The BBC’s hit series Frozen Planet came under scrutiny this week as it emerged that several scenes of the documentary were shot in fake scenery, misleading viewers.
Eight million viewers were led to believe the dramatic footage of a polar bear tending to her newborn cubs during the ‘Winter’ episode had been captured by BBC cameramen inside a sub-zero cave in the Arctic, when in fact; it was filmed in a Dutch zoo using fake snow.
The fifth episode of the highly praised series which ended its run last week, began by showing genuine footage of a male polar bear scavenging for food during the Arctic winter. As blizzards filled the screen, Sir David Attenborough explained: “He must live on his resources. This is a time to scrape by.” As the footage shifted to a close-up of a female polar bear hibernating with her newborn cubs, Attenborough said: “But on lee-side slopes, beneath the snow, new lives are beginning.”
The commentary during the footage was evidently misleading as it insinuated that the birth occurred underneath the frozen hillside, in the polar bears natural environment.
While I am a massive fan of both the series and David Attenborough himself, I find the revelations rather troubling. There needs to be an element of transparency with programmes such as this and anything contrived should have been stated. Understandably, explaining that the footage was shot under a controlled environment in a zoo would have ruined the atmosphere of the programme, however, a simple “this clip, filmed in captivity..” would not have disrupted the programme, and there would be no issue.
In defense of the footage, the shows executive producer Alastair Fothergill insisted that the narration was not misleading. He said: “We were very careful not to specifically refer to our polar bear cubs; if you read the commentary it talks very generally about polar bears in the plural.” The carefully worded commentary therefore suggests that the producers were aware that what they were doing could potentially be misleading to the viewer.
In a further blow to Frozen Planet fans, it emerged yesterday that the BBC producers also misled viewers about footage of a frozen caterpillar. In the ‘Spring’ episode, Sir David said: “Beneath the rock the caterpillar is out of the wind, but the cold penetrates deep into the ground. Soon its heart stops beating, it ceases to breathe, and its body starts to freeze – first its gut, then its blood.” The footage included a shot of the caterpillars natural habitat above ground, and a close-up of the creature beginning to freeze underneath snow. Deceivingly, however, this close-up footage was in fact filmed in an artificial habitat – inside a box.
Saying all this, my love and loyalty to the programme has not been jaded. The series has shown us worlds and scenarios we could only dream of witnessing, and I understand that some scenes could not have been shot in the natural habitat. Unfortunately though, I will, like I presume a lot of other people, now watch documentaries such as this with an element of mistrust and uncertainty.