How Nature Documentaries are Fake: A Filmmaker’s Perspective

When you watch nature documentaries like the BBC’s famous Planet Earth series, do you take for granted that everything you’re seeing is 100% real? We wouldn’t blame you if you did, but as Simon Cade of DSLRguide explains in this video, you’d be wrong.

While the amount of “manipulation” that takes place in the cutting room of a nature doc varies with the editor and how far the producer is willing to push the truth, the fact is: every nature documentary is edited to tell a story. This means fake sounds—because you can’t capture the rustling of animal legs through the grass while shooting from a helicopter—artistic license in splicing scenes shot days apart, and occasionally even CGI.

In the video above, Simon breaks down some of these techniques from a filmmaker’s perspective, attempting to explain how they’re done, why they’re done, and when they go too far.

Ultimately, Simon doesn’t hold this “manipulation” against the BBC or any other nature documentary producer. In fact, he sees this kind of artistic license, when applied appropriately in the name of powerful storytelling, as necessary… even positive.

“Storytelling is what engages us, not facts and figures,” explains Cade. “And so what some people could see as fakery, becomes something we can actually learn from.”

Is it disappointing that nature docs, even the best ones, are at least somewhat manipulated to help tell a story and engage their audience? Sure. But the music-less 24 hour live stream called “reality” is probably not your idea of the perfect nature documentary either.