Chris Palmer is a renowned documentary filmmaker, speaker and author. He is a vocal proponent of improved ethics in the wildlife filmmaking industry, having published two books on the subject. He currently teaches full-time at American University, where he directs the Center For Environmental Filmmaking. He also serves as president of the One World One Ocean Foundation, and he sits on the board of 14 environmental non-profits.
How does Confessions of A Wildlife Filmmaker (2015) differ from your previous book, Shooting In The Wild (2010)?
The books are five years apart, and a lot has happened in that time. Discovery produced the ridiculous Megalodon and mermaid documentaries. Confessions is up to date with new stories as more producers crave ratings and falsify footage. But they carry a similar message — wildlife films should be made ethically.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
What percentage of wildlife documentaries are staged? Do even universally acclaimed organizations like Nat Geo fall victim to the pressure?
Staging is not easily defined; it has many levels to it. Fake sound is routine. All films contain some fakery, that’s what filmmaking is: the use of artifice to persuade. But the big question is, when does that legitimate artifice become illegitimate deception? It’s not easy to answer.
Gross deception is renting captive animals and pretending they’re wild. Nat Geo, and other big names like BBC and Discovery, all use these techniques of deception. They often don’t make the shows, but they outsource filmmakers. Nat Geo isn’t using animals from game farms per see, but the people they hire are. They themselves don’t know the details about the shot. All these organizations must be more open about how they make films. The BBC is a leader — they’ve laid out in great detail what they find acceptable.
When you have lots of money, it means you have plenty of time, and it’s less common to use game animals. It’s more common in low budget films, which lack financial backing, and only have two or three days to find an endangered animal and get the shot.
Tell us about an incident where you staged a shot.
When we made an IMAX film on wolves, we had a very hard time getting close-up shots. We wanted to get shots that tell the story of wolves as social beings, beyond just hunting prey; it’s easier to take those. But to get close-up shots of a mother wolf caring for its pups is difficult. They run away; they’re weary of people. The only way to do it is to use rented game animals. I only regret it in the sense that we weren’t very open about in the film. If we had been truthful about our methods, and if the animals are looked after humanely in the game reserve (but that’s not often the case), then we wouldn’t be in the wrong.
Do you believe it’s more ethical to employ captive animals in wildlife documentaries?
When you rent animals, you don’t have to disturb them. On the other hand, you have to find out how they became captive, and if they’re looked after humanely. I think the way of the future is CGI — like the tiger in Life of Pi.
There are three main ethical issues to consider: deception of audience, disrespect towards animals and lack of conservation gains. If the film doesn’t express the threats to a species, it raises an ethical question: Have they really been responsible? They give the impression to the audience that everything is hunky dory when a species is on the brink of extinction.
Describe your favorite experience filming a wild animal. Did your presence negatively impact it?
My favorite experience was filming up in Alaska, filming brown bears. They’re so focused on feeding on the salmon, they come together in fairly large groups, and they don’t mind your presence. Watching bears up close like that is thrilling.
But you have to ask, are you habituating them or interfering in their natural behavior? I was ten feet away, but I don’t want to recommend that. I never would encourage someone to get that close. I was young and naïve. We need to leave them alone, in peace.
Do you think it’s better to mislead the public in the interest of the ‘greater good’? If you generate interest in these species, and work to save them, do the ends justify the means?
Are the benefits from a film so big, so palpable, that committing a minor ethical violation is justified? I think sometimes they are. My wife was upset when she found I faked sounds of grizzly bears walking through a river. She asked, how did you get the sound of water dripping off its paws? We put water in a bowl and splashed it. We never approached the bears and filmed from a distance, but the audience was slightly deceived. She considered that cheating; it was a scientific documentary, and we had falsified sounds — I believe that this is acceptable.
In conservation, ‘charismatic species’ like giant pandas tend to get all the funding, because they have a better appeal to the public. Does wildlife filmmaking follow a similar pattern?
It does, and it’s terrible. Everyone films pandas, wolves and sharks, but who is working on the uncharismatic species that matter so much to ecology and ecosystems? We have a responsibility to devote more time to unsexy animals that are so important to the health of our world. It’s shocking that we don’t do more — but we need to. We need to be more creative to make interesting films.
But you suggest a solution. What is the future of wildlife filmmaking? How can the industry be reformed to better serve the planet and the public?
Big organizations ultimately decide what goes on the air, of course it’s influenced by public, but they make the final call — they have to have higher standards. They must say, ‘We will not make films that exaggerate or demonize animals like sharks; we will not make films where any animal is harassed’ — and they must make it clear to the people they hire. You have to abide by these standards, but ratings are everything so it’s a challenge. I challenge these big players to assert higher ethical standards.
Is there hope for conservation, or is the planet’s biodiversity doomed?
I’m very pessimistic. I worry that the power of the ratings game is so fierce, so driving, that we will fail to produce films that are ethically made. We’ve just elected a politician who is a climate-denier and an anti-environmentalist. The need for films that educate the public about conservation has increased multifold. It should be a national priority. People like me are failing the country if we don’t do more.
This election is a disaster, a catastrophe. We, the loyal opposition, have to address this terrible threat to our country. We all have to do whatever we can to limit the damage.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.