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'Quiet on the set' quickly dying out

Action-packed footage full of razor teeth and dagger claws devours TV airtime these days. As Guy Hand reports, the bold genre is driving films with lush landscapes, grand music and godlike narration toward extinction, and experts worry that science and natural history are being distorted.

September 28, 2004|Guy Hand

Grand Teton National Park, Wyo. — The robotic shark sat on a pedestal at the far end of the room, its metal teeth gleaming in the soft glow of the Jackson Lake Lodge's grand lobby. As a hundred-some wildlife filmmakers, producers and TV execs sipped cocktails, Phil Fairclough, senior vice president of production at the Discovery Channel, signaled his assistant to slide a whole raw salmon between the life-size shark's mechanical jaws. "So let's give you a little taste of what the shark can do," he announced into a microphone, then hit the "on" button.

This was Fairclough's way of building a buzz for shows like "Anatomy of a Shark Bite," one of the most popular wildlife films he's produced for the Discovery Channel. But as ragged bits of salmon arced through the air, some delegates at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival were not amused. They consider Fairclough and his flailing metal shark as a sign that things are not right in the business of natural history filmmaking.

Ever since a two-man film crew trailed Teddy Roosevelt through Africa in 1909, people have argued about the nature of nature films and how much education or entertainment, science or sensation they should include. Next month, at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival's Tech Symposium in Santa Barbara and the international Wild Screen festival in England, filmmakers will argue the subject with a sense of urgency. Ratings for nature TV have fallen in recent years as cable channels fracture audiences, and viewers tire of lions lounging on the Serengeti. Production companies have closed, filming budgets have dwindled, and people making wildlife films wonder how to bring audiences back. Fairclough, a bespectacled Englishman with a loud shirt and a boyish face, took the microphone at the festival's first seminar: "How to Stop Wildlife TV From Going Extinct."

"Traditional wildlife documentaries of the let's-show-beautiful-places-and-interesting-behavior type are an endangered species.... People in the wildlife industry need to learn the lessons of nature. Adapt or die," he said. "And I don't have any trouble saying that. Of all the people, they should understand what happened to the dinosaurs."

Fairclough believes, as did many at the festival, that nature shows of old -- films full of lush landscapes, grand music and godlike narration -- have lost their luster and consume too much cash to thrive in today's lean TV environment. Fairclough likened his brand of wildlife film to the ship rat, which "is invasive, opportunistic and lives in the gutter. We at Discovery are trying to acquire a few more ship rats."

His soft-spoken delivery and slightly nerdish demeanor belied his combative nature. He enjoys rankling traditional filmmakers. "It's very easy to be seduced by the wonders of nature," he warned, "but I think we grow overly fond of nature at our own peril in TV."

He should know. Fairclough has worked in documentary television for 20 years, at the BBC, Granada Wild -- one of Britain's largest wildlife production companies -- and now at Discovery, where he oversees such programming as "Anatomy of a Shark Bite" and "American Chopper."

Such shows seem worlds apart from the Tetons, where cinematographer Shane Moore grew up and developed a conservation ethic that imbues his work. He's done more than 100 nature films for Discovery, PBS, National Geographic and the BBC. He thinks the drive for higher ratings puts too many industry people in charge. He believes love for nature is what wildlife TV needs.

Up before dawn, Moore lugged a tripod over his shoulder and looked for a place to set up in Grand Teton National Park. "I'm working on a grizzly bear film," he whispered as breath hung on the morning chill, "and what I need are a couple of shots of elk. They're a big food source for bears."

He set up behind a pine tree a few miles from the Jackson Lake Lodge, the film festival and Fairclough's shark. During the fall rut, bulls bugle and Moore swung his telephoto lens toward the sound. "You can just see that guy on the ridge way out there," he said as the elk moved into silhouette against a ruby sky. "He's probably a lone bull wishing he had some female attention."

As the elk moved closer, he brushed aside his blond hair and peered through the camera. "If we get lucky," he said, "just about the time the sun pops over the ridge, he'll be passing through here, and we'll get steamy, backlit bugling."

Fairclough said he loves nature too. He has a degree in zoology, but his loyalties lie with TV viewers, not filmmakers. He believes, with evangelical glee, that American audiences want more than beautiful, backlighted photography; they want their natural history shaken, super-sized, blood-soaked. His film "Anatomy of a Shark Bite," which aired last summer, is a case in point.

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