Caught in the act – but not on camera…


The ever-advancing computer generated imagery and compositing techniques available through video production continue to make the seemingly impossible – possible. In cinema and fictional features, digital effects allow us to consume and be subsumed within a false reality, showering us in awe-inspiring, fantasy images, which often enhances our viewing experience. But where do we draw the line between digital magic and immoral manipulation? In 2011, the BBC was scrutinised for implying its footage showing the birth of polar bear cubs was shot in the natural environment of the Arctic Wilderness, when in reality the bears were in captivity. Understandably, the viewers of the award-winning programme felt somewhat cheated by the content, which will have likely damaged the previously well-established credibility of the BBC’s wildlife programmes. But could it be that there are occasions when the manipulation of ‘real world’ footage actually has a positive impact on our viewing experience?

In the context of the recent documentary series, Delving Into A Rarely Seen South American Wilderness, the manipulated material of a volcanic eruption does certainly seem a little disingenuous – especially when we’re anticipating an insight into the real-world Patagonia. But maybe this slightly uncomfortable feeling is less about the ethics of the action, and more simply about the shock of accepting that the creation of ‘false reality’ through entertainment is widespread – even spreading to the rarefied world of natural history programming.

After all, we regularly accept (sometimes subconsciously), digitally manipulated content in other contexts in the name of entertainment. Surely it’s no real surprise that equipped with the technology to do it, it’s now the done thing. Many long-running series have been known to frequently control colour in material to misrepresent weather conditions or climates of an environment. The producers of Channel 4’s Grand Designs don’t want a fantastic new build to be spoilt by overcast conditions, so they will frequently apply hues of blue to the bleached skies and sun-kissed natural colours so it is more aesthetically pleasing. Editing can provide even more hidden trickery – how do we really know the race on Top Gear was really that close? Many space documentaries contain pure digital simulation of environments and subjects that we simply don’t have the capacity to capture yet. It’s evident, that most of the fantastic footage we consume – and enjoy – has been enhanced in some way or other. But do we care?

For the BBC, the footage was used to describe a ‘typical’ volcanic eruption – an example if you like. The programme never claims to document a specific eruption from a named volcano, but instead the BBC created an ideal scenario, built through composited footage that would show the audience an accurate illusion as to what would happen in real life. For this reason, I don’t believe enhancing the footage is any more wrong than believing it never rains on Kevin McCloud. Yes, the BBC manufactured a natural event, but whether this contextual example of misrepresentation is right or wrong stands within your own outlook as a viewer and your own expectation from modern day programming. Cameras allow us to capture reality, but they can also allow us to create our own.