Home News Sunny Side of the Doc panel: Human in Nature Documentary

Sunny Side of the Doc panel: Human in Nature Documentary

Sunny Side of the Doc 2024

Sunny Side of the Doc recently hosted a panel titled “Human in Nature Documentary: A Wild Perspective?” The conversation sought to explore the different programming strategies for nature and wildlife docs and shows, while acknowledging that humans are taking centre stage within the content, forging emotional connections to convey a powerful conservation message, with Indigenous communities leading the way. But are stories with human characters connecting wider audiences with nature?

The talk was moderated by Albatross World Sales Managing Director Anne Olzmann and saw the participation of WildlifeDirect CEO Paula Kahumbu; Love Nature/Blue Ant Media exec Alison Barrat; National Geographic Development Manager Jessie Springer; New Dream Productions Managing Director David Cook, and France TV reps Caroline Behar and Amandine Picault.

After a quick round of introductions, the floor was given to Picault and Behar who spoke about France TV prime-time slots on France 2 and France 5. Their nature-focused programming includes docs and magazines, with additional daytime slots featuring “pure wildlife films.” Currently, France TV is open to international co-productions “coming from abroad, with or without French co-producers.” The team also acquires content. A clip of a new project in pre-production, titled Metamorphosis and focusing on climate change seen through the eyes of a single witness, was shown.

Love Nature’s Barat focused on the company’s strong willingness to feature “deeply passionate” hosts and protagonists. “It doesn’t matter whether they are scientists, pet lovers or park rangers. They have to be authentic, captivating, interesting… They must feel connected with the show and its subjects.” To date, Love Nature screens content in over 100 countries, reaching an audience of about 345 million people and airing content in 15 different languages. “[For us] it’s all about storytelling. We usually don’t take a celebrity and just drop them into the format. We want to offer a lovely glimpse at someone’s life to our audience,” she said, giving the example of Dan O’Neill, the charismatic host of Love Nature’s Mission: Snow Leopard

“We commission pure blue-chip wildlife, landmark wildlife, rescue centres, anything that is related to natural history and wildlife. We populate our channel with all sorts of different programmes,” she added.

Meanwhile, National Geographic’s Springer explained that her team focuses on “pure commissions globally across NatGeo channels and Disney+” and touched on two very recent productions; Secrets of the Octopus and Secrets of the Elephants. “Humans in our wildlife films have always been part of our strategy, [in order] to have authenticity and credibility,” she underscored.

Next, WildlifeDirect’s Kahumbu – one of Africa’s best-known conservationists – elaborated on the struggles of airing nature and wildlife docs in Africa. “I’ve started making films for that reason, and I made several TV series. We’re working in a ‘vacuum’ here in Africa; many of us [are]…We’ve got no access to expertise, and many crews operating in Africa come from abroad, work within their own bubble and leave. They don’t leave behind skills and don’t work with local filmmakers, who do mostly fiction. […] Here in Kenya, we’ve got the animals, the locations, but not the capacity,” she warned.

Kahumbu added how most African audience watches free-to-air TV, so this type of content should be aired by those channels. She also introduced Wildlife Warriors, her own impact series shining a spotlight on African conservation role models working on the frontline. She drew a distinction between this series and international productions shot in Africa which are “all polished and beautiful, but Africa doesn’t relate to them.”

The floor was then given to New Dream’s Cook, a First Nation filmmaker. At La Rochelle, he pitched his feature doc Frontline Rangers (now in early development). He underlined his strong personal connection and spiritual relationship with his land and its fauna. His project aims to amplify the knowledge and the cultural stories attached to the regeneration of Australia’s ancient lands and oceans, and it has the potential to be expanded into a series.

Kahumbu was later asked whether conservation-focused docs and shows need human presence. “It depends on your audience. I’m really interested in impact filmmaking so if your audience is moved by [the sole presence of] animals – and many [people] are – then it’s great, it’s the right approach. In Africa people really like to see themselves in the picture,” she said, adding how African audiences also enjoy hearing talents speaking their local languages rather than speaking English. “We know that more than 50% of the Kenyans we reached know the characters, and go to national parks…featured in the series.”

France TV’s Behar stated that currently there’s “a huge appetite for pure wildlife” as well as for “programmes rehabilitating the ecosystem,” thus carrying messages of hope and inspiring youth to commit and take on scientific careers. “[The] French audience is Latin and moved by emotions, and these can only be conveyed by [observing] the relationship between humans and nature,” she said.

Cook and Kahumbu zoomed in on other challenges they’re facing along with their colleagues. In detail Cook lamented Australia’s regular crew shortages, owing to major productions filming in the Gold Coast; Kahumbu touched on African channels often asking creatives to pay for their content to be aired, the high costs of gear and equipment, and the problematic use of English as a lingua franca, which determines that networks exclude the “right experts with the wrong accents” and which fails to attract younger audiences in countries such as Tanzania and Rwanda as English isn’t taught until high school.

Springer mentioned NatGeo’s efforts to ensure “fair representation,” including the presence of a dedicated research team double-checking facts; and the Field Ready initiative, an intensive boot camp for early career filmmakers. Some of the participants later took part in “huge blue-chip docs,” adding “more authentic, local perspectives.”

At the end of the talk, Cook envisaged the future of blue-chip docmaking. In his opinion animation, VFX and AI will play a bigger role, “allowing people to swim together with hammerhead sharks and enjoy more immersive experiences.” 

“Storytelling [made] with these tools will bring audiences back,” he summed up.