“Are you sure this isn’t Game of Thrones?”
My friend’s confusion is warranted. Having just watched a highly stylized scene underscored with pulse-pounding music of a wolf pack chasing wild horses at full lope through misty woods, we are now watching ravens weaving among battlements of a medieval castle.
While this isn’t HBO’s fantasy series, it’s not entirely obvious this is a nature film either.
Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud’s Seasons (2016), available starting today in the iTunes store, is the latest work in the filmmakers’ catalogue that challenges people’s understanding of what constitutes a nature film. The Academy Award-nominated French filmmakers previously produced and/or directed the popular films Microcosmos (1996), Winged Migration (2001), and Oceans (2009).
With Seasons, they purport to show the evolution of the great forests of Europe from the end of the last major ice age 80,000 years ago through the present day. Compressing eons into minutes, they show winters and summers coming and going, while in striking close-up cinematography we see elk, musk oxen, wolves, lynx, owls, boars, mice, hedgehogs, bees, and dozens of other creatures struggle to co-exist in the forest community.
No Qualms About Staging Scenes
Along the way, viewers glimpse another creature that increasingly transforms that community: man. We spy Neanderthals’ sacred shrines; a hunter domesticating a wolf approximately 15,000 years ago; medieval knights chasing and (almost) beheading an elk; the arrival of Leo Marx’s “machine in the garden,” a steam-powered thresher helping to transform woods into wheat fields in the early 19th century; and World War I battlefields complete with soldiers, dogs, rats, and birds roaming bombed out landscapes. More people are visible on screen (although not always in the foreground) in the film’s 95-minute runtime than perhaps in all the dozens of hours of BBC wildlife films like Planet Earth, Life, and The Blue Planet combined. Moreover, if this is a “documentary” it clearly has no qualms about staging scenes.
This willingness to fabricate scenes so overtly has always made Perrin and Cluzaud’s films such fascinating additions to the nature film canon. They have subverted the genre—not through a difference in how they make nature films but in what they choose to present as the finished product. Rather than treat film as an opportunity to depict nature, they treat nature as an opportunity to create cinematic art. And yet Seasons is probably their least successful effort because it also tries to be the most conventionally educational.
Americans’ understanding of what nature film is has always been complicated. From the beginnings of cinema, the genre has been marketed as educational—showing the world as it is. This claim to realness generates added awe when audiences witness dramatic spectacles, more so than when we watch similar stories explicitly acknowledged as scripted. Yet the genre of nature films requires a term like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”—the sense that something is true because it intuitively seems like it ought to be—to capture the full complexity of its relationship with reality.
Consider the issue of staging: while it may be easy for most viewers to recognize Neanderthals are re-creations, many of us fail to recognize other forms of re-creation that are always present in nature film. As scholars Chris Palmer, Gregg Mitman, Cynthia Chris, and Derek Bousé have documented, films featuring wild animals employ extensive editing to manufacture the appearance of narrative arcs out of raw footage. Different animals and incidents—sometimes separated by continents and months of time, sometimes combining wild and captive creatures—are spliced together to create composite characters and storylines. Even the animal sounds usually are added in post-production, either from a sound library or by Foley artists re-creating noises on a soundstage. Does this make these films fake? Or merely truth-y?
Animals as Pawns in Fictional Narratives
Of course, sometimes the outright fiction of a nature film becomes undeniable. Consider the infamous White Wilderness (1958), a film presenting Arctic wildlife that was part of the Walt Disney True Life Adventures series. As critic Chris Palmer recounts in Shooting in the Wild, the film’s most dramatic scene is its depiction of lemming mass suicide. Disney shows a surge of thousands of rodents running along seaside cliffs and hurling themselves into the ocean before swimming out to sea to drown. It emerged 25 years later that this scene hadn’t just been edited together but was a sham—cameramen off-screen had herded and hurled dozens of lemmings into the sea to fabricate drama. This wasn’t trying to re-create real wild behavior: it was invention of a mythical event. (And yet, as Palmer points out, White Wilderness had the audacity to start the film with a statement averring: “the hand of man had no influence in what you are about to see.”)
White Wilderness’s filmmakers knew that what audiences crave most is a good story. A real “true life” nature film for most animals would consist only of sleeping and eating. And other wildlife filmmakers already had a long tradition of creating drama by framing rare events as though they were everyday occurrences and by juxtaposing these events in rapid succession—turning nature into an action-packed narrative. So why not go all the way and simply use wild animals as mere pawns in fictional narratives?
In the ensuing decades, most (but not all) nature films have not tested the limits of “truthiness” to quite such an extreme degree. But negotiating the tension between presenting things that are “real” versus those that are “exciting” has remained the core dilemma for all wildlife filmmakers. It is a dilemma, though, only so long as filmmakers want to maintain the pretense they are presenting you nature as it is found in the wild.
Perrin’s and Cluzaud’s films have tried to cut through this Gordian Knot, however, by simply foregrounding the artificiality of that pretense.
