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
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little