How Do Wildlife Documentaries Get Such Good Footage?

Anyone who dreams of filming the world's wildlife has probably also dreamed of working for the BBC, the British broadcaster famed for its awe-inspiring nature documentaries, like those made by Sir David Attenborough.

A group of meerkats like this one was "infiltrated" by an animatronic meerkat to film close-up footage for the BBC nature series "Spy in the Wild."
A group of meerkats like this one was "infiltrated" by an animatronic meerkat to film close-up footage for the BBC nature series "Spy in the Wild."

But the competition has always been fierce, and now there's a new group of filmmakers stealing the spotlight: animatronic animals.

In 2017, the BBC unveiled "Spy in the Wild," a wildlife documentary series that features astonishing footage of animals, filmed in an unprecedented way. The miraculous camerawork is provided by more than 30 animatronic animal "spies" with built-in miniature cameras that can follow their real-life counterparts almost anywhere. These mechanical creatures can film closeups that a human cameraperson could never attempt, such as inside the jaws of a Nile crocodile.

The lifelike mechanical animals include a meerkat, a young monkey, a hippo, a penguin, an orangutan, a prairie dog, and many others. Not only do they conceal the cameras, but they also behave in ways intended to fool whatever creatures they come across into believing they're real.

While filming the show, the "spies" were apparently so believable that they captured many unexpected moments. "We began to see that the cameras were not only recording, they were sometimes eliciting behavior in a way that made you think," executive producer John Downer said. "You were having that connection between the spy creature and the animal that you never get with any kind of filming, and so things would develop that you didn’t expect."

Where the wild things are filmed:

  • Hyenas are a constant pest for camera crews filming in parts of Africa; they often steal motion detectors and cameras and run off with them.

  • Because audio equipment can't pick up everything that cameras can, most sounds heard in wildlife documentaries are not live, but rather are produced in a studio.

  • Famed wildlife filmmaker Sir David Attenborough doesn't call himself an animal lover, and even admits to dislike one creature: the rat.

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