Nature documentary

A natural history film or wildlife film is a documentary film about animals, plants, or other non-human living creatures, usually concentrating on film taken in their natural habitat but also often including footage of trained and captive animals. Sometimes they are about wild animals, plants, or ecosystems in relationship to human beings. Such programmes are most frequently made for television, particularly for public broadcasting channels, but some are also made for the cinema medium. The proliferation of this genre occurred almost simultaneously alongside the production of similar television series.

African Stories 01
Shooting of a wildlife film in Namibia


In cinema

Robert J. Flaherty's 1922 film Nanook of the North is typically cited as the first feature-length documentary. Decades later, The Walt Disney Company pioneered the serial theatrical release of nature-documentaries with its production of the True-Life Adventures series, a collection of fourteen full length and short subject nature films from 1948 to 1960.[1] Prominent among those were The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954), both written and directed by James Algar.

The first full-length nature-documentary films pioneering colour underwater cinematography were the Italian film Sesto Continente (The Sixth Continent) and the French film Le Monde du silence (The Silent World). Directed by Folco Quilici Sesto Continente was shot in 1952 and first exhibited to Italian audiences in 1954.[2] The Silent World, shot in 1954 and 1955 by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle, was first released in 1956.[3]

Many other nature-documentary films followed in subsequent years, such as those made by Nicolas Vanier (The Last Trapper, 2004), Luc Jacquet (March of the Penguins, 2005), and Alastair Fothergill (African Cats, 2011), among others.

In television

In 1954, the BBC started airing Zoo Quest, featuring David Attenborough. Other early nature documentaries include Fur and Feathers shown on CBC from 1955 to 1956 and hosted by Ian McTaggart-Cowan.[4], and Look, a studio-based BBC magazine-program with filmed inserts, hosted by Sir Peter Scott from 1955 to 1981. The first 50-minute weekly documentary series, The World About Us, began on BBC2 in 1967 with a color installment from the French filmmaker Haroun Tazieff, called "Volcano". Around 1982, the series changed its title to The Natural World, which the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol continues to produce as of 2018. In 1961, Anglia Television produced the first of the award-winning Survival series. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, several other television companies round the world set up their own specialized natural-history departments, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Melbourne, Australia and TVNZ's unit in Dunedin, New Zealand — both still in existence, the latter having changed its name to "NHNZ". ITV's contribution to the genre, Survival, became a prolific series of single films. It was eventually axed when the network introduced a controversial new schedule which many commentators have criticized as "dumbing down".

Wildlife and natural history films have boomed in popularity and have become one of modern society's most important sources of information about the natural world. Yet film and television critics and scholars have largely ignored them.

The BBC television series Walking With, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, used computer-generated imagery (CGI) and animatronics to film prehistoric life in a similar manner to other nature documentaries. The shows (Walking with Dinosaurs, Walking with Beasts, and Walking with Monsters) had three spinoffs, two of which featured Nigel Marven: Chased by Dinosaurs and Sea Monsters: A Walking with Dinosaurs Trilogy. Robert Winston presented Walking with Cavemen.



Most nature documentary films or television series focus on a particular species, ecosystem, or scientific idea (such as evolution). Although most take a scientific and educational approach, some anthropomorphise their subjects or present animals purely for the viewer's pleasure. In a few instances, they are in presented in ethnographic film[5] formats and contain stories that involve humans and their relationships with the natural world - as in Nanook of the North (1922), The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), and Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925).

Although almost all have a human presenter, the role varies widely, ranging from explanatory voiceovers to extensive interaction or even confrontation with animals.

Most nature documentaries are made for television and are usually of 45 to 50 minutes duration, but some are made as full-length cinematic presentations.

Such films include:

In addition, the BBC's The Blue Planet and Planet Earth series have both been adapted for theatrical release.[6]

In some cases, nature documentaries are produced in the short subject form and are subsequently screened in theaters or broadcast on television. Often they are about the relationship between humans and nature. Notable examples include:

Every two years the Wildscreen Trust, of Bristol in the UK presents the Panda Awards for nature documentaries.

