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IDA Career Achievement Award: Sir David Attenborough The Natural Historian as Innovative Storyteller

By Terry Tanner Clark

Innovation and excellence demand more than talent, which in itself is an uncommon attribute. They require that extraordinary intellectual or creative power called genius. Unfortunately, our consumer culture, heavily addicted to hyperbole, readily applies the epithet to individuals who may well be exceptional—but how many are truly extraordinary? Among the worthy minority, we have this year's recipient of IDA's Career Achievement Award: the renowned writer, producer and presenter of television's finest natural history programs—Sir David Attenborough.

Like many artists before him, Attenborough has addressed a widespread audience via a popular and often maligned medium. Similarly, we can expect his television documentaries to acquire growing significance, even reverence—especially as humans living in the distant future reach back to vicariously appreciate the variety of habitats and the diversity of species that exist today. While his films will continue to be admired for the quality of their content, his achievements will also be valued for a contribution even more elusive than excellence—and that is innovation.

Though audiences now expect it, Attenborough introduced the veracity of science to the natural history film. From the start of his career, his documentaries dignified the cinematic portrayal of nature by merging the incongruous and the contradictory: entertainment and science, artifice and authenticity. Seamlessly, meticulously.

Not surprisingly, his fusion of factuality and cinematic storytelling also has encountered criticism-in his case, from traditionalists devoted to the rigors of science and from environmentalists dismissive of any nature program that fails to promote alarm or incite outrage. 

In 1954, two years after joining the still nascent world of British television, Attenborough, then 28 years old, convinced his superiors at the BBC to try something technologically challenging and stylistically new. During television's Paleozoic era of black-and-white, shows about animals originated in the studio. The young producer proposed to spend part of the year on location, filming and then bringing back exotic species to the London Zoo. The series was Zoo Quest. Despite the daunting challenges and limitations of field production, audiences responded with great enthusiasm, and it ran for a decade.

Zoo Quest marked the first step in a career that, over the course of 50 years, would introduce the complexities and marvels of life on earth to viewers around the world: the sophisticated and the provincial, the educated and the unschooled, the privileged and the exploited. Since his earliest commitment to fact-bound storytelling, Attenborough has given us a bounty of superb nature series: Life on Earth, The Living Planet, The Trials of Life, The Private Life of Plants, The Life of Birds, The State of the Planet and The Life of Mammals. And there is more to come.

As with all art forms, his documentaries are not without precedent or influence. Natural history field production can be traced back to the films of Martin and Osa Johnson (1920s) and Frank "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Buck (1930s)—before the introduction of the light, inexpensive and versatile 16mm Bolex. James Algar's 27-minute featurette, Seal Island, was Disney's first True-Life Adventure (1948), a series that began in theaters and successfully transitioned to television. In 1949, Chicago's early adopters could watch Marlin Perkins' Zoo Parade, which moved to NBC the following year. So he did not invent the natural history film. But he was the first to champion the integration of entertainment and impeccable scientific information.

Like the disciplines of science and history, the documentary conveys information. But the manner in which content is expressed...there lies the conflict. In several ways, and by necessity, the documentary presents a pared-down picture of reality. For one thing, film and television are not the best media to deliver detailed, complex information. One, perhaps two major ideas can be addressed without losing or confusing viewers. In addition, dynamic images demand brevity: inherently, shots cannot play effectively for however long it takes to state carefully worded, cautiously qualified, observations or austere statistics. Science is often expressed in the language of numbers and is free of the need to tie facts together. The documentary depends on images and sequences that require composition, context, continuity.

Whether it addresses social, historical, political or scientific matters, nonfiction does so within the framework of storytelling. And Attenborough is a superb storyteller. Drawing upon film's narrative power, he translates the complexities of zoology and botany into the viewer's vernacular without ever distorting or oversimplifying the facts. Mindful of his medium, he incorporates an engaging, idiosyncratically enthusiastic style of storytelling. The mix has seduced, stimulated and rewarded the attention of television's very fickle audience.

The essential Attenborough approach, like that found in all documentaries, relies on popularization: presenting information in a widely understandable and engaging way. While unadorned accuracy may be the ultimate goal of scientists and historians, the nonfiction filmmaker knows that simply presenting facts is utterly insufficient. Within the multilayered nuances of communication, what is presented cannot be entirely separated from how it is presented: McLuhan's tango of medium and message. In conveying the wonders of the natural world to the television viewers of the world, Attenborough not only performs the dance with remarkable skill; he has also choreographed the steps.

After introducing a new way of telling the story of Earth's myriad life forms to a television audience, he nurtured and then elevated the natural history documentary to the apex of excellence. Among his trademarks: scientific fidelity...relevant commentary...accessible explanation...compelling passion.

In the end, the sum total of his work culminates in a profound simplicity. For the past 50 years, Attenborough, exemplary popularizer of the knowledge Darwin bequeathed, has also honored the legacy of William Blake. He has capitalized on the power of the camera and the intimacy of television in order to help us ultimately see "a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower." In so doing, he has created, and continues to create, his own legacy. While staying true to the spirit of science, his documentaries open our eyes, so that we may open our hearts.

