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News imageChris Palmer - Author of Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings Are King
By Jason Peters
31 March

An interview with member Chris Palmer, author of Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom and a new book, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings Are King.

What inspired you to write this second book, following on from your controversial first book Shooting in the Wild?

The quality of wildlife programming is in decline. In 2010 (when I wrote my first book, Shooting in the Wild) only a handful of shows committed the offenses of animal abuse, audience deception and disinterest in (or harm to) conservation. Today in 2015 there are dozens of these productions exploiting nature in the pursuit of profits. Something has to be done about it. My new book, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings Are King, is an effort to raise awareness of the problem. As we enter the sixth major extinction event in the earth’s history, broadcasters like Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, History Channel, and National Geographic should be leading the way in calling attention to humanity’s impact on the planet, not exacerbating the problem. Confessions is an indictment of the networks and a call for them to produce better programming.

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

This book is much more personal than the first, more autobiographical, why is that?

I wrote a more personal book in order to appeal to a broader, more diverse audience. The book is full of interesting stories that non-filmmakers can relate to.

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

What was your ultimate goal in writing this book?

To change the mission and behavior of the broadcasters so that they no longer produce and air programs that involve harassing animals, deceiving audiences, or damaging conservation. My new book contains descriptions of dozens of shows that to do this. An example is Shark Week, which every year includes programs that demonize sharks.

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

Do you feel the wildlife film-making industry welcomes your criticisms as a whole and is likely to take note/change or have you just ruffled more feathers for no real gain?

Definitely the former, even though I have ruffled some feathers. All social gains begin with feather ruffling.

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The hardest part was writing about some painful episodes in my childhood, and also admitting some of the many ways I have failed in my life.

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

Did you learn anything new or change your mind on any held beliefs whilst writing this book?

Measuring the social impact of films—both viewers’ emotional involvement as well as the level of behavioral engagement prompted by viewing a film—is no easy task. No one really knows if conservation films actually work to produce measurable results in terms of tangible consumer action. Anecdotal evidence suggests they do (look at Blackfish, for example, whose heart-breaking story of captive killer whales makes some viewers feel it’s unconscionable to visit SeaWorld), but little science-based evidence exists, partly because it is so difficult to disentangle the impact of film from all of the other influences on public policy or personal behavior, such as newspapers, books, articles, and opinions shared on social media. The absence of hard evidence doesn’t mean nature films can’t have an impact; it only means that filmmakers have to have a little humility and admit to some uncertainty as to what that impact is.

As I wrote the book, I realized that ideally films will spur audiences to some action, such as boycotting a product, voting differently, volunteering for a campaign, signing a petition, convincing a friend, or giving a donation. But a conservation film does not necessarily have to provoke immediate action. Films can work in subtle ways to create the basis for long-term change by introducing viewers to novel ideas, fresh perspectives, and inspirational people. Although change can be quick, it can also be slow and nearly imperceptible. Films can plant seeds that will someday grow into full-fledged forests. That kind of transformation is impossible to quantify.

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

Chris Palmer - 'Confessions' Book Launch
Book Launch Images by Berna Elibuyuk on flickr!

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

We can all ask questions about the media we consume and share our concerns with our friends, spreading the word, for example, about the harassment and abuse of animals on television. Here are seven ways you can make a difference right now.

1. When you see a wildlife show that features footage of animals being harassed or abused, send a tweet or share a Facebook post voicing your concerns.

2. Start a hashtag like #CrueltyForRatings (that’s what I use)

3. Reach out to the creators of the film or to the broadcast channel via social media or more traditional means like e-mail or letter to let them know how you feel.

4. Boycott shows that mistreat animals. Communicate with others what you’re doing and why you’re doing so by sharing your concerns with your friends via social media and in person.

5. Write to animal protection nonprofit groups about your concerns and ask them to help.

6. Use social media and traditional means to reach out to the sponsors and advertisers of television programs that don’t treat animals humanely.

7. Share your enthusiasm for programming that still manages to be entertaining while capturing its footage in an ethically responsible way.

Together, we can change the status quo and make more ethical wildlife films, putting an end to the abuse of our fellow animals. We each have the power to celebrate films produced ethically and to disparage those that are not. Social media gives us the means to easily share these views with hundreds or even thousands of other people.

"Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker" - Book Trailer from Chris Palmer

Review by Piers Warren: How refreshing to read such an honest and revealing account of the wildlife film-making industry. Chris Palmer describes his own journey through the business, his concerns as he realised it was not as ethical as many people think, and offers insights into how the situation could be improved. It's not often that you read a book that is both clear about the depth of the problems and who are causing them, but also leaves the reader on an optimistic note with the list of positive solutions that could and should be adopted. The threats that the natural world currently face are far too important and urgent for large networks to continue making facile and damaging shows, and this book shows how bad the situation has become. Highly recommended.

