The Evolution and Popularisation of The Wildlife Documentary

This essay, written as a university assignment in 2013, provides an account of how the wildlife documentary genre has changed over the years, why it has changed and what has made it popular. It explores how attitudes towards animals have changed, thus allowing for the genre to thrive. I will discuss the narrative of the genre, and how it differs from that of other genres. There are comparisons of footage, old and new, showing how the codes and conventions are still followed, yet adapted for the audience.

An awareness of the need to care for the environment started years ago, 18th Century and before, but more recently has had a whirlwind of a story. England, as a community, has played a key part in expanding the understanding of natural spaces yet they were the most carnivorous country in a world where man and nature were separate. It was however Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in the 1800’s that linked the two together through the theory of evolution. The interesting concept is that, England was the most developed society in the 1800’s that had huge cities yet they loved the wild spaces, (Macfarlane, 2010).

Man’s Relationship with the Natural World

I understand the relationship between man and the natural world as a re-occurring cycle and with every step we learn something new; it is the means by which we learn that is of interest. For many years studies of flora and fauna started helping man understand their purpose and benefits, Aristotle played a key part in documenting his findings (384 BC – 322 BC). Ever since we have utilized and abused them. Even though it is known that we cannot carry on abusing the natural world, we continue to do so.

As more people learn how to utilize the natural world through hearing about others who are already doing so, they repeat the cycle, learning and developing new ways to cultivate the natural land for their own use. For those who don’t learn directly from their pursuits they learn from media, be it a newspaper, radio or more popular now, television and the internet. It is this story that is then portrayed in the media, re-presenting the narrative in a way that will educate and inform the audience.

Keith Thomas (1983) talks about how in the 18th century the devil was perceived as a beast and people thought they saw evil spirits in animals such as dogs and cats.  The years between 1500 and 1800 brought changes within the feelings of man towards nature. According to Thomas (1983) “We have moved from a pre-modern and magical cosmology, into a modern, scientific one”. William Wordsworth played a key part in representing the natural areas and landscapes, known as the ‘poet of nature’ his use of literature to document the natural world spread nationally. As this occurred people learnt more about animals and realized the importance of natural spaces and the need for concern for their wellbeing. Who wouldn’t develop an interest when reading words such as these as below?

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze

William Wordsworth, (1802)

Scientific discoveries also helped strengthen the link between man and nature also, as the welfare of animals started to be taken seriously, so too did the care and conservation of trees and flowers. The trees had been seen as less economical so were cut down and the spaces used for industrial purposes, but, as they were reducing in numbers people started to become fond of them. This was followed by a growth seen in gardening. New species of flora became apparent due to explorations, and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to a gardening revolution (Macfarlane, 2010).

“Royal Horticultural Society’s Gardens, Kensington, 1861.”
 Miles Hadfield, A History of British Gardening, Plate XXVI.

The flora world was re-presented in a nature documentary format that would concentrate on the negative effects humans have on it. Using Propp’s Character Role Theory where man is the villain, and the beautiful flowers – that represent nature, is the ‘damsel in distress’ (Bennett, 2005). The use of binary opposition a depth and structures a story well. So the use of bad and good, dark and light, loud and quiet are all concepts that can be used in the narrative of a wildlife documentary to interest the audience, Levi-Strauss (1958). 

The popularization of zoological studies started and was encouraged by the Royal Society, with the main purpose of finding out what animals can offer man. During the 18th century improvements in scientific knowledge led to great developments, such as selective breeding. In the second half of the eighteenth century agriculture became more intensive and this developed a need and a wanting by the public for more natural spaces. 

Rapid urbanization reduced the abundance of biodiversity and created many new problems including habitat degradation and fragmentation. On the plus side the increase in technology allowed for these changes to be documented not only in print but on film too. What started as scientific documenting became educational documenting and this was the start of a new genre – Nature Documentaries.

In 1926 the documentary genre was brought to light,;  this was when a filmmaker was able to “document” reality with a narrative instead of just footage of an organism moving, for example, the Cheese Mites filmed in 1903 (see link 1 below) – though this was a new phenomena.

Link 1.

An early example was a film called “Moana” by filmmaker Robert Flaherty who started a docufiction genre, which collates a mix of documented drama, and fiction style blended together, (Documentary Archive, 2013). He also produced “Nanook of the North” in 1921, a very influential film which portrays his time spent with the Eskimos and represents their life. Many scenes were staged but that is a key feature found in early documentaries (see link 2 below). 

Link 2.