Staged content

Some nature documentaries, particularly those involving animals, have included footage of staged events that appear "natural" while actually contrived by filmmakers or occurring in captivity. In a famous example, Walt Disney's White Wilderness (1958), lemmings were hurled to their deaths - but examples also occur in modern nature documentaries, such as The Blue Planet (2001)[7] and it hasn't stopped there.[8]

Notable nature documentary filmmakers

Among the many notable filmmakers, scientists, and presenters who have contributed to the medium include:

Sir David Attenborough's contributions to conservation are widely regarded, and his television programs have been seen by millions of people throughout the world. Series narrated and/or presented by him include:

Steve Irwin's documentaries, based on wildlife conservation and environmentalism, aired on Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet. The series comprises:

Bindi Irwin inherited her father Steve Irwin's responsibilities after he died. The following documentaries are based on wildlife and aired on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

List of nature documentary series

In addition to those listed above, the following is a sampling of the genre:

Current production

In recent years, most traditional style 'blue chip' programming has become prohibitively expensive and are funded by a set of co-producers, usually a broadcaster (such as Animal Planet, National Geographic, or NHK, Japan) from one or several countries, a production company, and sometimes a distributor which then has the rights to sell the show into more territories than the original broadcaster.

Two recent examples of co-productions that were filmed by the BBC are The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, the latter being the first series of its kind to be made entirely in high-definition format.

Production companies are increasingly exploiting the filmed material, by making DVDs for home viewing or educational purposes, or selling library footage to advertisers, museum exhibitors, and other documentary producers.

See also


  1. ^ True-Life Adventures
  2. ^ Sesto Continente as mentioned at the IMDB website
  3. ^ In 1956 The Silent World was released in three different countries: France (May 26, 1956), Japan (August 15, 1956) and the United States (September 24, 1956). See the release information page at the IMDB website.
  4. ^ Ian McTaggart-Cowan bio shines light on pioneering TV nature program host
  5. ^ Ethnographic film
  6. ^ BBC Press Office: Planet Earth set for movie release
  7. ^ "BBC defends indoor lobster footage". BBC News Online. 14 October 2001. Retrieved Apr 18, 2012.
  8. ^ "FAKERY in Wildlife Documentaries". the fifth estate. CBC Television. Nov 26, 2008. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
  9. ^ Information on King of the Jungle series. (2005-07-14). Retrieved on 2012-09-05.
  10. ^ Official show page for Ocean Mysteries. (2011-08-31). Retrieved on 2012-09-05.

Further reading

  • Bush, W. Stephen (1915) Wild Life in Films The Moving Picture World Vol 23 #10:1462-1463
  • Gregg Mitman: Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classics), Paperback (Second Edition), Combined Academic Publishers, 2009, ISBN 0-295-98886-X
  • Chris Palmer: Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom, Sierra Club Books, 2010, ISBN 1578051487

External links

David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities

David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities is a British nature documentary series first broadcast on Eden in January 2013, Produced by Humble Bee Films, Sir David Attenborough presents the series which puts a spotlight on some of nature’s evolutionary anomalies and how these curious animals continue to baffle and fascinate.

The second series began on 18 February 2014 on Watch.The series premiered in Australia on Network Ten on 3 November 2013.

Dolphins (2000 film)

Dolphins is an IMAX documentary produced in 2000. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. Directed by Greg MacGillivray, with Chris Palmer serving as executive producer, this feature follows a few scientists studying dolphins (chiefly Kathleen Dudzinski, Dean Bernal, and Alejandro Acevedo-Gutiérrez, as well as Louis Herman and Bernd Wursig) as they work to learn more about dolphins. The main focus is on research into dolphin communication and intelligence, along with some exploration of feeding habits and human interaction. Several species of dolphins are shown, primarily the bottlenose dolphin, the dusky dolphin, and the Atlantic spotted dolphin. Dolphins is narrated by Pierce Brosnan with music by Sting.

Don't (1974 film)

Don't is a 1974 short American documentary film following the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, directed by Robin Lehman. It won an Oscar at the 47th Academy Awards in 1975 for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Expedition Linné

Expedition Linné is a 2007 documentary film made for the 300th anniversary of the birth of Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist Carl Linnaeus. The film was made by Swedish wildlife photographer Mattias Klum and journalist Folke Rydén and is intended to increase public understanding of and respect for nature in a journey through the seven continents, into space, and across the oceans.

Prince Carl Philip of Sweden was on the film team for training in his studies of graphic design.

Grand Canyon (1958 film)

Grand Canyon is a 1958 American short documentary film directed by James Algar and produced by Walt Disney Productions. It was shown as a supplement during Sleeping Beauty's initial run. The short won an Oscar at the 31st Academy Awards in 1959 for Best Short Subject (Live Action). It is also included as a bonus feature on the 1997 laserdisc, 2003 DVD, and 2008 DVD & Blu-ray releases of Sleeping Beauty.According to the opening credits, Grand Canyon is "a pictorial interpretation of Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite", much as the animated segments in Fantasia are pictorial representations of music, and the film is strongly related to its soundtrack. Grand Canyon is one of Walt Disney's more unconventional and experimental works, as it has musical accompaniment, but no dialogue or narration.

