Dramatic in wildlife shows stretching the boundaries of nature

The wolf cubs, all alone, were crossing a small river bridge in the dark and empty heart of a small alpine town. Neatly tied up, they headed towards a camera set prepared at the ground level.

“No way!” I screamed at TV, eventually angered by the trickery of The Snow Wolf: A Winter’s Tale, the major wildlife offering on BBC Two’s Christmas programmes.

Snow Wolf was described by the broadcaster as a “dramatic natural history film” produced by a European film group. “Dramatic” was, in fact, a term echoed by narrator Emilia Fox, but her voice gave little indication of its import.

Fox’s narration reveals the journey of an Italian wolf, believed to be forced to flee his pack to take his young cubs on a vast trek across the mountains of Austria and Switzerland in search of a new mate. Gone.

We thought we knew about “dramatics” in natural history movies. This is when individual shots of wild creatures are edited together to compose stories of real interactions and events.

The BBC’s prestigious Natural History Unit based in Bristol has thus “dramatized” the lives of meerkats, lions, penguins and many others, without deceiving anyone. It may use speed-up cameras to render the actual action in slow motion, but not the “habit of animals and animatronics”, which, by the group’s own admission, went into The Snow Wolf’s imagination.

An exceptionally early conflict between a wolf and a mountain bear was conducted somewhat oddly (another critic noticed a fake paw swipe at the camera). But the upbeat commentary of the voiceover convinced me enough of an extraordinarily filmed program.

There were also some striking and scenic views, as in the fiery chase of deer. This fit the narrative about the richness of wildlife, not just wolves, encouraged by the “rewilding” of the mountains. But the shot of a rare bearded vulture perched on a cliff above Mother Wolf was, again, impossible, its view on a close-up shoulder of the wolf denying any wild occurrence.

It doesn’t help me, because any wildlife movie I watch stays behind the lens other than mine. Directing films for television was once one of my skills, and keeping the camera to myself was a rare and exciting challenge.

The cameraman for the early films was ornithologist David Cabot. We filmed the seals and winter geese of the Inishke Islands off northern Mayo and later followed the geese to their summer nesting sites on the reefs of arctic eastern Greenland.

It was here, on top of a fjord in our camp, that the only wolf in my life appeared quite quietly near us, drawn in by the smell of a curry dinner.

We froze, half a spoon in our mouths, as the animal assessed us, lean and silvery but strangely sociable, like someone’s stray dog. David groped slowly for the camera, but that was enough to alarm the wolf. We saw it later, in competition with a small herd of musk oxen, with the horns at the bottom tied tightly.

Wolves used to

Back on the telly, shortly after Christmas, Channel Four offered Sandy Toksvig and a celebrity friend a face licking from friendly wolves at an upmarket lodge in northern Norway. Here, in an area behind a high fence, a small wolf herd is encouraged to lead normal wildlife. In return, they are joined by well-trained guests who emerge from the glazed-windowed lodge to kneel in the snow and wait to make contact, curled up in fur and a chance to be kissed with a rough tongue. .

Thus, captive and “habituated” wolves have been recruited into their own cause, as a way to nullify the worst libations of their human reputation.

An award-winning Imax documentary, Wolves (1999), was once shaped with the same philanthropy. Its close-up scenes showed the animals’ complex and subtle behavior, its producers said, and “each wolf’s parenting, cooperatively assumed its share of responsibility for the pack’s welfare . . . How communal and caring wolves are.”

But shooting this intimate footage became a logistical demand. Chris Palmer and filmmaker Shannon Lawrence confess to him in 2015 Online In a bold assessment of the ethics of wildlife filming.

For the film Imax he worked with captive wolves hired from a game farm, and staged a “den” which featured a mother wolf feeding her pups.

“By industry standards,” Palmer wrote, “we didn’t do anything immoral. In fact, we made the moral choice. Hiring captive wolves allowed filmmakers to harass wild populations and potentially kill them as humans.” Getting used to allows escaping. Prolonged and intrusive filming will affect wild wolves deeply.”

Still, he felt that “I was embarrassed by the tricks I had used in the past and knew the future had to change”. But as The Snow Wolf shows, virtual reality still captivates its audience.