They were physically unable to capture the shots without them being acted or occurring in captivity. This is still used today, an example in the BBC Frozen Planet (2011) with the polar bear under the snow giving birth where it would be impossible and intrusive to get this shot in the wild (see link 3). Also, over time more is learnt about the welfare of the animals being filmed and care and consideration is taken when thinking about setting up the shot as seen in the link above.

Credit: BBC

Throughout the history of the wildlife documentary the filmmaker has focused on the use of visual examples to document reality, Documentary Archive (2013).  This has changed over the years as sound has been incorporated into documentary films; this can enhance the audience’s awareness about a subject matter and can be the perfect tool to inspire action. 

There are many reasons wildlife documentaries have changed over time and this is mainly down to the enhancement of technology. This allows for easier travel, and television access in every home since the 1950’s. The audience is becoming accustomed to the genre’s codes and conventions, developing a desire to learn more. Therefore, the documentaries will need to enhance their appeal and produce films that are more unique and educational. Even though the wildlife documenting style has changed, the narrative has stayed the same, and followed the same structure.

The documentaries have improved their use of shots, including the quality, lengths and the angles that are available, including aerial shots and close up macro. McLuhan (1996) established a way to categorize the three main stages in the methods of passing on information. Now in the electronic age of our “retribalised” man, (McLuhan, 1996) the material is given to us in a multi-layered fashion, unlike in the Gutenberg age he talks about, where information was individual not shared, because of the development of printing. This allowed people to obtain information on a more personal level from a book or in the earlier eras, a poem or verbally. 

Previous wildlife films have shaped the audiences’ expectations of the wildlife documentary genre and then a developed desire to watch for entertainment purposes arises. This led them to become a common choice for a family evening in as they offer an educational and meaningful past time that parents would feel their children would benefit from. As well as being a trusted genre, the audience knows what they are getting into and because of this trust they share it with their family. 

There has been a reoccurring theme throughout the whole of the wildlife documentary filmmaking process – the agenda behind the media. The ideologies have varied throughout the years; there is usually a diversity of social and political aspects behind it in which the filmmaker would like to enlighten the audience about certain aspects that are important to him by using the tradition of realism. He wants them to have a better understanding of an issue to help gain a deeper understanding. The audience member would first subconsciously have certain reasons for watching a wildlife documentary, as the Uses and Gratifications Theory from Blulmer and Katz stated in 1974 (Bennett, 2005). The main category for watching a wildlife documentary would be for surveillance, then diversion from every day life. 

McQuail (1987) developed this and discussed the theory that there are different types of entertainment including relaxing and emotional release that can be separated into two further categories of information and learning, both gaining knowledge for the subject at hand and watching to satisfy a general interest. All of which an audience would watch a wildlife documentary for and eventually taking action with this new information the audience member has gained and creating a movement towards a more informed world (Bennett, 2005).

Documentaries can do many things to an audience member; they can enlighten, inform and create a deeper wonder. Baudrillard (1967) states that there is a “hyperreality” concept when an audience reacts to a medium. They believe the experience to be real, which from a documentary filmmaker’s point of view will support his point and help the audience understand. Thus allowing him to “inject” the audience with information he perceives to be correct. The Hypodermic Needle theory by Lasswell (1920) explains how the ideologies pass from the wildlife documentary into the audience and if a passive audience, they will accept them.

Pre World War 2 the radio was very effective at this role. Post war the radio was superseded by television and a huge range of subjects have since been broadcast in the home. Because of the ease of producing and airing a show, many documentaries have aimed for the cinematic approach instead of wide spread broadcasting, (for example – see link 11 below) yet they still keep the same narrative.

Link 11.

There are many theories that can be applied to the production of a wildlife documentary narrative, for example Todorov’s theory of Equilibrium, as well as Propp’s character categories, saying how in every narrative there is a hero, villain and a variety of other characters, this can be seen in every documentary, an example being a lion stalking innocent prey (see link 4 below). 

Link 4.

The modern narrative, post 1980’s, would now include the use of celebrities introducing species and exploring the socioeconomic problems that are threatening our natural landscapes and habitats throughout the world (Palmer, 2010). However, an earlier wildlife documentary of the 1950’s, would have a narrator explaining exactly what is happening in the shot. This voice over would certainly be male (see link 5).   Male narrators dominated because at this time men were perceived as opinion leaders and gender equality was not yet established. I believe that the narrator is so descriptive because he would be used to giving a narrative over the radio and a visual aspect would not be available. If you were to compare that to a modern wildlife documentary the narrative has changed slightly, as it doesn’t start in a linear pattern, it starts right with the action (see link 6 below). 

