Entertainment·CLIMATE CHANGE

How documentaries seek to bring climate change stories to life

From heartbreaking footage of struggling wildlife to music videos designed to go viral, some filmmakers and creators are using bold new tactics to ensure their work inspires a global call to action when it comes to climate change.

Footage shot by Our Planet is 'deeply disturbing, and it shouldn't be happening,' filmmaker says

Sophie Lanfear, a producer and director of Our Planet, comes face-to-face with a curious Pacific walrus while shooting on location. Scenes of these mammals failing to survive in a decline in sea ice are some of the most heartbreaking of the Netflix series. (Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix)

This story is part of a CBC News series entitled In Our Backyard, which looks at the effects climate change is having in Canada, from extreme weather events to how it's reshaping our economy.


"We need to make sure we don't shut the stable door after the horse has bolted." True to his craft as a nature documentary filmmaker, the producer of Our Planet uses a vivid image to warn of the dangers of doing nothing about climate change.

"That horse — the haunches are just going through the stable door now," said Keith Scholey. "There's just a moment, probably, to grab it by the tail and wrestle it back into the stable. And shut the door with a huge padlock."

That same intense urgency runs throughout Scholey's eight-part Our Planet series, narrated by a fellow veteran of the genre, David Attenborough.

For decades, Attenborough's documentaries have been revered for their never-before-filmed scenes of wild animals and spectacular shots of pristine wilderness — all shot with sophisticated camera technology. 

Our Planet still presents the glory of the natural world, but those scenes are now woven together with shocking footage of environmental disasters where entire ecosystems once existed: palm oil plantations, clear cuts, dead coral reefs.

The filmmakers also did something they'd never done before: show animals dying from their inability to adapt to a changing climate.

David Attenborough attends the world premiere of his latest nature documentary series, Our Planet, in London in April. (Netflix)

"The impacts of our growing population and our consumption now directly threaten our own future," Attenborough told the audience at Our Planet's premiere in London on April 4, a day ahead of its worldwide Netflix launch. "What we do in the next 20 years will determine the future."

From heartbreaking footage of struggling wildlife to music videos designed to go viral, some filmmakers and creators are using bold new tactics to ensure their work inspires a global call to action.

Al Gore's 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, was one of the most watched documentaries of all time, putting climate change on the map for many viewers worldwide. Now 13 years later, public concern about the climate is at record levels in several countries — including Canada — and filmmakers are hoping their messages can help.

Scholey said he knows firsthand how "big landmark wildlife films can reach a lot of people." But he also admits these projects "don't often actually move the dial in terms of changing people's views and habits toward the natural world."

Creating a wildlife documentary series with a strong climate change message front and centre is something that hadn't been tried before, he said, so "we just went with our experience and our gut feeling."

In a scene from Our Planet, a matriarch desert elephant leads her family through a dry riverbed in Namibia, where they would have found water in the past. The Netflix series puts its climate change message front and centre. (Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix)

'Climate change horror'

One segment of the series — shot in Russia in 2017 — shows an experience that was deeply shocking to the veteran film crew: dozens of walruses plunging to their deaths from atop a rocky cliff.

The huge marine mammals spend much of their time resting with their young on sea ice. But with sea ice melting at an alarming rate, there's less to be found.

Our Planet captures one group of walruses moving onto solid land, with some climbing to the top of an 80-metre cliff. Many then topple to their deaths onto the rocky beach below, seemingly unaware of the effects of such a large drop.

Warning: This footage may be disturbing to some viewers.

After the series debuted in April, some parents complained about the scene, calling it inappropriate for children. Netflix responded by issuing a warning that included timecodes of the scenes viewers may find disturbing.

"At the end of the day, I think, when you make a show like this, the one thing you can't do is lose your nerve," said Scholey. "That scene is deeply disturbing — and it shouldn't be happening."

That's why his team felt it essential to include the footage in the series.

"We knew as soon as we saw that, that this was going to be the footage that would become most associated with the climate change horror that's happening to Arctic species," he said. "What we desperately wanted to get across to people was that humanity cannot survive without nature."

It took Keith Scholey, Our Planet's executive producer, and his team four years to make the series, with filming conducted in 50 countries. (Netflix)

In early May, a United Nations report warned that one million species are threatened with extinction, "with grave impacts on people around the world now likely."

