs threat, instead flourishing, alive and active. As humans instinctually admire images
Fig. 1: Still from One Ocean, Blue Planet II
Exec Producer: James HoneyBorne. BBC. 2017. DVD
Opening sequence of the boat, with introduction from David Attenborough.
of plenty due to evolutionary dependence on it, it is unsurprising that in a consumerist market organising sequences of busy plenty in this way would be tempting if not unavoidable. (Kellert 5) It other allows nature documentaries to compete with other television and maintain large audience shares, which keeps people interested in nature, and could be argued the persuade them to love it (Blewitt 169). However, it is important to recognise the packaged effect this has on producing nature as a commodity, rather than presenting sustainable solutions to maintain it.
Similarly, the exotic locations visited on Blue Planet II allows the viewer a kind of tourist gaze, which enjoys locations which are unreachable to most. (Brockington 5) Episode One Visits numerous locations such as Mexico, Norway and Australia. The show has received criticism for focusing on ecosystems that are out of reach of British Viewers, as it could be argued that a more interactive relationship with nature could be cultivated from closer to home (Guardian,
Hoare ). There have also been comparisons drawn to shows which focus on British Wildlife such as Spring-Watch (Brockington 146). Spring Watch’s own Martin Hughes-Games commented that Blue Planet 2 ‘breeds complacency.” (Telegraph) The quarrel is that by including wildlife in Britain viewers are able to make connections to their daily lives and how they can actively contribute. Anthropologist Stephen Kellert comments that a relationship with nature must be enforced by mentoring, and a physical experience. (139) In Blue Planet two, animals such as the giant Trevally, the bird hunting fish, and the TuskFish in Lizard Island (Fig. 2) are out of reach for some viewers, and the relationship developed is a para-social one. On the other hand, Kellert also argues that although not complete to engaging a relationship to nature, an aesthetic reaction can generate curiosity and stimulate engagement. (4) However, the inclusion of animals from outside Britain, could portray nature as something exotic and “out there,” demonstrating a
disconnect with audiences which Debord would describe as a reflection of the world’s “loss of unity.’ (Debord 32)
Fig. 2: Stills from One Ocean, Blue Planet II
Exec Producer: James HoneyBorne. BBC. 2017. DVD
The main points of action of the first four sequences in the First episode of One Ocean.
Technology and Narrative
Similarly, technologies in nature documentaries have been said to provide viewers with perspectives that are impossible to the human eye. The new technology showcased in Blue Planet II presents viewer with new insights, such as the ‘Orca cam’ which places the perspective on the back of an Orca. (Fig 3.) As well as this the episode featured sequences shot with specialised camera that could film in the dark picking up rays swimming through luminescent plankton in Mexico, (Fig. 2) which would have been otherwise invisible to the naked eye. These technologies have great scientific potential, for example in the case of the Orcas scientists were able to learn new hunting behaviours due to the cameras on the backs of the animals. Furthermore, technology can be used for example to encourage public interact in the recording of species sighting, attributing to scientific research. Although technology arguably does this more accurately than human eyes can do. (Fisher and Verma s653) Furthermore in conservationist circles, technologies such as zooming cameras and cameras in nests in Peregrine Falcons (run by Forestry Commission Scotland) have allowed visitors to experience behaviour in much closer proximity, which has been argued to promote knowing and feeling. (Fischer and Verma) Indeed, many conservationists use similar methods as wildlife filmmakers do in order to engage and inform the public. However, these mentioned conservationist organisations have lamented over the loss of holistic and sensory experiences in nature due to more spectatorship interactions. The reported effect was an more engaged interest, however the conservationists reported instances where users were demanding more exciting behaviour from the animals, and recounted instances where visitors had become emotional, insisting intervention when wild animals were in distress. (Fishcer and Verma s658) If we consider the role of idealised images in
the spectacle with this perspective, this ‘impossible gaze’ could be argued to give humans an “infinite power of sight” which could lead to a presumption of an equally godlike knowledge of the objects of the gaze. (Welling 40) This illusion could lead to a false consciousness in which we are assumed to be unified with the mediated reality, but in the delusion it achieves separation. (Debord 32)
Nature documentaries, use storytelling techniques in order to communicate behaviour or incident. Indeed, narrative is how we make sense of the world around us. However, Bousé argues that films in the past have used Holly wood style narratives in order to potentially create what is described as a documentary scene into a “work of fiction, as the practise of portraying an event by using composite techniques, even puts the films outside of the realm of observational cinema. (25) In observing animals in this familiar frame work it allows the viewer a break from daily life. As Kate Soper explained observing animals, “permits a certain suspension from the moral universe that governs relations between persons, and from the struggles for autonomy that attach the that.” (85)
Nature documentaries use composite editing techniques, to construct narratives out of other wise unrelated footage. For example, in One Ocean in the Kobudai scene, the fish are said to be waiting for the temperature to rise to 16 Degrees in order to mate. When Attenborough says, “mating,” the shot cuts to a close up of a fish poking its head out of a hole. The comedic aspect to this is not lost, and here the fish is portrayed to be reacting to what the narrator has said, and that there may be a new character about to be introduced. However, in reality the fish may have just been disturbed by the presence of camera in its habitat (Bousé 30). This is seen again when we are introduced to the protagonists, a male and female, (Fig. 4) the characters are established with close ups and eye contact shots implying we are seeing the same two animals looking at each other, however the producers admitted it took two years and many dives to complete the sequence by filming many different fish. (BBC) The effect of this could be to present an unrealistic representation of how time and events unfolds in nature.
The ‘Hollywood’ style storytelling techniques in nature documentaries perhaps reflect the human need to see nature as ‘other,’ in order to successfully suspend human morality in the
Fig. 3: Still from One Ocean, Blue Planet II
Exec Producer: James HoneyBorne. BBC. 2017. DVD
“Orca cam,” suction cup camera placed on the animals back, the footage recorded new hunting techniques and a new perspective.
spectacle and observe some of our own animalistic tendencies with ease. (Soper 82) For example, in the Japanese Kobudai sequence use of Mise-en-scene and pathetic fallacy such as shots of rain falling above the water, and dark lights passing over coral (Fig. 4) presents the viewer with familiar codes and conventions which construct a storyline out of unrelated shots. The fish is seen swimming in to a dark hole to undergo a ‘dramatic transformation,” The music is almost in cinematic horror style as these shots occur, which produces mood of unease and mystery. What is interesting about this is that it is entirely the producer’s construction. In nature, this process is entirely natural and therefore by reproducing it in this cinematic story, in order for viewers to feel excited, it arguably serves to reflect more of human nature than insight into the natural world.
Sex and violence in nature documentaries is common as the gulf that is assumed to exist between nature and humans allows sequences to slip past network censors. (45 Welling) In this Kobudai scene the new male emerges and challenged the old male to a stand off (Fig.4 ) the old male leaves with a cut to the face and the newly transformed male takes his position as the new ruler. The scene is highly constructed by close ups and sound effects to the point where the fish are almost heard to ‘roar’. It has been argued that the portrayal of violence in nature documentaries in this dramatic format reflects human desires for power. (Welling 44) Perhaps by deconstructing these scenes we can see that the format is set up in a familiar way so that the viewer may enjoy metaphors for human emotion (Soper 82), and become passive observers. In this sense then the viewer adheres to the order of the spectacle. (Debord 56)
In conclusion, in these particular examples we can see that by placing the animals into sequences that make their lives appear busy, dramatic and highly aestheticized and using narrative composite editing and codes, can make them into spectacles. Mitman argued that placing the animals at a voyeuristic vantage point at which we are encouraged to sit at a safe distance and be passive observers robs the relationship of any meaningful exchange ( Brockington 142); In that we do not attempt to compare it to reality, we just enjoy it for its own sake (Bousé 5). As we create narratives that allow us a break from the rigours of being human (Soper 85) these narratives arguably do not present the truth of natures time and happenings, for example in the natural world there are not dramatic climaxes and satisfying resolutions (Bousé 16). These narratives of animals social lives are said to appeal “more to our hearts than to their heads,” as one producer put it (Brockington 156). We might wonder what this readiness to accept a false spectacle reality, that reinforces a dichotomy of humans and nature does to our perception of the natural world. (Bousé 5)
Fig. 4: Stills from One Ocean. Blue Planet II
Exec Producer James HoneyBorne. BBC. 2017. DVD
Sequence of Kobudai Fish’s gender transformation and fight with ruling male.