Wildlife Films 101

Man can have but one interest in nature, namely, to see himself reflected there; and we quickly neglect both poet and philosopher who fail to satisfy, in some measure, this feeling. John Burroughs, A Year in the Fields.

When was the last time you saw a wild animal? Leaving out pets, squirrels, and pigeons, there’s a good chance it was in one of two places: Youtube, home of hilarious cat videos emailed by colleagues (like this one) or in a wildlife film.

Wildlife films are remarkable intersections between human and animal life at both the level of their production by naturalists and filmmakers and their consumption by the public. This film genre has been a major player in the 20th century relationship between the public and the “wild,” however construed. And even though the science of animal behavior seems to have reached more people through wildlife on film than any other modern medium, the topic remains for the most part unexplored in the field of history and philosophy of science. I think wildlife films have a tremendous amount to offer interdisciplinary accounts of the relationships between human beings, biology, and wildlife.

In this series of posts I’ll be sharing my tentative research about wildlife films, their history, the contributions scientists have made to the genre, the different contexts of authenticity used to guarantee that viewers would be experiencing the “real” deal, and some of the issues inherent in our anthropomorphized narratives of the wild. We use wildlife films to both project human values and norms onto nonhuman animals, and in addition we use what we’ve learned about wild animals to better explain and even justify our own behaviour. After all, you and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals… (possibly NSFW)

First up will be part 1 of the early history of wildlife films. A fantastic resource I strongly recommend to anyone studying this genre is historian of science Gregg Mitman’s Reel Nature.

Biological inquiries into the motion of animals played an important role in cinema’s early technical development.  The first attempt to scientifically document animal motion on film began in 1872 when railroad industrialist Leland Stanford commissioned Eadward Muybridge to settle the question of whether there was a point during a horse’s gallop where all four feet left the ground, with the aim of optimizing horse racing.1 This was finally achieved in 1877 when Muybridge perfected his twelve-camera apparatus operated with automatic shutters and trip wires, showing the horse with all feet in the air.2

Other early examples of such filmmaking include French physiologist Jules-Etienne Marey’s films of the aerodynamics of bird wings in motion and of cats being dropped a short distance showing the kinematics of their twists to land on their feet;3 these were achieved thanks to Marey’s 1882 invention, the chrono-photographic gun, which could take twelve photographs per second and reveal physiological processes that were beyond the capability of human vision.4

In the early 1900s, cinema about wildlife began to serve another purpose: entertaining a mass audience.  Films were devoted to the dramatic exploits of hunters on safari in Africa, especially the immensely popular Roosevelt in Africa (1910) documenting the former president’s year-long quest to collect specimens for the National Museum in Washington, D.C.5

Later films benefited from the genre’s popularity as well as an audience more interested in dangerous story-lines than authenticity: William N. Selig’s film Hunting Big Game in Africa (1909) was shot entirely in Chicago with an actor impersonating Roosevelt and included faked scenes of lion-hunting.6 Its success allowed Selig’s studio to produce a half-dozen more films involving the perils of Hollywood starlets in jungle adventures, filmed entirely in Los Angeles.7 Ethnographic films such as Chang (1927), the story of a Laotian village including scenes of adorable pet monkeys and an elephant stampede, and The Silent Enemy (1930), depicting an Ojibwa tribe in Northern Quebec with footage of violent predation and a caribou migration, were commended for their authenticity, despite both being entirely scripted dramas with the majority of animal footage being staged.8

With the rise in popularity of nature films as entertainment came a greater scrutiny of their scientific content. Filmmaker William Douglas Burden argued that staged scenes of animals in The Silent Enemy were “absolutely truthful from a natural history point of view”;  Burden’s tactics included substituting tame reindeer for caribou when he could not locate caribou in the wild and staging a fight between a mountain lion and a bear by starving them both in an enclosure and then throwing in a deer carcass.9 At the time, such ethnographic films were considered sincere and authentic, and The Silent Enemy in particular was described as a “great service to science and to zoology” by the New York Zoological Society.10 However, naturalists did set limits to films claiming scientific authenticity: Ingagi (1930), a sensational film of an alleged expedition to the Belgian Congo showing “fully naked ‘ape women’ […] cohabitating with gorillas and a tribal sacrifice of a woman by native Africans to a 600-pound gorilla” was unanimously condemned by the American Society of Mammologists.11 Soon after, the film was banned by the Hays Office for misrepresentation after investigations revealed that the gorilla scenes were “a compilation of orangutan stock footage and a man in a gorilla suit” and that the African ‘ape women’ were actresses in blackface at the Selig zoo.12

Tune in next week for Disney’s True-Life Adventures!

  1. Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London: Reaktion, 2002), 104.
  2. Gregg Mitman, Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 8.
  3. Burt, 107 and 110.
  4. Mitman, 8.
  5. Ibid., 5-6.
  6. Cynthia Chris, Watching Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 12.
  7. Mitman, 9-10.
  8. Ibid., 39, 46-7.
  9. Ibid., 47.
  10. Ibid., 46.
  11. Ibid., 51.
  12. Ibid., 52.  Mitman refers to the Will Hays Office of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.


  • Curtis Forbes
    Curtis Forbes Reply

    It’s sort of unbelievable that Burden could see the scenes he depicted through staging as “absolutely truthful from a natural history point of view.” What a simplistic view of natural phenomena he must have had! … though I guess being endorsed by zoological societies would have helped him believe such a ridiculous thing …

  • Praveen Singh Reply

    I graduated with an MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking from Montana State University. When started it was the only course of its kind in the world. Visit the montana state university website for more information. And you can finds lot’s of thesis papers of students related to precisely your area of interest. Also, read David Bousse’s book on wildlife filmmaking!

  • Eleanor Louson
    Ellie Louson Reply

    Curtis, I suspect that part of Burden’s rhetoric was a defence against those who would criticize his techniques, but it’s certainly possible that he didn’t experience any dissonance between knowing or believing that something happens in the wild and passing off a recreation (or a close facsimile, as in substituting one species for another) as real.

    Praveen, thanks for your comment! I didn’t know about Montana State’s program; the only one I’ve encountered in my research was the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University, founded by Chris Palmer. I have read Bousse’s work and at least one paper about whether wildlife films are “real.”

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