And in April, Environment and Climate Change Canada reported with "high confidence" that Canada is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. 

Employing entertainment, humour

Creators need to make people feel the emotion of the story in their guts, but be careful not to leave them feeling only depressed, according to Maggie Stogner, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and executive director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington. 

"You lure people in through entertainment, through dramatic characters, though compelling storytelling," she said.

Stogner tells her students that success is having an audience leave the theatre saying: "I feel empowered. I feel like I have agency. I have a voice."

Audiences of Planet Earth II seemingly felt empowered. A recent study out of the U.K. showed that online searches for "plastic recycling" increased by 55 per cent after Attenborough issued a call to action on plastic waste in the series, which had highlighted the effects of such waste on ocean wildlife. 

Documentaries about climate change can have a big impact if they include specific solutions people can connect with, says Maggie Stogner, of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. (Deana Sumanac-Johnson/CBC)

Humour can be an important tool, too. Stogner said one of the best things about comedy is "it captures the attention of people who might go, 'Oh, climate change. Roll my eyes again. Not going to listen.'"

Take David Burd, the comedian-rapper better known as Lil Dicky, who used humour to reach out to his massive audience in a profanity-laced climate change song called Earth.

The song's music video is funny, rude and star-studded: Big-name celebrities Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Snoop Dogg, Shawn Mendes, Miley Cyrus, the Backstreet Boys and Leonardo DiCaprio all make an appearance.

Since its release on April 10, it has racked up 144 million views on YouTube.

Warning: the following video contains strong language

Burd's original plan was to enlist as many celebrities as possible for a fun, animal-themed animated track. But when he discovered the dangers these animals face from climate change, he embraced a larger purpose for the project, partnering with DiCaprio and the actor's environmental foundation to give a portion of the song's profits to those on the "front lines" of implementing climate change solutions.

Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, said it was exciting to connect with an audience the foundation doesn't normally reach. The partnership also sparked an online dialogue.

"Thanks to the internet and social media, we've been contacted by thousands of people offering to help or sharing their ideas for solutions, and then other people comment on those solutions," said Tamminen.

Beyond social media, some are also finding success sounding the climate change alarm by going straight to the spaces where people gather, whether it's watching late-night TV or visiting a major art gallery.

When Last Week Tonight host John Oliver devoted an entire show to the Green New Deal in May, the episode surpassed six million views on YouTube, fuelled by a profanity-laced skit from Bill Nye the Science Guy, the normally kid-friendly presenter. 

The Canadian filmmakers behind Anthropocene created a large-scale photography exhibition, embedded with virtual reality experiences, as a companion to their documentary, which explores human evolution's devastating effect on the planet. After opening in Toronto and Ottawa, the exhibition is currently on display in Bologna, Italy.

Making an impact

The vivid images, emotional storytelling and optimism about possible solutions laid out by Our Planet may already be having an impact.

The series was the most-watched show in the U.K. when it premiered in April, and Netflix, which typically doesn't release viewership figures, estimated it would be watched in over 25 million homes around the world during that one month alone.

A cornerstone of the series is research from the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report on global biodiversity and the state of the planet. In 2018, the WWF report concluded that "unsustainable human activity is pushing the planet's natural systems that support life on Earth to the edge."

Since Our Planet's debut, WWF has seen some of its biggest spikes ever on social media, as well as a significant increase in traffic to its website.

A scene from Our Planet shows tiger cubs with their mother in India's Kanha National Park. The eight-part series, which explores the challenges faced by animals worldwide as a result of climate change, was the most-watched show in the U.K. when it premiered in April. (Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix)

In addition to reaching a global audience via Netflix, the Our Planet team's strategy also involves speaking directly to government policy-makers and industry leaders.

U.S. ambassadors and members of Congress attended screenings of the series held at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington. And the filmmakers weren't sure anyone would show up for screenings they scheduled at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said Scholey. But demand was so high, they added extra showings.

From there, the momentum continued, with the World Bank and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, both requesting presentations, said Scholey.

"The emergency that's coming our way with the environment is going to be like a major conflict," he said, before taking a cue from Our Planet and tempering his warning with a dose of optimism. 

"I think once that has sunk in, we will see huge change happen very, very quickly."

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson

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