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
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
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.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss