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article imageOp-Ed: 'Frozen Planet' — Brazen fakery or much ado about nothing?

By Alexander Baron     Dec 12, 2011 in World
The BBC's highly acclaimed 'Frozen Planet' documentary series has come under fire for faking footage of polar bears in the wild. Did David Attenborough's team deceive the world, or is this much ado about nothing?
If you want ludicrous plots, tune in to EastEnders or one of the other soap operas produced by the BBC and other channels, in Britain and elsewhere. Frozen Planet though is something else. Shot over four years at both poles, this remarkable series captures some even more remarkable footage. While most of this footage is as uncontroversial as it is fascinating, the authenticity of one scene has been questioned by a notorious British tabloid. Today, the BBC hit back at the suggestion that it had misled viewers in its November 23 episode in which newborn polar bear cubs were filmed with their mother in her icy den.
The way the footage had been captured had been “clearly explained” in the programme website. “This particular sequence would be impossible to film in the wild,” a spokeswoman said.
And “The commentary accompanying the sequence is carefully worded so it doesn't mislead the audience and the way the footage was captured is clearly explained on the programme website.”
Well, yes and no. The sequence in the documentary does clearly give the impression that this was filmed in situ at the North Pole, and there is no getting away from that, but by the same token, there is currently a clip on the Frozen Planet webpage which explains how and where it was actually filmed. This explanation though is rather akin to the small print in an insurance contract. But does it matter? The short answer is yes. Having said that, leaving aside the fact that it sounds positively sacriligeous to cast aspersions on a giant of a film maker like David Attenborough, this is a practice that is far from new.
Here is some enlightenment from The Scotsman, May 8, 1998, page 13, in an in-depth article about how documentary makers fake it. The term docu-soap is used to describe this. Among other revelations we are told “The police will often stage a raid if you ask. If you say you've only got a day to film, they'll often set one up because it's good PR for them.”
If that sounds familiar, perhaps you're thinking of Boris and his new friend Bernard?
In fact, as the aforementioned Scotsman article points out, the 1922 silent documentary Nanook Of The North included a staged walrus hunt, something the Inuit had not done for years.
Many documentaries and even news programmes include footage that is clearly staged. A reporter walks up to a door, rings the bell, the door is opened at once, and the occupant says hello, and invites the reporter in. Pause for a moment and ask if this is not staged, how come the camera switched to a different shot when the door opened? Reunions are also frequently staged, perhaps people meeting at the airport and embracing.
We see this sort of thing all the time, and we take it for granted. But should we?
Fake footage of both film and photographs is most prevalent when there are political and other sordid motives in the air, including of course in war time. Check out the amazing book Making People Disappear...which was published in 1989.
Before you go off the deep end though, and accuse a certain American President of faking his birth certificate, remember a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Check out this article, and this one.
Never be afraid to question the veracity of any photograph or film, especially in this age of digital fakery. Was any of the other footage in Frozen Planet similarly contrived? Who knows? And who am I to question the mighty BBC?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Frozen Planet, Sir David attenborough, Polar bears, fake photographs, nanook of the north
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