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On American and European documentary storytelling and our poor sharks

shark storytelling discovery channel

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#1 Davide DB

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Posted 02 August 2017 - 03:07 PM

Favored by summer vacations and some spare free time I had the time to write down some thoughts from the couch. I don't know if it's the right place to post my ranting. even if I will not write about gear I'm going to write about video after all.

 

When I subscribed to Sky, the largest European satellite broadcaster I couldn't wait to see their nature channels. After few months I realized that only few shows were worth watching. But I never paid particular attention at it. Well, until few days ago, when I saw the Discovery Shark Week. A shark kermesse aired by Discovery Channel every year. By chance at the same time I saw the short documentary Gombessa IV Genesis. Wetpixel wrote a small news about it here.
Basically it is a short documentary based on Arte amazing long format Le mystère Mérou re-edited with sharks as main subject. Gombessa IV expedition is just finished and I could even follow them on their Youtube V-log.

 

Let me start off by saying that while I'm passionate about diving and underwater filming I'm able rarely to follow marine documentaries aired by Discovery, NGC, History, etc... I find them mostly targeted to casual public or the average Joe who don't know nothing about diving or marine biology. Let me be really clear, nothing wrong on this. Informing lay people with the most suitable language is the main task of science journalism. Actually seeing these shows (I think show is the proper term, not documentary) some doubt arises.

How much oversimplification can we afford in the name of accessibility?

How many fake infos can we afford in the name of a wider public audience and spectacularization?

In other words, where is the balance between audience and correct information?

 

I see that Wetpixel almost mentioned one part of the show here but I'll try to be clearer.

 

Some example: several documentaries shows of the Discovery Shark Week were shoot at the Bahamas. Some of them at the famous Shark beach.  Why the hell every two minutes do they have to remember me that the diver or the camera operator is risking his life doing this or that? They are in the same place where every year thousand of apprentice divers party with the sharks bringing back home their pretty photos and family video! Internet is flooded of these videos. Music, editing, dialogues, everything rotates around shark diving dangerousness. Even when the diver is in the cage we clearly see that video operator is outside and everything is fake as Disneyland. At the end of the show my mother and my little son thinks sharks are dangerous.

 

Therefore other questions arise. Shark week official declared goal is to show how amazing this endangered creatures are... but after 45 minutes spent remarking how dangerous are those activities are we sure that the usual sentence at the end of the show filled with "amazing... endangered... protect..." is enough to put across the message on shark preservation?

Frankly speaking it's just a boilerplate on a format focused on maximizing the audience. Three shows were focused on shark attacks. I'm done with sharks and surfers. Please. Basically in one week only one show documentary was worth to watch: Blue Serengeti.

 

We know, to attract shark we need baits. All of the shows were doing indiscriminate use of shark feeding or chumming. I'm a practical guy so I will not do a crusade against it but how is possible that in a documentary show there is no mention about opinions or disclaimers on this controversial practice?

By the way,  reading two Wetpixel's articles about the poor traveling octopus I understand that balance between audience and correct information should be a topic dear to Wetpixel but then I see that there is a double aspect even for them. Chumming is ok for Wetpixel. I take note of it. On the topic it worth reading this page of Sharks and People: Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea, University of Chicago Press, p. 160

 

I'm not fighting against this show. I'm using it as an recent example of what I don't like in nearly all shows about nature aired via satellite or cable: The most dangerous creatures of ... (fill dots with an ecosystem of your choice), Spiders vs Snakes and so on... On shipwreck dives is no joke either! I still remember watching History Channel's Deep Sea Detectives touching wood. Bottom line is that it doesn't worth without someone who risk his life (actually, most of the times someone who acts like risking his life).

 

To summarize, IMHO I find there is a more general "format" problem on USA productions. It doesn't depends on documentary filmmaker and operators involved. They are professionals who sell their images later tailored on their needs by production companies or they directly produce what the market asks for. USA productions prefer a format that is kind of an hybrid between a reality show and a documentary. When did all of this started?

