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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 October, 2004, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Making wildlife films sexy
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online business reporter at the Wildscreen film festival

Clip from
Wildlife film makers in their natural habitat

Bristol has long been a key production centre for wildlife film makers.

It is also a haven for young hopefuls who are desperate to find work in an industry that has always been highly selective.

Not only is the city home to the BBC's Natural History Unit; it also boasts a slew of independent production houses.

So undeterred by recent sharp falls in TV ratings for animal, nature and conservation programmes, dozens of job seekers have come to this year's Wildscreen film festival from all corners of the globe to network and to impress.


Dressed in anoraks and comfortable shoes, the newcomers were hard to distinguish from established industry figures; the animal and nature film industry is a club where the dress code is distinctly laid back.

See a selection of this year's Panda Award winners

But the relaxed atmosphere belies inner tensions.

Jobs are ever more hard to come by. And in recent years, broadcasters have become loath to commission new wildlife projects from independent producers due to what they say is widespread eco-fatigue among TV-viewers.

"If television is a small business, wildlife must be the smallest offshoot," said Carl Hall, managing director of independent production company Parthenon Entertainment.

New predators

In fact, the wildlife film industry has long been facing a real threat of extinction.

Head of the BBC's Natural History Unit, Neil Nightingale
Mr Nightingale: "Wildlife television has broken out of the box"

Worthy programmes preaching to an audience accustomed to be fascinated by facts have been squeezed out by snappy makeover shows and Big Brother-style programmes.

Gone are the days when David Attenborough sporting a safari suit - as he did in the 1977 landmark series Life On Earth - could attract a UK audience of 10 million people.

"We are definitely suffering from the vestiges of the reality TV market," said Mr Hall.

Reality wildlife

The last five to 10 years have been extremely tough for independent production companies.

Delegates at Wildscreen 2004
The wildlife dress code is distinctly relaxed

"It was a time when many wildlife film makers were going bust," observes the head of the BBC's Natural History Unit, Neil Nightingale.

But this could soon change.

Many of the film makers at Wildscreen firmly believe they can beat their competitors at their own game and return animal, nature and conservation films to mainstream television during peak viewing times.

The industry is now populated by some of the human species' most adaptable breeds, its creatures effortlessly flitting between their natural habitat - be it humid jungle, wind swept prairie or rugged mountain ranges - and Bristol's drizzly weather.

These modern day wildlife film producers have become adept at turning bog standard wildlife films into docusoaps, detective dramas or interactive entertainment shows where the main characters are animals or plants rather than people.

"The format is the key," said consultant Jon Miller. "The big challenge is just to entertain people."

More drama

In modern wildlife films, documentary drama techniques are used, history themes are introduced and presenters engage with the audience like never before.

"Wildlife television has broken out of the box," said Mr Nightingale.

"Wildlife film making has been liberated from its scholarly, slightly precious approach."

There has even been a "trend of putting presenters in danger to raise the entertainment value", he says.

The first presenter to put himself in the firing line was Australian Steve Irwin who in the series "The 10 deadliest snakes in the world" caused a stir with his reptile wrangling antics.

"I can remember the indignation it caused at the time," said Mr Nightingale, referring to the reluctance among seasoned wildlife film makers to change the way they were making their movies.

But Mr Irvin's programmes "achieved what a big landmark series achieves in terms of audience and impact" and changed the way the industry makes programmes forever, Mr Nightingale said.


Films on show at this year's Wildscreen festival illustrate the point.

There were adventure documentaries, such as "The Search for the Snow Leopard", a film about the strenuous efforts endured by the crew which spent four years trying to film the elusive cat.

And there were technically complicated IMAX films, such as "Bugs", a drama involving insect 'characters' surviving in a world where raindrops fall like hand grenades and a leaf weighs more than a car.

There were animated dramas about cats and dogs, films using techniques first seen in the "Walking with Dinosaurs" series, detective stories and campaigning films setting out to highlight the hazards of man's relationship with nature.

Many of the films were contenders for this year's Panda Awards - often referred to as the "Green Oscars" - which were awarded on Wednesday night.

The films' diversity highlighted the way the wildlife film industry's future hinges firmly on its ability to adapt.

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