Recording the Natural World
Guidance in Full
In this article
We must apply the same values of truth and accuracy to Natural History output as we apply to all BBC factual output. Audiences should never be deceived or misled by what they see or hear.
In the same way that certain production techniques are acceptable when used in the making of factual programmes, similar ones can apply in the production of Natural History programmes.
(See Editorial Guidelines Section 3 Accuracy: Reconstructions and Staging and Re-staging Events)
There will be times when it is appropriate to share these production techniques with the audience, to increase their appreciation of the value of real sequences gathered in the wild and to distinguish the real sequences from material gathered in captive situations or controlled conditions. It is particularly appropriate to share this information about landmark series where there is a lot of interest from press and public alike.
Filming Named Animals
We normally rely on single camera location shooting to produce natural history programmes. This sometimes means when a programme is identifying or focusing on one named animal, it is not always possible to record all the necessary shots to produce workable sequences at one time.
Where insufficient material of a significant natural event has been recorded it may be necessary to use additional shots or cutaways of the named animal recorded at a different time to the main action to produce a workable sequence. As long as the material depicts natural events in the animal's life cycle, it is perfectly acceptable to combine and compress events to tell a biological story truthfully. But we should not show action that is significant to the narrative of the film using shots of an apparently identical animal and portray it as the named animal.
Where insufficient material of a routine natural event has been recorded, the use of additional shots of an identical (substitute) animal for insignificant bridging shots or cut-aways may be justified in order to produce a workable sequence. This is an acceptable artifice so long as the shots are used to illuminate the routine event and do not in any way distort its meaning. However we should not state that the shots are of the same animal and our commentary should never suggest the viewers are seeing something they are not.
Portrayal of Life Cycles
We aim to tell the life story of an animal or plant in many of our natural history programmes. Unfortunately the realities of survival in the natural world and/or the life span of the animal often mean it is impossible to film one individual from birth to death. We may therefore use footage of several different animals or plants to detail a life cycle as long as we do not mislead the audience into believing they are seeing the same animal throughout the programme, for example by giving the "composite" animal a name.
Some of our wildlife films are anthropomorphic and tell dramatised stories of a fictional family of animals and their predators. This is an appropriate way of informing and entertaining viewers as long as the set-up is clear. For example, it may be appropriate to inform our audience at the start of the programme that what they will see, although dramatised, is based on scientific fact.
When we aim to provide a portrait of animals or plants living in a particular place we can legitimately use material filmed at different times in that place so long as we are presenting a fair and accurate picture of events. It is not acceptable to film at one location and claim to be at another. We should also never introduce animals to a location that is not their natural home.
It is sometimes impractical, unsafe or a danger to an animal or its offspring to film certain biological processes or behaviour in the wild. In such cases it is ethically and editorially justified to use captive animals to portray what happens naturally in the wild. But we must never claim that a captive sequence was recorded in the wild or in the actual location depicted in the film.
Visual Techniques and Digital Manipulation
Some Natural History films use stylised and visual devices, for example, in a programme illustrating principles of biology or ecology we may use time lapse techniques under laboratory conditions to show the audience what the eye can't normally see. Visual techniques like these can bring sequences to the screen that would be impossible to produce in any other way.
The ability to digitally create, manipulate and copy audio-visual material, including still photographs, video and documents, poses ethical dilemmas and creates the potential for faking, hoaxing or misleading. We should ensure that any digital manipulation, including the use of computer generated images (CGI) or other production techniques to create scenes or characters, does not distort the meaning of events, alter the impact of genuine material or otherwise seriously mislead our audiences. Digital techniques should be clearly labelled or signposted in commentary if there is a risk of misleading or confusing the audience.
All CGI or artificial manipulation should be flagged to the Executive Producer who should satisfy him or herself that it is acceptable before transmission.
Reconstruction is a legitimate story telling device where single events based on corroborated personal testimony are re-enacted. It is a technique that should normally be labelled. Reconstruction is normally used when people or animals are involved and when the cameras were not present at the original event. If unlabelled, reconstructions should be differentiated in some way from the visual style of the rest of the programme such as using slow motion or black and white images in a consistent and repeated way.
Staging and Restaging of Events
There are very few recorded programmes which do not involve some intervention from the director, but there are acceptable and unacceptable production techniques.
Unless clearly signalled to the audience, or using reconstructions, it is normally unacceptable in factual programmes to:
- stage or re-stage action or events which are significant to the development of the action or narrative, for example, the 'eureka moment' of a discovery
- inter-cut shots and sequences to suggest they were happening at the same time, if the resulting juxtaposition of material leads to a distorted and misleading impression of events
Commentary must never be used to give the audience a misleading impression of events.
Simulations provide an impression of natural conditions or phenomena in which animals, and sometimes people appear, based on testimony and evidence normally compiled from different sources at different times. Simulations are legitimate when it would have been impossible to film the original event due to its rare or dangerous nature. When we include simulations we should consider using a variety of sign-posts to inform the audience about the techniques, for example presentation announcements, commentary, innovative post production techniques and labels in the body of the film, or, as a last resort, an explanatory caption in the end credits.
Any proposal to use reconstruction or simulation in natural history programmes should be referred to the Head of the Natural History Unit.
There may be occasions where re-staging routine events involving animals may be editorially justified and may not need to be labelled. However we should carefully consider all such interventions.
Filming Animals and the Law
Animal welfare is controlled by law which if broken could result in prosecution and criminal conviction. In the United Kingdom the following are just four examples of illegal activity:
- capture of any birds for filming purposes
- feeding live mammals, birds and reptiles to any other animal
- tethering or restricting a vertebrate by any means to attract a predator
- cruel goading of an animal to fury
Clear editorial justification will be required on the rare occasions we broadcast graphic scenes of bullfighting, cockfighting and other similar activities, even if they are recorded in countries where they are legal. Any proposal to do so must be referred to a senior editorial figure or, for Independents, to the commissioning editor.
We should never be involved in any activity with animals which could reasonably be considered cruel - filming which may cause physical harm, anxiety, consequential predation or lessened reproductive success.
However there may be times when in the public interest we may be justified in recording the harming of animals by third parties for the purpose of gathering evidence or to illustrate malpractice, cruel, anti-social or controversial behaviour.
We should seek expert advice and produce a detailed assessment of the risks and potential welfare issues for all proposed filming with animals. To achieve this we should consider the following:
- the effect the type of filming will have on the animal e.g. filming from a hidden position; filming at night; stunt filming.
- the amount and proximity of contact with the animal.
- hazards posed by and to the animal.
- length of time it is reasonable to film the animal without causing distress.
- risk of infection and infestation; allergic reactions; injuries and phobias from animals.
- age and experience of those people involved in the filming.
Scenes Depicting Death
Scenes of an animal being killed should be handled with great sensitivity, especially if they are shown being killed by man. Even when such material is editorially justified it is likely to distress some viewers, so exactly how it is used will depend on the context and timeslot of the individual programme. Care should be taken on which shots are included, and it may be appropriate to avoid prolonged or close up shots, particularly when these show the moment of death or any suffering. It is useful to signpost in some way what is likely to happen, and in some cases, depending on the material, a warning may be considered.
The Natural History Unit can offer further advice on the handling and filming of animals.