Blue Chip vs. Presenter Films
By: Chris Gamel
This article first appears in the 2012 Fall Issue of Currents, the quarterly publication of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA).
When I was a child, nature documentaries were all about the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Hours would be spent exploring its rhythm and flow. Watching the migrating salmon or the bears that eat them, I felt as though I was there. Since then, the format of these documentaries has changed. I know many people say that, but today’s nature programming is different than it was even just ten years ago. Everywhere I look there seems to be some lunatic running around, risking his life to show me the world’s most deadly slug (It’s the murder slug in case you were curious). So why has the format for natural history programs changed, and how does that impact our films as budding wildlife filmmakers?
THE TWO APPROACHES
Over the years there have been two basic film approaches in natural history programs: blue-chip and presenter films. Blue-chip films are large-scale, high-budget productions, which usually focus on the drama and majesty of the natural world. Most blue-chip films keep away from controversy or politics and instead focus on appealing subjects like sharks or bears. These are the films that inspire many of us to get into nature photography. While they are certainly amazing to watch, blue-chip nature films are difficult to produce. They are extremely challenging to film, take years to complete and are expensive to make. Blue-chip films are beyond most amateur natural history filmmakers’ budgets and capabilities. Some can, however, incorporate the visual storytelling approach showcased in the blue-chip style to produce outstanding, if smaller scale, productions.
The presenter format, where one central person serves as narrator and main focus, gained tremendous popularity in 2002 when Steve Irwin became the “Crocodile Hunter.” The presenter format differs from blue-chip films in a number of important ways.
- Presenters bring energy, excitement, and expertise to the show and help to pass that energy on to the audience. Despite one’s personal views of Steve Irwin’s on-camera antics, it is hard not to respond to his excitement about wildlife and nature.
- Presenters make it easier to tell a story. The most important element of any film is the story. If the story is strong, the film will succeed. If the story is weak, the film will fail. It really is that simple. One of the reasons blue-chip films are so difficult to produce is that their stories are told visually. While they might include narration, the narrator is responding to the visual images on the screen. In a blue-chip production, if you don’t see it, it didn’t happen. If you want to create a show about shark predation on seals, you need to have strong imagery for every piece of that story, both above the water and below. Miss a single piece and the entire story falls apart. With a presenter, missing pieces can be replaced by explanations. In this way, presenters help to move the story along. They fill in the gaps, dramatize the boring parts, and make sure that all of our questions are answered in a logical, easy-to-follow manner.
- Presenters are cheap. That isn’t to say a good presenter isn’t well paid, but the costs and time needed to produce a presenter-driven story are a fraction of the cost of producing a blue-chip film.
- Finally, my high school students summed blue-chip films up with a simple phrase, “They’re so boring!” After resisting the urge to fail the entire class, I considered what they meant. Our society has seen a shift towards fast-paced, hard-hitting entertainment. Teens are no longer satisfied with sitting and waiting. They want to be engaged, entertained, and excited, all at the same time. As a result, the slow-paced stories presented in blue-chip films often go unappreciated.
While the trend today favors the presenter format, blue-chip nature programs are making a comeback. With the success of March of the Penguins, Planet Earth, and Life we are seeing a resurgence of “traditional” natural history films. Five years ago Disney went so far as to create Disneynature, a film unit dedicated to releasing a single blue-chip natural history film each year. Its releases include Earth, Oceans, African Cats, Chimpanzee, and the soon to be released Bears.
CONSIDER YOUR AUDIENCE AND YOUR GOALS
As wildlife photographers exploring the world of video, what can you take from all of this? Do you have to follow the presenter model or can a blue-chip approach work? The good news is that there is no one correct answer. As a producer, you decide which approach you wish to take. My advice, however, would be to take your audience into account. If your primary audience is more than 30 years old, they likely grew up watching blue-chip documentaries. Therefore a blue-chip style approach might make sense. If your audience is younger, however, the presenter format might do a better job of capturing and holding their attention.
When determining which approach would be best, it is important to consider why you are creating your film. What are your goals? The fact is that some approaches work better with certain goals. For example, as an educator, I frequently create films with the purpose of educating my viewers. My target audience is often high school and college students. I have access to them for a limited period of time, and I have to hold their attention. For these reasons, I tend to create short, presenter films that teach. It would be much more difficult for me to create a blue-chip film that could effectively teach the same material given the restrictions I have to deal with.
On the other hand, if I were creating a 30-minute film about the beauty and diversity of Yellowstone National Park, with the goal of having the film play continuously at the park’s visitor center, a blue-chip film would make more sense than using a presenter. Visitors could come and go as they pleased, without feeling like they had missed out on the story being told.
How you approach the production of your future films is up to you, but taking into account your audience and goals will improve your chances of making an impact and leaving them wanting to see more.