Et tu, Planet Earth II?

Have you heard Planet Earth II? The sound effects are absolutely maddening. The dramatic music is bad enough, but they saturated the soundtrack with all sorts of business invented by sound designers and foley artists. Why do they do this? Nature is often quite silent, except for the wind, to our rather limited ears.

Faking it like this in post-production is another reason I don’t really like these photographically-gorgeous productions. This stuff is nature porn, by which I mean visually-intensive, heavily edited, artificially constructed, and yes, basically reactionary. They reproduce the archaic ideological perspective of “nature red in tooth and claw.” It’s the old sex and violence thing. Actually, being so veddy British, they cut away from most of the actual sex, but the inevitable chase scenes and male fighting sequences are fawned on.

If you observe animals, you will notice they actually have a hell of a lot of down-time, cleaning, resting, watching. The predator-prey ratio is usually so large that most “prey animals” are never prey. They do a lot more than just run away from the lionesses. But that’s all “boring” to the frenzy machine of attention that is the point of television, having to compete for viewers against the internet, not to mention computer games and movies (often much the same thing these days). The slo-mo aesthetic PEII uses makes it look like a contemporary movie, too. And the narration keeps using words like “peculiar” and “odd,” characterizations that say more about us than the animals.  Doesn’t that kind of terminology serve to distance viewers further?

Of course some animals eat other animals. (Look at us: we devour the planet.) But there are also synergies, cooperation, symbiosis (mutualism, commensalism). These don’t get nearly enough attention. They are the most important things people need to know about ecosystems, about planet earth, our only one.

The last episode includes amazing footage of Peregrines in New York. I remember hearing about the crew’s visit some years ago, when they filmed the Brooklyn House of Detention scrape (none of that seems to have been used) among other places. The ratio of footage shot to footage used must be astronomical. All this editing and fine-tuning and tricksy sound effects gives viewers a spectacle above all else. Even with the strong conservation message, this is an utterly unrepresentative view of the natural world.

The overarching message here, besides the corporate capitalist competitive one, is that you’re unlikely to see such things yourself in several lifetimes, so why should you even leave the house?

7 Responses to “Et tu, Planet Earth II?”

  1. 1 Ellen January 21, 2018 at 9:03 am

    I haven’t seen this series, but I have the same issues you mention with nature programs. It is so focused on sex and violence like it is a bad action movie to appeal to teenagers or computer gamers. I try to watch and then have to turn away. I know animalsprey on other animals and eat them, but watching one tear the other one apart for food is not entertainment and really doesn’t teach anything. I’d rather watch the live stream of bears fishing for salmon.

    • 2 mthew January 24, 2018 at 3:44 pm

      And plenty of plain sound recordings from the field can be found on-line, too. Nature sounds fantastic. No need for the blather!

  2. 3 Zina January 22, 2018 at 6:17 pm

    I haven’t seen Planet Earth I or II, but I know exactly what you’re talking about. I can’t bear the PBS nature shows that feature dramatic melodramatic narrations that seem geared for a school child; a pre-school child, actually, since I don’t think any self-respecting grade schooler would appreciate being talked down to in the babyish “storytelling” way the narrators have all adopted. Along with far-fetched fairytale plot lines.

    I also want to mention that I love the way you write, it was a pleasure reading it. I liked it so much I read it aloud to my husband over breakfast (and with no dramatic intonations, I can assure you) and he loved it, too.

  3. 5 markwilkinson1 January 24, 2018 at 9:43 am

    Hi Matthew,

    Hope you are keeping well. Apologies, I’ve been an infrequent visitor here recently, but have just been catching up with recent posts. I’m reminded how much birdlife we have in common each side of the Atlantic with your recent posts – Goldeneye, Brent and Canada geese!
    You are far from alone in your frustrations with BBC Natural History unit’s treatment of sound in it’s output. Chris Watson, long time collaborator on Attenborough documentaries is of a similar view, as I suspect is Sir David himself.
    I recommend this excellent recent lecture by the pair of them on Youtube –

    Have to say that the message I took from BP2 was less about sex and violence and more about the complexity and vulnerable nature of this fragile and constantly abused and polluted environment (but then maybe I’ve been desensitised to the gore!).

    As you know I have little time for our current British government but the series prompted them into immediate (albeit arguably ill-conceived) action in extending a ban on free plastic bags from retailers which helps keep the environment a hot issue as we struggle with our post-Brexit mess.

    Keep spreading the word, Matthew.
    I saw a Margaret Mead quote this morning at the top of a League against cruel sports article on grouse shooting which lifted my spirits

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

    • 6 markwilkinson1 January 24, 2018 at 9:45 am

      Doh! Just seen your post was about Planet Earth 2 not Blue Planet 2. Ignore me, though the links are worth a look!!! 🙂

    • 7 mthew January 24, 2018 at 3:42 pm

      Thank you Mark! We’re two nature watchers (and listeners! you recordings are wonderful) separated by a bit of pond…. As it happens a Common Murre (“Guillemot” on your side) was reported in Queens yesterday, so unusual people think the bird was ill.

      Another quote, from Ursula Le Guin, who passed yesterday: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

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