In Beaver Valley

In Beaver Valley is a 1950 American short documentary film directed by James Algar. The film was produced by Walt Disney as part of the True-Life Adventures series of nature documentaries. It won an Oscar in 1951 for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel). At the 1st Berlin International Film Festival it won the Golden Bear (Documentaries) award.


Lifesense is a six-part nature documentary television series produced by the BBC Natural History Unit, originally broadcast in the United Kingdom on BBC1 in 1991. The series producer was John Downer and the narrator Andrew Sachs. It used groundbreaking effects and filming techniques to show how animals perceive the wildlife, pioneering techniques reveal our lives from the animal's point of view and creatures across the landscapes from the world around them. The same production team went on to make the series' predecessor Supersense in 1988 and to the follow-up series Supernatural: The Unseen Powers of Animals in 1999.

List of British television programmes

This is a list of British television programmes. It does not include foreign-made imports.

Museum of Life (film)

Museum of Life is a 2010 BBC Two documentary, that takes a look behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum, London. It is introduced and co-presented by Jimmy Doherty, who was a volunteer at the Natural History Museum ten years previously. Other presenters are Kate Bellingham, Liz Bonnin, Mark Carwardine, and Chris van Tulleken.

The six-part program ranges over topics such as the care and maintenance of the museum's 70 million specimens, and the relevance of research by the museum scientists to contemporary problems such as biodiversity loss and the spread of tropical disease.

Nature's Half Acre

Nature's Half Acre is a 1951 American short documentary film directed by James Algar. In 1952, it won an Oscar at the 24th Academy Awards for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel). The film was produced by Walt Disney as part of the True-Life Adventures series of nature documentaries.

One Life (2011 film)

One Life is a 2011 British nature documentary film directed by Michael Gunton and Martha Holmes. The film is narrated by the British actor Daniel Craig.

Our Planet

Our Planet is a British nature documentary series made for Netflix. The series is narrated by David Attenborough and produced by Silverback Films, led by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, who also created BBC documentary series Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and The Blue Planet, with collaboration with the conservation charity World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The series addresses issues of conservation while featuring these disparate animals in their respective home regions, and has been noted for its greater focus on humans' impact on the environment than traditional nature documentaries. It marked the first nature documentary Netflix has ever made. All episodes were released on 5 April 2019. Netflix reported that 25 million households were expected to watch the series during its first month of release.

Planet Earth (2006 TV series)

Planet Earth is a 2006 British television series produced by the BBC Natural History Unit. Five years in the making, it was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC and also the first to be filmed in high definition. The series received multiple awards, including four Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, and an award from the Royal Television Society.

Planet Earth premiered on 5 March 2006 in the United Kingdom on BBC One, and by June 2007 had been shown in 130 countries. The original version was narrated by David Attenborough, whilst some international versions used alternative narrators.

The series has eleven episodes, each of which features a global overview of a different biome or habitat on Earth. At the end of each fifty-minute episode, a ten-minute featurette takes a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of filming the series.

Ten years later, the BBC announced a six-part sequel had been commissioned, titled Planet Earth II, the first television series produced by the BBC in Ultra-high-definition (4K). David Attenborough returned as narrator and presenter. A second sequel, Planet Earth III is currently announced and planned to air in 2022.

Serengeti Shall Not Die

Serengeti Shall Not Die (German: Serengeti darf nicht sterben) is a 1959 German documentary film written and directed by Bernhard Grzimek.

His son, the cinematographer Michael Grzimek, died on-location during the filming of the documentary when a plane he piloted collided with a vulture.

It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1960.

The Sea Around Us (film)

The Sea Around Us is a 1953 American documentary film written and produced by Irwin Allen, based on the book of the same name by Rachel L. Carson. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The Vanishing Prairie

The Vanishing Prairie is a 1954 documentary film directed by James Algar and released by Walt Disney Productions.

The theme music was given a set of lyrics by Hazel "Gil" George. It was rechristened as "Pioneer's Prayer" in Westward Ho, the Wagons!, a western film about pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

The Vanishing Prairie was released on video in 1985, and 1993 in United States.

Water Birds

Water Birds is a 1952 American short documentary film directed by Ben Sharpsteen. In 1953, it won an Oscar for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel) at the 25th Academy Awards. The film was produced by Walt Disney as part of the True-Life Adventures series of nature documentaries. It was shot in Technicolor by more than a dozen cameramen and was created in cooperation with the National Audubon Society and the Denver Museum of Natural History.

Wild Wings

Wild Wings is a 1966 British short documentary film directed by Patrick Carey and John Taylor and produced by British Transport Films. In 1967, it won an Oscar for Best Short Subject at the 39th Academy Awards. The film looks at the conservation work carried out by The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at its headquarters in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, England.

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