The book is available on: www.amazon.co.uk & www.amazon.com


Foreword by Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .ix
Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .xiii
Confession One: I Knew Almost Nothing about Wildlife (and Even Less about Making Films)
Chapter One: Wildlife Nightmares . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3
Chapter Two: A Distressing Introduction to the Natural World . . . . .11
Chapter Three: Politicians and Other Wild Animals . . . . . . . . . . .19
Confession Two: I Put Ratings above Everything Else
Chapter Four: Dumbing It Down . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29
Chapter Five: The Boring Crusader . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .33
Chapter Six: The Ardent Pursuit of Ratings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .37
Confession Three: As I Learned about Filmmaking, I Was Still a Clueless Dad
Chapter Seven: Conserving My Home Environment . . . . . . . . . . .47
Confession Four: I Joined an Industry that Accepted Animal Abuse
Chapter Eight: Ethics and Education . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .55
Chapter Nine: The Murky Morals of the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation . . . . .67
Confession Five: I Was a Hypocrite Who Enjoyed Watching Shamu Perform
Chapter Ten: The Pleasures of SeaWorld . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .79
Chapter Eleven: The Cruelty of SeaWorld . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .85
Confession Six: I Didn’t Resign, I Got Fired
Chapter Twelve: Undiscovered Country . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .95
Chapter Thirteen: Letting Go . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .109
Confession Seven: I Was a Professor Who Didn’t Know How to Teach
Chapter Fourteen: Teaching and Preaching . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 115
Confession Eight: I Tried Stand-Up Comedy and Got the Boot
Chapter Fifteen: Wildlife Filmmaking Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard . . . 125
Confession Nine: My Own Mistakes Pushed Me to a Tipping Point
Chapter Sixteen: My Own Mistakes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
Chapter Seventeen: Going Out on a Limb . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
Confession Ten: I Don’t Have All the Answers (but Am Still Searching)
Chapter Eighteen: Deceiving and Misleading Audiences . . . . . . . . 151
Chapter Nineteen: Failing the Conservation Test . . . . . . . . . . . .163
Chapter Twenty: Harassing and Harming Animals . . . . . . . . . . 183
Chapter Twenty-One: Where Do We Go From Here? . . . . . . . . . 203
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .223
Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .233
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .237
About the Author . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .247

Chris Palmer


confession in a book of confessions: I haven’t always lived up to my responsibilities as a filmmaker. I’ve been as guilty of fabricating phony wildlife scenes as those I now criticize. That’s just the way it is done in this industry, and I’m ashamed of how long it took me to realize this practice was wrong. Now, as you will see in this book, much worse things are being done in the chase for ratings.

Over thirty years ago, I began producing wildlife films when I real­ized that film and television are some of the best tools society possesses to protect the environment and encourage conservation. I’ve spent my career trying to create films that people would want to watch and that will help the environment and wildlife. Sometimes—through the magical combination of funding, incredibly talented colleagues, and luck—I’ve been successful.

But amid this success, it has gotten harder and harder for me to ignore the dark side of wildlife filmmaking. My first book, Shooting in the Wild, published in 2010, looked behind the scenes of wildlife films, exposing an industry undermined by sensationalism, fabrication, and sometimes even animal abuse. I described how, over the course of producing many films, I became haunted by the measures sometimes taken by broadcast­ers and filmmakers to capture compelling images. Were filmmakers doing more harm than good by staging “money shots” to capture more dramatic footage and achieve higher ratings at the expense of the animals and truly natural behaviors?

This new book is a memoir about my unusual childhood in England, my stern and demanding father, my emigration to America, my flaws as a dad, the superficial world of television, the foibles of environmental groups, the cruelty of SeaWorld, and the mistakes I made while struggling to excel as a film producer, stand-up comic, and teacher—and how all of these experiences shaped my views on wildlife filmmaking. It’s also about how networks like Discovery, Animal Planet, and National Geographic are failing in their responsibility to produce and broadcast programs that are not only entertaining but also consistent with their founding visions. The networks are full of honorable and ethical people who care about wild places and animals, but the business side of television seems to coerce them into behavior that sometimes harms wildlife, spreads misinforma­tion, and coarsens society’s appreciation of nature.

Suppose you want to produce a wildlife documentary and you’ve scraped together some financing. You don’t have much time in which to make this film. Of course, you want your film to achieve high audience ratings when it airs. Those high ratings will help get you rehired and give you the income you need to put food on the table and send your kids to college.

As you set out to shoot your film, certain questions will arise in your mind: To save time and money, can I stage some shots? Will it be easier to film if I rent captive animals? How close can I get to wild animals to capture dramatic behavior? Can I bait or entice wild animals to get them to act in ways that I want? Should I ignore conservation because the average viewer is not that interested in it?

In this book, I tackle these questions and challenge those in the envi­ronmental media industry to reconsider their own choices and obli­gations. I also hope that these behind-the-scenes reports will serve as a wake-up call to viewers who may not fully realize that they are watching unethically made wildlife programs and are thereby encouraging contin­ued exploitation.

I am writing this book to try to change the industry by being open about my own challenges and failings as a human being and as a film­maker. I want to show the complexities of making wildlife films in an ethical manner. It is not easy to pull back the curtain on the industry’s fail­ures—and even harder to reveal my own—but I believe the time has come for wildlife filmmaking to move in a healthier direction. We, as a society, cannot afford the malignant race for ever higher ratings to further corrupt the quality of these programs.

I believe that wildlife filmmakers have at our disposal one of the greatest tools ever conceived to sway public opinion—a tool so powerful that, with its influence, we can actually change the future for all life on this planet. Film gives us the potential opportunity to educate and inspire every single viewer to move closer to nature and to treat the other inhabitants of this planet with more dignity and respect. Let’s seize this opportunity.

The book is available on: Amazon.co.uk & Amazon.com
Shooting in the Wild is also available on: Amazon.com & Amazon.co.uk

All images above taken at the Environmental Film Festival launch of the book on Tuesday, March 24 by Berna Elibuyuk


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