 

IMO French productions I cited above are on another league. I'm not speaking about money involved but the plot, storytelling in itself. Breathtaking images and events still depicted in a very realistic fashion. I participated to some documentation and exploration projects and reality on the ground corresponds on what I see on them. Scientific facts and message to the audience plays always a main role and everything revolves around them. In some respects the viewer is considered an adult person fully capable to understand what's going on. Things seem easy because they are good at them but emphasis is rarely given on character's ego or risks involved. From a storytelling perspective these documentaries mix the old David Attenborough BBC understatement with the superman challenges of Yves Cousteau. Sad to say that French are the only one in Europe to put money on these productions devoted to the sea. Maybe something else form BBC. On the shipwreck topic I could cite U455 the lost submarine. Again a French director with an international production.

 

Maybe it's just me. I'm European and I feel these kind of storytelling more inline with my way of thinking. Yet speaking about fiction, USA storytelling doesn't seem to suffer from these problems. Its language is universal and it spreaded across the world. Maybe when we speak about documentary there is a cultural gap to reduce after all.

 

 


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#2 TimG

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Posted 02 August 2017 - 10:19 PM

Hi Davide

 

I'm sure many of us will share your view on the general "documentary" style programs about sharks. It's always the same: it's so dangerous, the crew are risking their life, spooky music....

 

I guess it's supposed to be audience-attracting entertainment: ("entertainment: the difference between what it costs to produce a program and what it will sell for")  but it's all pretty sad and it does make me appreciate the David Attenborough-type programs. A nice bit of British understatement.

 

Maybe the movie Jaws must take some of the blame? It heightened fears over sharks, made tons of money, spawned many reboots, sequels etc - and certainly had spooky music which many of us probably hear at 25m....


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#3 troporobo

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Posted 02 August 2017 - 11:03 PM

I'm with you, Davide.  American shows like those on Shark Week exasperate me.  

 

On a lighter note, I prefer this sort of mockumentary:

 

https://www.youtube....bed/fo_Q82lzGBg



#4 SWink

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Posted 02 August 2017 - 11:56 PM

Yes it's a shame how tabloid Discovery and National Geographic have become. At least we still have the BBC - for now at least.


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#5 Davide DB

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Posted 03 August 2017 - 01:26 AM

 

Maybe the movie Jaws must take some of the blame? It heightened fears over sharks, made tons of money, spawned many reboots, sequels etc - and certainly had spooky music which many of us probably hear at 25m....

 

In some respects yes. Spielberg and John Williams never regretted Jaws changed our perception of sharks forever. Only Peter Benchley, the author of the bestselling novel regretted writing it. He became a millionaire and he spent the rest of his life advocating for shark preservation. Just a couple of links:

 

http://narrative.ly/...atest-defender/

 

https://www.boston.c...-never-wrote-it


Yes it's a shame how tabloid Discovery and National Geographic have become. At least we still have the BBC - for now at least.

 

Too bad it's a trend even here in Europe.


Edited by Davide DB, 03 August 2017 - 01:25 AM.

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#6 wydeangle

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Posted 03 August 2017 - 06:40 AM

No surprise about Nat Geo: http://gizmodo.com/n...nier-1729683793

 

No competition for greed + stupidity...



#7 PeterRowlands

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Posted 03 August 2017 - 06:45 AM

Hi Davide

Thanks you for taking the time to share your concerns and it is not just you, rest assured. The visual presentation of 'our world' has never been so poorly and so ignorantly produced by most TV productions including those that started out with the best of lofty intentions. I totally agree with you that they should not be classed as documentaries and I would go a step further and put most of them in the, to use a modern term, 'fake news' category.

Unfortunately I don't think there is a solution except to not watch them and hope falling viewing figures will get the point across or, in a positive dream, people power would win if the producers and camera operators refused to take part but that is obviously highly unlikely. 

To SWink I applaud your faith in our beloved BBC and the legendary Sir Attenborough but their natural history heyday, and his, were in a different era of intelligently financed talent. We face a future where dumb, mediocre is all we can afford.

In the meantime, like dwellers in the shadows (shallows?), we must stick together, keep the dream and savour servings such as Lauren Ballesta and Blancpain's ray of hope.


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#8 trimix125

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Posted 03 August 2017 - 08:54 AM

Hi Davide,
have seen some specials of a shark week in 1994 when i was in florida.
Yes, very dramatic...
With the time i have been working / diving with 3 documentaries, and if you know what was done / filmed and then told as comments....
All of these 3 where "fake news"....
Everything dangerous, divers risking their live and so on...
Even here in europe.
Its just the dramatic factor for selling it.
Using footage that has nothing to do with the "real" expedition, simply because they had it and they did not wanted to do more because its expensive...
Or if the producer is a " movie star" as well in his work, so it happens that their goal was more important than the work of all others. And after months you see a documentary that has nothing to do with you were working for, no scientific results......
It looks like everything has to be done like a blockbuster. So just data is too boring. No risk factor, blood...