Link 6.

An interesting comparison would be between the very first Attenborough opening sequence in the series “The Infinite Variety” 1979 (See link 9) and the very recent 2013 “Africa” opening sequence (see link 8).

(Image: BBC/David Chancellor)
Link 8.

Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Sir David Attenborough has played a key part in the development of wildlife documentaries. It is seen that the 1979 introduction lasts 30 seconds and the 2013 only 20 seconds; this indicates that the modern audience would be more inclined to lose interest over a slow paced documentary. Thus the filmmakers have adapted the narrative to create something that will be of high interest and quality that the audience will want to stay and watch. 

Over the years the footage quality of wildlife has been enhanced, the shots have become shorter because the audience of today have a “seen it all before” attitude. As seen in the 1959 “Serengeti Shall Not Die”, (see link 7) no one has previously seen anything like the German filmmakers were filming, so the shots went on for 10 seconds and longer. You will notice that the narrative is linear again. It starts at the beginning of their expedition and ends as they leave. Whereas today, there are certain shots that you wouldn’t have for longer than 3 seconds as most of the audience members have seen it before and expeditions to various places around the world are commonplace so the detailed description of how they got there isn’t of so much interest. Take for example a 2013 episode of “Africa” (see link 8) this drops the audience straight in at the country, straight into the action, and the BBC can afford to have a 20 second introduction as the audience are used to the genre and are sitting in anticipation to watch. 

When comparing the two eras, (pre and post 1980’s) the narrative follows the same codes and conventions, beginning with an equilibrium, followed by disruption; whether it is a predator / prey scenario or human intervention, it will occur. This is what “hooks” the audience. From hereon the wildlife documentary will educate the audience and use this section to explain and show why it happens, how it occurs and how it is resolved, thus leading us back to equilibrium (Bennett, 2005). This narrative will be followed as the genre continues; the filmmakers will carry on expanding their technologies, and to keep an audience interested, they will need to produce increasingly interesting footage of more intimate behaviours. This could be achieved, for example by camera traps, as you see with these elephants (see link 10 below).

Link 10.

As the audience are able to watch more documentary style programmes they develop expectations and are able to acquire a healthier understanding of how it works, resulting in the filmmakers having to increase the innovation within story writing to create something original but keeping within the genre. The filmmaker will have a certain agenda when creating the film and will want to encourage a type of social change in attitudes and opinions. That is something that has occurred since the very beginning of the genre (Greaves, 2010). 

Today, people are more inclined to watch something than to read, and it is this attitude that allows for wildlife documentaries to thrive. A good documentary will leave the audience hopefully wanting to learn more about the matter and therefore, developing a desire to buy a book and enhance their knowledge and sharing it with others (Miller, 2007).

Overall, the narrative of the wildlife documentary film has developed because of the desire from the human mind to learn more, and as a species, if we can learn from our living room then we shall. These documentaries allow us to experience the wonders of the world without leaving home, providing a wide variety of educational entertainment. This is a genre that has expanded dramatically to meet audiences’ demands and, while there is interest in the natural world, this expansion and development will undoubtedly continue. 2020 Edit: As it has done with Blue Planet. I want to end this essay with the trailer to the Our Planet series as it is the most beautiful piece of wildlife filmmaking out there.

Reference List

Baudrillard, J., 1967. Review of Understanding Media. L’Homme et la Societe

Bennett, J., 2005. Media Studies. Pearson Education Limited

Documentary Archive, 2013. What is “Documentary” Film? [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 4 February 2013].

Documentary Archive, 2013. Documentary Film History. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 4 February 2013].

Greaves, D., 2010. The influence of documentaries over time: IDS News [online] 6 October Available at: <> [Accessed 3 February 2013]. 

Lévi-Strauss, C., 1958. Structural Anthropology. The Penguin Press.

Macfarlane, A., 2010. Man and the Natural World Review. [e-book] Available at: <> [Accessed 5 February 2013].

McLuhan, M., Fiore, Q. and Agel, J., 1996. The medium is the massage: an inventory of effects. San Francisco: HardWired

McQuail, D., 1987. Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction (2nd edn.). London: Sage

Miller, A. 2007. The changing nature of the film documentary – a short history. [oniline] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 February 2013].

The World’s Poetry Archive, 2004. William Wordsworth Poems [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 5 February 2013].

Thomas, K., 1983. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800. Penguin Press History

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