Chris Palmer is one of the world’s foremost wildlife documentary experts, having made many great films for IMAX, the Disney Channel, TBS, Animal Planet, and PBS. Palmer is currently president of One World One Ocean Foundation and the MacGillivray Freeman Films Educational Foundation, which produce and fund IMAX films on conservation issues. In 2004, Palmer joined American University’s full-time faculty as Distinguished Film Producer in Residence at the School of Communication and founded the Center for Environmental Filmmaking.
We also found him to be a very thoughtful critic of the film industry, describing how too many nature filmmakers conduct themselves in ways that harm wildlife, mislead viewers, or fail to promote conservation of the natural world.
Chris recently took time out from his busy schedule to be interviewed by Laura Bridgeman, David Phillips, and Mark J. Palmer of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project.
His 2010 book, Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom (Sierra Club Books) was described by Jane Goodall as “a very important and much-needed book.” To purchase Chris’s latest book, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker, see his website www.ChrisPalmerOnline.com . This interview has been edited for length.
Laura Bridgeman: In your new book, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker, you talk about how the industry has been negligent in making nature films. Can you summarize what you see as problems?
Palmer: The abuse and harrasement of animals during the filming of shows has been a pervasive problem and continues to be even now. For example, just last September, Discovery made a program about a naturalist being eaten by an anaconda. That kind of filming puts an anaconda though a significant amount of stress. Luckily, not all wildlife programs are like that at all.
The second problem is that there is a lot of audience deception. This varies a lot, from minor and insignificant things like fake sounds, to the much more serious deception of leading the public to believe that the animals are free roaming when in fact they are not. To pick an example, I myself made the ethical mistake of filming at SeaWorld, filming an orca breaching from a tank at the beginning of my IMAX film on whales. It gives the impression that the whale is wild and free-roaming when in fact it’s captive. Excessive use of CGI blended with real footage is another example of deception. It destroys the trust between the audience and the filmmaker.
The third problem is the neglect and even harm to individuals and even to conservation in general. Although the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has some good programs, it mostly leads people to believe that sharks are man-eating monsters. It makes it more difficult to pass laws and policies to protect sharks. We kill 100 million sharks a year, and it’s difficult to pass laws to protect them when the public fears them so.
(Editor’s Note: See Chris Palmer’s surprising assessment of this year’sShark Week here.)
David Phillips: We take it, then, that you wouldn’t be a big proponent for the show “In Search of Mermaids”?
Palmer: I am a vocal critic of that show and also “Megalodon” – any documentary that purports to be a documentary, but is in fact is a FAKE documentary. “Mermaids” is a black mark for Discovery. Discovery has good people working there; many of them care, but they are under intense commercial pressure to get high ratings. This pushes them to make films like “Mermaids”.
I can’t help but think that John Hendricks, founder of Discovery, who put so much emphasis on science-based documentaries, must feel let down and rather disgusted at what his network has become. Rich Ross, the new president, has made it clear that he wanted to change that. That is a good sign, I think.
Phillips: I wonder about the effects on other wildlife documentaries. You have to struggle to find a place to get them shown.
Palmer: There are places you can find quality programming, like the BBC for example. But reality shows, like Yukon Men on Discovery, get high ratings. And they are cheaper to make. Pointing the finger back at me, we need to be more clever and more audacious and make films that are more engaging, and get others to raise their standards. We need to try harder to come up with better story telling and footage to be competitive with these reality films.
Bridgeman: Are there any improvements that you recommend for the nature film industry? Should there be nonprofit oversight?
Palmer: Nonprofit oversight is an idea worthy of discussion, but the problem is that the country is in a mood where that has become almost impossible to do. No one is going to tolerate a new body holding these companies to task. What we need to do, those of us who care about animal welfare, is to speak out more and get the public to be more caring, to be more skeptical about what they see and to ask questions. I think an aroused public is our best bet, rather than regulations.
We’ve got bigger problems than ill-considered films: we have climate change, ocean acidification, to name a few – so we need to produce better films that can compete against reality shows.
I wrote my first book, “Shooting in the Wild”, and my second, “Confession of a Wildlife Filmmaker”, to try to raise people’s awareness that there can be problems with nature films. These networks HATE being criticized; they just really fear it because they fear its impact on ratings. It is a money-driven industry. If they know there are audiences out there who don’t want to see wolves being killed with semi-automatic rifles and so on, they will stop showing this sort of film.
I would encourage all of us who work in this area to speak out and urge people to write to these broadcasters.
Phillips: I’m interested in nontraditional means, such as feature films that go into television, such as “Winged Migration, “The Cove,” and “Blackfish” which had very limited success in theaters but then rebounded when shown on television.
Palmer: What we do on IMAX is we don’t make a film as much as launch a campaign. We make a campaign for the cause behind the film. The trouble with IMAX is that more and more theaters are being filled with special effects films like “Terminator” instead of documentaries about sharks and wolves.