For example, in Microcosmos, produced by Perrin, two snails copulate in a slow motion tableau filmed against a black backdrop. This is staged nature, manipulated to create optimal filming conditions. Rather than try to hide the directors’ intervention in the scene, the filmmakers emphasize it by setting most of the scene to a highly romantic aria without any natural sound, reinforcing the fact that they have cast snails as characters rather than trying to show them merely as they are. The filmmakers want you to focus not on the scientific facts of snail life (indeed, they present none) but on their aesthetics of form and motion. In this way, Microcosmos embraces its own “truthiness” and bypasses debates about authenticity: it presents the “artistic truth” of nature even as it unabashedly presents highly staged nature.
Similarly, in Winged Migration, co-directed by Perrin and Cluzaud, the camera captures the extreme physical exertion of migrating birds, soaring alongside geese, cranes, and pelicans high above the landscape. Yet rather than hide the techniques behind the jaw-dropping cinematography, the film’s closing credits reveal that more than 70 human trainers worked its “Breeding and Training Centers” and more than 40 people worked on “Digital Effects” and “Special Effects.” Despite a film opening that assures that “No Special Effects Were Used In Filming the Birds,” filmmakers both raised and habituated bird flocks to follow light aircraft, so that scenes of avian navigation largely reflected the decisions of the filmmakers and not the birds themselves.
As with Microcosmos, because the filmmakers choose to make the artistic motion of flight their focus rather than any scientific information about migration, any shattering of illusions viewers may have had about the film’s reality ultimately doesn’t detract from it still feeling “truth-y.”
Perrin and Cluzaud’s Truth-y Vision in Seasons
Had Perrin and Cluzaud stuck to a similar approach in Seasons, the film might also have successfully negotiated the boundaries of “truthiness” in nature film. Instead, they adopt an environmentalist message and attempt to offer the forest as history lesson, presenting a declensionist narrative of nature as under longstanding siege from mankind.
Partway through the film, as a contrast of wild boars versus domesticated pigs plays across the screen, the film’s narrator declares: “Wolves disappear into the forest. The hunter-gatherers disappear without a trace. The golden age of the forest is over.” Later the narrator intones: “The forest shrinks, pushed back by fields… A whole world disappears.”
As pristine woods increasingly give way to human-dominated landscapes, the second-to-last scene shows an entirely paved over Parisian cityscape. The film pleads: “This was an expanse of forest, inhabited by wild animals. If we are capable of building eternal cities, we should be able to preserve the nature in our world. What consideration do we have for our fellow creatures on the planet?”
There is nothing unusual about finding a conservationist plea at the end of a nature film. Usually it is similarly anodyne, noting that the vibrant nature viewers have just watched is under increasing threat from humanity. But these other nature films usually take pains to hide the presence of people in the imagined Edens of wildlife they present. So when they tell us that these Edens may soon cease to exist, we don’t stop to question whether they ever existed in the first place. We accept as authentic their “truth-y” vision of natural worlds (so far) untouched by humans.
In Perrin and Cluzaud’s Seasons, however, the final conservationist plea has the unfortunate effect of calling attention to the film’s obvious staging of scenes. True, because the film purports to show images from tens of thousands of years ago, of course we have to know those scenes are re-creations using modern wildlife—a level of staging we might be able to accept without otherwise questioning the film’s authenticity. But by declaring that humans destroyed the forest that existed during that “golden age,” the film forces viewers to ask where all the scenery and wildlife for those scenes came from. Either the filmmakers are lying when they say people destroyed all those forests or else cinematic staging must have occurred.
And so awakened to the issue of staging, we viewers are jolted into an unpleasant sense that nothing we have seen quite adds up. For example, returning to that scene of wolves chasing wild horses, just how exactly did the filmmakers capture shots traveling at top speed supposedly through deep woods, unless those woods actually run alongside a road? How did they film both the loping wolfpack and galloping horses from the side, then the horses head on while the camera pulls back from in front of them, and finally trail behind the wolves from the rear, unless they used captive wolves and horses and “encouraged” them into repeated chases? (The film’s press notes try to elide over such questions by mentioning use of assimilated animals that are habituated to humans, rather than trained animals that merely perform on command.)
In the end, because Perrin and Cluzaud try to tell a more scientific story than they have previously, they make their film less appealing. Because they ask us to focus on the ecological authenticity of their film we only end up seeing just how staged and “truth-y” it really is.
Featured image: In an early scene of Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud’s Seasons, European bison follow the retreating glaciers from the last ice age north into newly established forests. ©Eric Travers/Courtesy of Music Box Films.
Peter Boger is a CHE community associate and earned his Ph.D. in environmental studies from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. He served first as programmer and then as programming director for CHE’s Tales from Planet Earth environmental film festival from 2009 to 2016. His research in animal studies and media studies explores the impacts of film and media celebrity on modern American wildlife conservation. His own short film on animals, On the Origin of Subspecies, played the 2008 Hazel Wolf Film Festival in Seattle. Contact.