We have a dvd box from Custeau jun at home....
With a safety diver that is allways frightening for their lives, deadly sepias, full face mask comments....
There is a clip he tells about ocean warming and corall bleaching, and he shows a table corall, and i couldnt belive it, had to scroll back, no heat issues, there was a crown of thorne sitting......
But no word about it, it is a bleaching....

So what was my conclusio?
We dont have a tv in our flat any more.
But at the best time six salt water tanks, so we could change channel with moving to a different room....

Regards,
Wolfgang


Edited by trimix125, 03 August 2017 - 08:57 AM.


#9 EvilOtter

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Posted 03 August 2017 - 02:17 PM

I cut my Canadian cable subscription several years ago so I am not well positioned to speak to current programming. That said, I vividly remember when Discovery Channel aired a Shark Week mockumentary suggesting that prehistoric megalodons were still prowling the ocean depths. While this might be a fun premise for a B-rated horror movie, Discovery tried to pass it off as a real, unstaged production. It was so blatantly deceptive that I tuned them out and have never looked back.

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#10 Davide DB

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Posted 04 August 2017 - 01:04 AM

No surprise about Nat Geo: http://gizmodo.com/n...nier-1729683793

 

No competition for greed + stupidity...

 

Very bad news. R.I.P. NGC

 

What we are witnessing is a boost to the concentration and verticalization of media companies. Murdock is the owner of Sky, the largest European satellite broadcaster. He was already distributing NGC, History and Discovery channels in Europe. Now he bought NGC so another piece of the puzzle is set.

 

I guess we have two phenomenons at the same time.

 

As Peter pointed out we are moving towards mediocrity and unless viewing figures fall down it's an unstoppable process. If you think about it it's simple to explain. I'm fifty and I grew up with BBC documentaries enjoyed in a completely different manner: Sir Attenborough commenting on Japanese macaque for one square hour :) but he was aired once a week! Nowadays a cable/satellite channel broadcasts 24hx7. No way to fill such time interval with quality contents. So they are forced to buy and produce a lot of low budget documentaries shows to fill their TV schedule. In the resulting hodge-podge, quality content has less appeal and probably less revenues.

 

At the same time, the old "documentary" category has gone trough an "hybridisation process" with other genres like reality shows, talents, mockumentaries... The result is in front of us. The same applies to other formats as well but while we stay within fiction, results are not so devastating.

 

Bye


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#11 SwiftFF5

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Posted 04 August 2017 - 03:21 AM

Well, to paraphrase P.T. Barnham, no-one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the general public.  That is, if you pander to the lowest common denominator, you will almost certainly be able to make a profit - and that's exactly what we are seeing here.


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#12 bubffm

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Posted 04 August 2017 - 06:23 AM

With Murdoch owning NatGeo and Trumpo running/ruining the US, who expects anything good?

The BBC is still a stronghold. Their 2015 Sharks documentary I think is fantastic. The French, with Arte and German television still producing some stuff worthwhile watching, but also there sometimes the commentary is pathetic.

We have all these great toys enabling 8k superduper highres stuff, but putting this into compelling and un-sensationalist story telling and true documentary stuff seems to be tough as the masses expect horror and fear.

#13 Timccr

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Posted 11 August 2017 - 02:39 PM

The "deregulated" media is run by people who only care about profit and are happy to broadcast CCTV footage to fill the spaces between the ads, there are media industry people who don't seem to know much about diving, there are divers who don't seem to know much about film making and there are people on sites like this who now have cameras like the GH5 or BM Pocket, software like Davinci Resolve 14, rebreathers and amazing dedication. Of course we all need to sharpen our post production skills, read more theory and criticism and watch more of the good stuff that was done in the past, so does anyone know if Hans Hass's stuff is available on DVD?



#14 Davide DB

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Posted 12 August 2017 - 01:17 AM

Hi Tim,

A quick search on Amazon for "Hans Haas DVD" return a lot of results. Except some erotic movie :)

https://www.amazon.c...k=hans hass dvd
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