Wildlife films: Flights of fancy

Feature-length wildlife films are taking off on the big screen, but this soaring success isn't a result of the usual formula of pretty pictures and earnest commentary. The secret is storytelling, says James Mottram

The environment might be in danger and our ecosystems under threat, but right now wildlife films are flourishing. Gone are the days when taking in a bit of Mother Nature meant sitting at home on a Sunday evening, tuning into BBC1 and watching David Attenborough crawl through the undergrowth to sit with silver-backed mountain gorillas. Even the proliferation of dedicated satellite channels, such as Discovery and National Geographic, is old news. In the next two months, three very different wildlife films are set to hit the cinemas, all with high hopes of luring audiences away from their living rooms to experience the natural world on the big screen.

The first of these is The Crimson Wing, a lyrical study of flamingos living on Lake Natron in Northern Tanzania, directed by the British-born filmmakers Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward. "We always wanted it to be a big screen film," says Aeberhard. "You could spend an enormous amount of time developing a project for television, so why not develop one for the big screen? We wanted it to be a project that people could experience in a way you can't experience on a small television. We felt nature deserves more than that. It's something intrinsically beautiful and the big screen supports that. It helps give one the feeling that they could be there."

Indeed, if anything suggests how nature films are changing for a new generation, it's that Aeberhard and Ward decided to use Mariella Frostrup's raspy vocal patterns to narrate their film. "The trouble we found with all the temporary narrators [we tried] is that they sounded like David Attenborough!" laughs Aeberhard. "We love David Attenborough, don't get me wrong. But that's not what we wanted. We wanted to break away from that association because we're trying to tell more of a story than a standard wildlife film."

Watch a trailer for 'The Crimson Wing'

Aeberhard and Ward are backed in their ambitions by the might of Walt Disney. The Crimson Wing is the first film commissioned under the aegis of Disneynature, a newly formed company designed to release "high quality wildlife feature films in theatres", according to its executive vice-president, Jean-François Camilleri. The company was formed after Disney CEO Robert Iger saw the BBC's Planet Earth series in the States and decided to start the studio's own specialist nature division. Earlier this April, the first release in the US was Earth, a feature-length version of the Planet Earth series, which opened in the UK in 2007.

Over the next five years, Disneynature will be releasing one film a year. Following The Crimson Wing, the sub-aquatic adventure Oceans will be unveiled next April. Then, in 2011 comes Naked Beauty. "It's about the job that pollinators – bees, hummingbirds, bats, butterflies – do to help flowers produce and create what we need to survive," says Camilleri. "Einstein said that if bees disappear from the surface of the Earth, then we have four years to live." Then comes African Cats, currently being shot in Kenya, and in 2013, Earth co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield will present Chimpanzee.

For this proliferation of wildlife films, you can blame the penguins. When French-produced March of the Penguins was released in the US in 2005, it took a staggering $77m (£46.4m) at the box office (with another $49m around the rest of the world), as well as the Oscar for best documentary feature. "March of the Penguins made things possible because other people saw they could make money out of it," says Aeberhard. "It became a viable thing." While he denies the film was a direct influence on The Crimson Wing, the fact the French were ahead of the curve was motivating. "Britain is a key centre of wildlife programming," he says, "so it always struck us as unusual that this wasn't being done by British filmmakers."

Indeed, the French can be seen as responsible for kickstarting the whole phenomenon. As far back as 1988, Jean-Jacques Annaud's feature film The Bear enchanted audiences. Though not a wildlife documentary, its story of a bear cub trying to avoid human hunters drew in 10 million admissions in France alone. Then came Microcosmos (1996), a close-up documentary of insect life in our own backyards, from Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou. Produced by Jacques Perrin, he followed it with Winged Migration in 2001, a study of birds with flight footage so stunning it began with the disclaimer that no special effects were used.

Yet it was March of the Penguins that proved enormous profits were possible. The story of the yearly life cycle of the feathery critters, when it was picked up for a US release, its quirky electronic music was re-scored and Morgan Freeman was brought in to provide a silky voiceover. "I think March of the Penguins was so successful in the US that people discovered something," says Camilleri. "People always wanted to see those types of images and stories. Everybody has a strong link with nature. And all of a sudden, seeing those types of things makes people happy. And I think what we are seeing with digital projection... it makes the experience of watching those types of films – which need very high quality images and sound – very good indeed. It's much better than it was before."

Certainly, better equipment in cinemas must account for one of the reasons why audiences are leaving the comfort of their armchairs to immerse themselves in the natural world. But there are other reasons. "I think we're living in a world where those types of subjects are much more important than they could've been 20 years ago," says Camilleri. With environmental issues much more prevalent now, thanks in part to eco-documentaries like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, it seems audiences are much more willing to learn about our endangered planet. That said, Camilleri is keen to impress that Disneynature is primarily an entertainment company. "The goal is not to preach, to tell people what to do or not to do, but to tell stories that nature invented."

Still, as two movies due for release in October show, other filmmakers are capitalising on this increased thirst for socially aware nature films. First up is Vanishing of the Bees, directed by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein. The film takes a piercing look at a subject that has already hit the news this year – the disappearance of the honeybee due to the mysterious phenomenon known as "colony collapse disorder". This is not just about honey disappearing. With 90 food crops dependent on bees for pollination, as Dennis vanEngelsdorp, from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, says: "If we want a diet that is more than gruel, we need insect pollinators."

Later in the month comes The Cove, an exposé on what goes on off the coast of Taiji, Japan, where fishermen engage in a brutal hunt for dolphins. Directed by Louie Psihoyos, the lead, as it were, is former dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry. Back in the 1960s, he captured and trained five dolphins to play the title character in the hit television show Flipper, but since underwent a change of heart and now rallies against theme parks such as Sea World for exploiting these mammals. Here, he leads a team of underwater photographers and marine experts to capture covert footage on what is happening in the cove, a barbed wire-fenced area where sonar is used to lure dolphins to their deaths.

With cameras hidden in rocks, the film comes on like an Ocean's Eleven-style adventure rather than a po-faced nature documentary. According to The Crimson Wing's Aeberhard, it's this approach that is needed to get audiences watching nature films in theatres. "I think we were a little bit frustrated with the conventions of the television wildlife industry," he admits. "There are strict, rigid formats. There was a certain freedom in making our film that you wouldn't get with television. I'm a naturalist. I'm really interested in wildlife. But I find myself getting quite bored with television wildlife programmes. It's a limiting format. Big screen productions give one a little more artistic leeway." As he puts it, these films give more room to "tell more personal stories. Stories that aren't so much about biology, science or information". Indeed, if one thing links many of the filmmakers involved in these projects, it's artistry. "They are not just scientists doing a film," says Camilleri. "They are artistic talents." Nor is it just about shooting the natural world for the sake of capturing some Oscar-worthy cinematography. "Stories are what's important," he continues. "It's not just about animals – it could be about mountains, it could about trees, it could be about forests, it could be about winds, it could be about snow." Don't be surprised if this is Disneynature's slate for the next decade.



'The Crimson Wing' opens on 25 September; 'Vanishing of the Bees' is released on 9 October; 'The Cove' opens on 23 October. Watch a trailer for 'Crimson Wing' and enter our competition to win a year's free electricity at independent.co.uk/film .

Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn