12 Shocking Facts About Nature Documentaries That Prove They Are Deceiving You

There are a myriad of things that make the inhabitants of the natural world special, from their stunning diversity to their various remarkable adaptations. One thing you can’t say about the various critters crawling the Earth is that they’re camera-ready. A lot of them might be photogenic, sure (especially otters), but as a whole the denizens of the natural world aren’t exactly eager to reveal the most intimate moments of their lives in front of a camera. Therein lies the challenge for the intrepid few who strike out into the wilderness in hopes of creating the next great nature documentary.

Sure, there are still a few folks out there who do the job correctly, but when nature isn’t willing to cooperate with a filmmaker’s timeline or budget, then it’s time for documentarians to weave a few white lies into their nature documentary.  In fact, there are several examples of nature documentaries outright bending facts to suit their needs. The practice is so commonplace, there’s even a handbook of methods for editing nature documentaries to be more exciting (and potentially less truthful). In short, a few of the following facts will ruin nature documentaries for you.

By the end of this list, you might even be wondering, Are nature documentaries fake?

Photo: Wikimedia

  • Disney’s ‘Lemmings’ Actually Offed The Poor Creatures To ‘Prove’ A Fake Point

    There’s a common misconception that, at some point in their lives, lemmings are compelled to walk forward for a really long time. They just gotta walk and walk until they tire out. If they hit a cliff, they theoretically keep going, resulting in tons of unintentional lemming suicides across their habitat. The phenomenon was even filmed in one segment of Disney’s nature documentary, White Wilderness.

    Here’s the thing though. No animal is so stupid they’d just walk off a cliff, not even lemmings. In fact, to get the footage, Disney filmmakers actually imported lemmings to shoot in Alberta (where lemmings don’t actually live), then edited about a dozen lemmings to look like a horde of the critters, then herded them off a cliff to make it look like they did the deed themselves.

  • Can’t Find A Zoo and Your Subject Is MIA? F*ck It, Just Use CGI

    Can’t Find A Zoo and Your Subject Is MIA? F*ck It, Just Use CGI
    Video: YouTube

    The 2009 documentary Turtle: The Incredible Journey seems to follow one female turtle as she moves through the slow stages of life. The documentary’s hair-raising action and passionate tale of one turtle’s life got rave reviews, especially for a film classified as a documentary. 

    Of course, when prompted the film’s director not only admitted that a) it’s not the same turtle throughout the film, b) a lot of the film was shot in an enclosed tank, and c) computers were used to spice the film up.

    In fact, one special effects employee listed the following work on Turtle: “Besides final modeling and texturing and animation of three photorealistic 3-D hero turtle characters indistinguishable in every way from real turtles, I modeled textured and animated blue sharks and composited and supervised almost 100 photorealistic documentary realism shots.”

    To be fair, the CGI in these films is often so good that it can fool actual wildlife experts.

  • Bear Grylls’s ‘Man vs. Wild’ Was Designed To Make The Fake Look Real

    In the early oughts, nature fella Bear Grylls made a name for himself on a show called Man vs. Wild, in which he was supposedly abandoned in the wilderness with few supplies. Each week, using only his technical know-how, Grylls would overcome unfathomable odds and find his way to civilization. Except the whole thing was staged.

    Grylls’s cover was blown when a real survival expert named Mark Weinert pointed out one of Grylls’ segments was totally fake. According to Weinert, when Grylls was claiming to be stranded on a desert island, he was actually shooting scenes set up by his crew before retiring to a motel at night.

  • The Polar Bears In ‘Frozen Planet’ Had An Obstetrician

    The Polar Bears In ‘Frozen Planet’ Had An Obstetrician
    Video: YouTube

    During the nature documentary Frozen Planet, one particularly gripping scene shows the birth of a wild pair of cubs in the middle of a forbidding Arctic winter. 

    Unfortunately, after the documentary aired, it turned out the birth was actually filmed at a zoo and made to look real with added fake snow. This fact hadn’t been disclosed to the audience, which David Attenborough shrugged off by saying filling the audience in “ruins the atmosphere, and destroys the pleasure of the viewers.”

  • Some Docs Actually Bring In Trained Talent

    Some of the most fascinating footage in nature documentaries comes when an alpha predator is filmed scavenging a meal. Of course, when the camera crew gets out into the wild, some of these predators are too preoccupied with the intruder in their midst to act natural and get their hunt on.

    That’s when documentary crews bring in trained, captive animals to trot around in front of the camera. These animals are enticed to hunt or inspect “fresh” prey with candy, like M&Ms.

  • Nope, That’s Not The Inside Of An Ant Hill

    Nope, That’s Not The Inside Of An Ant Hill
    Photo: Steve Jurvetson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    For photographers who get the semi-onerous task of filming insects in their natural habitats, there are some things the audience demands that simply aren't possible. 

    For example, when you see the inside of that wasp’s nest or ant hill, it’s likely a homegrown nest shot in a super controlled environment. Says cameraman Martin Dohrn, “Is it cheating? It is and it isn’t … If you want to film inside a nest, it's an important part of the story. You need to see how the queen is groomed by the workers. You couldn't possibly explain any behavior without that.”