International Documentary reached Sir David at his home in England for a conversation via fax about his work, and the state of the natural history documentary.


What elements or aspects of your recent documentaries seem most distinct from your earlier work?

Sir David Attenborough: Technically, the difference between the films we made 50 years ago and those produced today are huge. Then we had no sync-sound facilities (on 16mm), so soundtracks had to be fabricated. Nor were we able to film in color except in full daylight. Color filming-even black-and-white filming-was virtually impossible beneath the canopy of a rain forest.


Which component do you think most directly influenced the evolution of your documentaries: changes in scientific perception, production and post-production technology, broadcast demands, the overall Zeitgeist, or personal acclaim affording greater autonomy?

Technical developments in 16mm filmmaking—in lenses, camera design, film speed, sound recording—were all much more influential than editorial ambitions. My aim was always the same-simply to make clear the complexity of the natural world and explain the factors that have brought that about.


As a documentary filmmaker, do you think rigorous objectivity is possible? How compatible is it with the creative process?

One's duty in making the kind of natural history documentaries I produce is to recognize that perfect objectivity is not possible (though it is easier than it is elsewhere), but nonetheless to strive for it. Doing so does not necessarily limit creativity.


Are accurate but manipulated scenes acceptable, or must the camera capture only untampered reality?

Manipulated scenes can vary from the wholly acceptable to the wholly unacceptable. The criterion may be cruelty—putting down a few crumbs so that a bird may alight to collect them within camera range (acceptable), to tethering a live goat to bring a tiger similarly close (unacceptable). The criterion may also concern veracity—cutting together close-up shots of an animal's anatomy and wide shots of it in its natural environment in a didactic context (acceptable), to including shots taken in a zoo in a sequence that purports to be part of an outdoors adventure (unacceptable). Each has to be judged on its own merit.


How do you feel about filming reconstructed reality, either in the field or in the laboratory?

Reconstructed reality can be perfectly acceptable. Sometimes it should be acknowledged; sometimes that is not necessary and to do so would break continuity—either dramatic or intellectual—of that part of the film.


Do you think a documentary filmmaker's well-intentioned intervention or interference is ill advised or is it irrelevant—eg, should an injured or handicapped animal be helped?

In most instances, interfering with natural incidents is misguided and may well cause more damage than it cures. An observer may decide to alarm a crouching gazelle fawn so that a stalking cheetah is thwarted, but that action may well mean that the cheetah's own cubs will die from starvation.


To avoid audience burnout, do documentary filmmakers need new ways to deliver bad news, or should they focus on positive or neutral matters and leave grim reality to journalists?

To concentrate exclusively on a single aspect of the natural world would obviously be improper. Natural history programming should reflect all aspects of the natural world. Individual programs, of course, are able to take particular editorial attitudes.


At what point do you think advocacy becomes propaganda?

Propaganda, as I understand the term, implies distortion of the facts either by direct falsehood or by elimination. Documentary makers should do neither. Their task is to so represent a situation with such truthfulness to both sides that the issue has to be confronted.


Is there any significant ethical distinction between natural history and sociological or political documentaries?

One distinction between natural history programs and other kinds of documentary is that [ former] may seek to promote understanding without taking a judgmental or political stance.


After decades of documentaries promoting humane and responsible behavior, what would you say to filmmakers discouraged by the apparent discrepancy between the message and the overall response?

It seems to me that over the last 50 years of natural history documentaries the audience responses have changed—and dramatically. The electorate now demands that politicians take notice of their concerns about conservation and they have. Conservation charities are now more active and better financed than they have ever been. (Sir David continues to live in the UK).


Terry Tanner Clark has written numerous natural history television programs. She is the founder of the Non-Fiction Exchange, a monthly get-together for the LA documentary community.


Sir David Attenborough—Select Filmography

  • Life on Earth (1979)
  • The Living Planet (1984)
  • The Trials of Life (1990)
  • The Private Life of Plants (1995)
  • Cities of the Wild (1996)
  • Survival Island (1996)
  • The Life of Birds (1998)
  • The State of the Planet (2000)
  • The Blue Planet (2001)
  • The Life of Mammals (2002)
  • Life in the Undergrowth (work-in-progress)

Career Achievement Awards

1985                               Pare Lorentz
1986                               Fred W. Friendly
1987                               Richard Leacock
1988                               David L. Wolper
1989                               Jacques Yves Cousteau
1990                               Frederick Wiseman
1991                               Bill Moyers
1992                               Walter Cronkite
1993                               Robert Drew
1994                               Albert Maysles
1995                               Marcel Ophuls
1996                               Ted Turner
1997                               Henry Hampton
1998                               Sheila Nevins
1999                               Michael Apted
2000                               Charles Guggenheim
2001                               Jean Rouche
2002                               Ken Burns