Very good point about the films that come to television. “Blackfish” did very, very well on CNN. SeaWorld has been rocked to its roots by that film, as well as David Kirby’s book. “Blackfish” I think is a fine, terrific film. Very good way to do it: put together a hard-hitting film and then put it on television.
Bridgeman: You mentioned earlier you visited SeaWorld and filmed one of the orcas there for one of your documentaries. What are the important reforms for this and other captive whale facilities?
Palmer: I’m particularly sensitive to killer whales. It is inconceivable that such a big animal as an orca should be held in such a relatively small tank. Generally, I think that orcas and all cetaceans should not be in captivity and should be free.
I don’t want to demonize the people who work at SeaWorld. A lot of them seem to mean well. It drives me crazy to read those big full-page ads in the newspaper that are so much garbage. But the people, I don’t think they are evil and malicious – they just have a different set of beliefs than ours. I think we need to somehow find ways to reach out to them and try and win them over.
What was done to these animals early on was awful. But, I think we have to admit that we have learned something from captivity in the past. I hate to admit it. I want to put that on the table so we have a balanced view.
But I think overall, it’s wrong, and they should not be in captivity, particularly killer whales. It should be phased out. If they can’t be released, they should be held in very large pens in the sea so they get some sort of resemblance of a natural life.
This idea of SeaWorld building bigger tanks; I think that’s absolutely absurd. SeaWorld needs to wake up. “Blackfish” and Dave Kirby’s book did a great job of drawing attention to what’s wrong with SeaWorld. They really need to get out of the business of holding orcas.
We need to rethink to dolphins in captivity. I think the dolphin hunts in Taiji that were the focus of “The Cove”, obviously, we can’t be anything other than shocked and disgusted by that detestable practice.
Phillips: How would you take advantage of the apparent change in attitudes towards captivity to help increase that shift in public attitudes?
Palmer: Good storytelling is critical. There’s a great art of storytelling that we all need to learn. The question is: how do we use storytelling to win people over? It’s not necessarily easy, but we need to reach people emotionally. I like to say that stories are the language of learning. Rather than lashing out at people with facts and figures, telling a story is the way to win people over. I urge all of us to think how we can use stories more.
There’s a great art to story telling that we all need to learn. I urge people to read Randy Olson’s “The Connection”, as he dissects and reconstructs what it means to tell a story, and he helps people tell stories more powerfully.
Bridgeman: In that same vein, we are launching a new campaign that aims to tell stories about dolphin and whale cognition and intellectual and emotional capacities. One of the ways we are doing that is we talk to people like you who may have had a moment where they realized that there was someone looking back at them, not just some animal, but that there was someone behind the eyes of a dolphin or a whale. Have you had an experience like that?
Palmer: That’s a good question, and I think the answer is yes. I’ve swum with dolphins in the wild and with whales. When you see one of these animals and they look at you, and their eyes move and it is clear that they are looking at you, I think that can have an effect. You see that there is a sentient animal there, and you convey that to people in a way that is powerful and reaches into their hearts and emotions, then I think you have a good starting point for making change.
Mark J. Palmer: I enjoyed reading your book, and I have seen some of your documentaries, and I would like to watch more in the future. I was impressed by the way you do take on some of these issues yourself, hence the name of your book, “Confessions of A Wildlife Filmmaker.”
Palmer: I wrote a more personal book in order to appeal to a broader and more diverse audience. I wanted to get beyond people like us who are already converted.
Mark J. Palmer: Do you have a favorite or a couple of favorite documentaries that you would recommend?
Palmer: I think the films that Dave mentioned earlier are ones I would recommend: “The Cove” and “Blackfish,” two outstanding films. On television, I liked “Whale Wars”; I thought that was a very interesting series. “The End of the Line” is another excellent film. Almost anything with David Attenborough in it, like “Planet Earth”, “Frozen Planet” and so on, are worth watching.
Phillips : What about Chris Palmer documentaries? Tell us about what project you’re most proud of.
Palmer: I work for MacGillivray Freeman Films. We are the biggest makers of giant screen films in the world. We’ve made over 40 of them, including “Everest”, “To Fly”, “Humpback Whales” and so on. We’re very successful with them. We’ve produced a campaign around each one with books, websites, teacher guides and all those types of things to advance the cause. Greg MacGillivary is the producer and director.
Mark J. Palmer: What’s your next film?
Palmer: My next film is on sustainable farming, and another one on the successful citizen uprising in 1994 against the proposed Disney park proposed to be built on the hallowed Civil War battlefields. We’ve also just released a new IMAX film on humpback whales.
Phillips: I wanted to say that we really applaud your life’s work at bringing the splendor of the natural world to people because through people seeing that, they find things they want to save.
Palmer: Thank you for all the work you do at the Earth Island Institute International Marine Mammal Project; wonderful, wonderful work so important and valuable. I just commend you for it and thank you and urge you to keep working away as you do.