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The Tech Behind Animal Films, and How We Got Here

Learn all about the history of animal movies and the camera technology that is making it better!

Making movies about animals can be hard. So hard in fact that about 60 years ago a lot of it was faked! Luckily for the animals and us, filmmaking has come a long way since then. Now we can get up close to all sorts of animals in their natural habitats!

Nature documentary movies started with Walt Disney—yep the guy who came up with Mickey. It started when Disney began work on the movie Bambi. Disney wanted the baby deer Bambi and the other animals to move naturally. So the animators watched films of real animals in the wild to get the characters looking at elephant

These short study films sparked an idea with Walt Disney: let animals tell their own stories in the classroom. The problem was these early films were really hard to make. Cameras were huge. There was no way to move them without a lot of shaking. And animals move…a lot. The result was a lot of animal films were faked.

Not that the animals were fake. Many of the circumstances were set up to make filming easier. One of the more famous scenes was about Lemmings in White Wilderness. The crew bought a handful of the little arctic rodents. They then filmed them in a studio on a turntable to make it seem like there were thousands. Then they threw them in a river just outside Calgary. People used to think Lemmings jumped off cliffs to reduce the size of the herd because of this!

A lot has changed now, though.

Camera technology has come a long way. In the BBCs Planet Earth II, they actually strapped a camera to a hawk to see what the bird sees in flight!

During the filming of the series, the BBC was the first to film four super-rare Himalayan Snow Leopards in one spot. They were able to do that by using high-tech autonomous cameras that they could leave out for days and weeks at a time.

Another thing that makes filming animals easier now is gyroscope-stabilized camera mounts. These have become so small that a person can carry them in one hand! This allows filmmakers to get really close, quietly walking up to the animals and watching the animals behave naturally.

Old film cameras needed light to expose the film and capture the images. Today with digital cameras, they can be tuned to shoot in very low light or, with special lenses, no light at all! This has allowed movie makers to film animals when they are naturally active in the dark. Before they would often shine bright spotlights at the animals to give them enough light to film. That makes the animals act unnaturally sometimes.

Animals are pretty fun to watch in their natural habitats. Ask your parents to help you search on your favorite streaming service for fun natural documentaries. Or ask your teacher or librarian at school. The library is probably full of old films! Watch close and try to figure out if they are using any kind of special camera to capture the scene!

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