Incorporating People into Natural History Films

Incorporating People…into natural history films

By: Chris Gamel

This article first appears in the 2013 Spring Issue of Currents, the quarterly publication of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA).


If you include a person in your video, does it still qualify as a nature video?

Do people have a place in natural history films?

Ask a group of photographers those questions, and you will likely receive many passionate responses.  While everyone agrees that mankind has a profound impact on the natural world, there are different attitudes about our place in it.  Some believe that humans are integral and should be included as part of nature.  Others take the view that humans are outside of the natural world, and the hand of man automatically disqualifies something from being natural.

The truth is there is no correct answer, but I ask the question because as your film-making talents evolve, you will progress beyond the single video clip into the realm of storytelling.  When you reach that point, you will have to answer the question, “Should I include people in my film?”  Nature films that exclude humans are rare.  While the impact of films without people can be outstanding, the time and money needed to complete them is often beyond the resources of independent filmmakers.  Including humans in your production offers other advantages, too; human interest, improved storytelling and greater credibility, for example.  Let’s take a closer look.

First, audiences identify with people and want to see them succeed.  This obvious fact is often overlooked when developing nature films.

Second, humans make it easier to tell the story, which is the goal of any film.  The better the story, the better the film.  For natural history filmmakers, the challenge is telling a coherent story that showcases characters who can’t speak.  You have to hold the audience’s attention for the entire film, and that is not always easy.  How many videos on YouTube do you actually watch from beginning to end?  If you are like me, you probably jump to the next video during the first 30 seconds.  How are you going to keep your audience for 30 or 10 or even 5 minutes?  Stunning images do not make a story.  To capture your audience’s attention requires that they care about what is happening.  To keep their attention, they have to want to know what will happen next.  It is much easier to create and cultivate interest by incorporating a “guide” through which the audience experiences the story.

Third, including the right individual in your film can increase its credibility.  It is one thing to have a film that addresses global warming.  It is another to have a film that showcases a NASA climatologist addressing global warming.  The first film might be interesting, but even if the same information is included, it will never be as credible as the second film.

OK, I’m going to include people in my film.  Now what?

Say you decide to include humans in your nature film.  Now the question becomes, “How?”  Incorporating people into a production can be done in several different ways.  For example, you might include B-roll footage, narration, or on-screen talent.  You might even include a combination of these approaches.

B-roll refers to secondary footage that is recorded to support a story, and it is the simplest way to include people in the story.  The term comes from the practice of having two film teams, an A team and a B team.  The A team focuses on the primary shots (actors) while the B team focuses on capturing supporting imagery (scenery, closeups, etc.).  A great example of B-roll can be seen during news programs.  For visual variety, the news often cuts to film footage that relates to the news story, like images of collapsed trees and overflowing rivers for a story about the environmental impact of hurricanes.  This cutaway footage is B-roll.  Going back to our global warming example, B-roll footage might include people struggling to keep cool or factory workers building solar panels.

The next level of integration is narration, commonly called a voiceover.  Oftentimes, the narrator is never seen on screen.  Instead, the audience experiences his or her voice as it guides them through the story.  What the narrator says is entirely up to you.  Some films tell a story using film clips to provide visual support to the narrator’s words.  Other films use narration to help the audience understand what they are seeing.  For example, while the audience might find footage of an elephant pushing over a tree interesting, it is unlikely that they will understand that this behavior converts forests into savannas—without the guidance of a narrator.  While it might seem obvious, it is important to select a narrator based on the sound and expressiveness of his or her voice.

Of course, narration can be taken to the next level by including on-screen talent.  On-screen talent refers to individuals who appear in the film.  Select your favorite cable channel (nature focused, of course) and you will likely find an enthusiastic young man or woman exploring the secrets of the natural world.  Replacing a narrator with a host increases the energy level of the film.  Not only is the host there to explain what is happening, he is the audience’s window into the scene.  A good host teaches, inspires, and motivates the audience.  He also makes us a little bit jealous, because we wish we were out there sharing those experiences firsthand.

Of course, not all on-screen talent act as hosts.  There will be times you want to interview someone, such as an expert or an interesting character who has something important to share with your audience.  Interviews often add depth to a story; yet filming an interview is not as easy as it may seem.  In future articles, we will explore steps to filming a successful interview.