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An Interview with Environmental and Wildlife Film Producer Chris Palmer

Patrolling the Ethical Front Lines of Wildlife Filmmaking

Chris Palmer
"I became more and more conscious that many [filmmakers] were crossing some ethical lines that we shouldn’t. I wrote the book because I had become haunted by what I had seen." —Chris Palmer

Chris Palmer is a mix of vibrant energy and patient calm. While such opposing characteristics may seem at odds, they actually make the perfect storm that led this environmental activist to bring his passionate fight for conservation to film and eventually to the classroom.

At age 63, Palmer is a 30-year veteran environmental and wildlife documentary filmmaker and full-time professor at American University in Washington, D.C.  While Palmer officially teaches environmental filmmaking nine months out of the year, he is never without students, whether in the classroom, out in the field or on the road. Since the publication in 2010 of his exposé of wildlife films, “Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom,” he has presented more than 100 lectures about the film industry, still starting many by standing on his head to “wake up” the audience. He provides information on everything from how to actually get the money to make films in this ever-more-competitive business to the basics of how to network, something that appears inherent in his genes. In spite of being divided among so many tasks, he always seems to have a devoted ear and a bit of encouragement for anyone appealing to him for advice, particularly his students.

In the 20 years before becoming a film producer and then teacher, Palmer was a naval officer, an engineer, a business consultant, an energy analyst, the chief energy advisor to a senior U.S. senator, a political appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and an environmental activist. Palmer has worked in recent years on stunning IMAX productions, such as "Whales," "Cold Coral Reef Adventures," "Dolphins," "Bears," and "Wolves." His next project is bringing the mysteries of the ocean to IMAX screens.

SeaWeb recently talked to Palmer about his long-term perspective of both the power and potential de-evolution of environmental and wildlife filmmaking.

SeaWeb: What motivated you to first become involved in environmental and wildlife filmmaking?

Chris Palmer: What motivated me was a desire to be a more powerful environmental activist. It occurred to me that if I produced films that were persuasive, we could elect better congressmen and senators in the first place. For me, going into TV was part of an effort to be a more potent environmental activist.

SW: What was one of the most inspiring encounters you had with wildlife while making a film? What was one of the most disturbing?

CP: Among the most inspiring have been getting to see massive Kodiak bears in Alaska, swimming with whales off Maui and observing wolves up close.  Seeing those incredible animals is always inspiring because it makes you realize that each one has evolved over millions of years. Each one is a miraculous work of art and not to be disrespected, killed or harassed, but rather to be cared for.

The most disturbing is to see filmmakers do things to animals that others would consider cruel and harassing them in order to achieve the “money shot,” such as chasing after a cheetah while it's hunting a gazelle.

SW: In your book “Shooting in the Wild,” you cite several examples of potential deceptions of the audience as well as negative uses of animals for film.  What do you feel are the most egregious uses of animals in the filmmaking industry today and what should documentarians do instead?

CP: One of the most egregious uses of animals is through the use of game farms. These are places that keep wild animals in small cages and then rent them out to photographers and videographers in order for those people to make calendars or films of charismatic species. These game farms are not pleasant places. They are highly stressful for animals. The solution is not to use them, or if it is absolutely imperative that you use a captive animal, to get that captive animal from a place that treats the animal humanely.

SW: You have seen the use of such game farm animals in filmmaking firsthand?

CP: Yes, when I was naive and before I saw what game farms really were, I rented animals when I needed them.

SW: So was this part of the reason you starting writing “Shooting in the Wild,” or what motivated you to write what some may view as a condemnation of wildlife documentary filmmaking?

CP: Yes, that was partly the reason. I’ve been in the business about 30 years, and the first half of that I was so enamored by the business that I never thought about it much. But then in the last 15 years, I became more and more conscious that many of us were crossing some ethical lines that we shouldn’t. I wrote the book because I had become haunted by what I had seen and wanted to get it out into the open for pubic debate. And I had made a lot of mistakes. I had realized in retrospect that I had made many errors in judgment and I wanted people to know about them and learn from them.

SW: Do you feel that making documentaries has become more or less ethical, and why?

CP: I think they have become less ethical. The reason is that networks are very much money driven. Their concern is with ratings, with profit, with branding, and not with social progress. That is how capitalism works. That means that there is constant pressure on these networks because they are in a highly competitive marketplace. They are relentlessly trying to achieve higher ratings than their competitors to stay in business. In order to do this, they have to be daring and sensational: if it bleeds, it leads.

This leaves filmmakers who work for them crossing that ethical line, deceiving audiences, harassing animals and sometimes killing animals, and then not putting enough in about conservation or sometimes carrying anti-conservation messages. I saw a woman on television the other day kissing a wild hyena on its mouth. This lack of responsibility is a big problem.

SW: Does this apply to movies on the big screen as well, or does it matter as much for such large films as an IMAX production, for example?

CP: Yes, all the way through. The pressure is a bit less on IMAX productions because we are producing for mainly family audiences, whereas Animals Planet’s main demographic is young males.

SW: What advice do you tell your students who wish to become documentary filmmakers?

CP: I tell them they have to do a better job than my generation. They have got to find new ways of telling stories that are very dramatic and use humor and inspiration in order to overcome the competition without being unethical. It is a big challenge. I encourage my students to work hard and to be highly resourceful and creative.  I refer them to Chapter 11 of my book “Shooting in the Wild,” which includes an eight-part program for reforming the wildlife film industry.

SW: So what should the consumer do to promote better environmental and wildlife documentary filmmaking?

CP: They need to be much more skeptical and ask more questions, such as “Is that bear really wild, or is it controlled and captive?” When the bear feeds on the innards of an elk, “Was that activity natural or did the producer stuff the innards of the elk with M&Ms to get the bear to feed on it?” When that bear is walking on its hind legs, “Is that posture really natural?” I tell people to write to the networks and ask: “Where did you get that animal? Was it free roaming or rented? How did you get that shot? Why didn’t you talk more about climate change when you had the opportunity?” So, I encourage consumers to write to their networks and to be more active as citizens.

SW: What has been the reaction to your book from the filmmaking community?

CP: Mostly overwhelmingly positive. Mostly people are relieved that someone is openly talking about these issues. But there have been one or two people that have been unhappy because they feel their work has been criticized. Or they run game farms and they worry that my book is going to put them out of business. I had one guy who runs a game farm call me a “parasitic bottom-feeder." Whenever you produce a controversial book, you have people angry at you. I have no regrets.

SW: Do you think most environmental and wildlife films still further conservation and lead people to take action on behalf of our environment? Can their greater good, in essence, outweigh the sins of the industry?

I think so. It's vitally important that such films get made ethically. When ethically made films at the same time are highly entertaining, dramatic, involve compelling characters and tell a riveting story, then these films can do a huge amount of good.


Chris Palmer
Chris Palmer is an environmental and wildlife film producer who in 2009 received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Media at the International Wildlife Film Festival. His book, “Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom,” was published in May 2010 by Sierra Club Books. He is president of One World One Ocean, as well as the MacGillivray Freeman Films Educational Foundation, which produces and funds IMAX films, and he is also a professor on the full-time faculty at American University, where he founded and directs the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at the School of Communication.