Wildlife documentaries represent a major force in shaping discourse on conservation issues. It is paradoxical that as wildlife film is gaining popularity, wildlife populations are dwindling around the globe. Within the wildlife filmmaking community there are opposing ideologies on how to represent an ecological reality which could be considered disheartening. This conversation has centered around blue chip films due to their prominence among various forms of wildlife documentary.
With Hollywood budgets, large teams, and global distribution strategies, it might be inferred that blue chip series have the most discernible impact on conservation. Little evidence has been showcased demonstrating wildlife films have an impact on the conservation of species they depict. This paper explores the conversation of “doom and gloom” in wildlife films and factors in blue-chip films which nullify their potential to advocate for the species they depict.
Additionally, this paper examines the calls for “green-chip” films and chronicles the efforts of the wildlife filmmaking industry to attempt to make films more impactful. A significant portion will be reflective on practice based research making Forest Beneath the Waves, a film currently in production documenting the kelp forest in Bantry Bay and the fight to combat proposals of mechanical extraction.
Carter McCormick is a wildlife and environmental filmmaker from the United States. His filmmaking career began in 2012 working for the People’s National Party of Belize as a production correspondent. Carter’s work has taken him around the globe documenting wildlife issues. In the past he has collaborated with Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, NOAA, Defenders of Wildlife, National Parks Arts Foundation, various NGOs, and a wide range of parks and conservation organizations. Last year he released The Wild Connection, which examines the relationship between humanity and wildlife. He has also previously worked as the Director of Photography on Free Puppies, a documentary film that explores the relocation of shelter animals that come from abusive portions of the United States. Carter resides in Ireland where he is a PhD candidate at University College Cork. There he is researching how to better formulate wildlife films in order to have a greater impact on conservation. He is currently in production of his third feature film, Forest Beneath The Waves, which is serving as a practice based component of his PhD research. While in Ireland Carter also founded the Ireland Wildlife Film Festival which brings stories of conservation from around the world to an Irish audience.
Though animals have been utilized in making war for millennia, the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner pioneered a new method of exploitation near the end of World War II. Before radio-guided bombs were available, Skinner and a team of behaviorist researchers developed an on-board guidance mechanism to control the direction of a bomb to its target. The mechanism consisted of three pigeons simultaneously pecking electro-sensitive screens containing images of target air-craft carriers projected via a system of lenses. Although feasible, the concept was ultimately rejected after multiple rounds of consideration by the Navy.
The training footage has been preserved by the Harvard Film Archive and offers insight into the way images are produced and repurposed in the shaping and conditioning of organic and artificial intelligences. Documentation of ships become the training data for bomb “pilots”, the filming of which becomes a sales tool to receive government funding.
The reinforcement learning practices predict drone-pilot video game training and deep learning for computer vision by 40 years but were dismissed at the time as “crackpot” ideas. This presentation suggests that the project of controlling organisms is still only in its earliest stages and must be considered in a longer trajectory than the focus on recent advances in technology implies.
Theodore Kennedy is an artist based in New York and Michigan. They received an MFA from Bard College and have exhibited work at The Art of the Real, Microscope Gallery and BAM.
Undercover cruelty images have, since the 1970s, been the common form of testimony to signal the interior conditions of slaughterhouses and animal testing laboratories—monumentally covert spaces of restrained public sight. The perennial crop of multiple state legislatures (ag-gag laws) within the U.S. that suppress whistleblowers by criminalizing the recording of agricultural facilities, are reshaping the salience of images of the slaughterhouse kill floor. Animal advocacy’s contemporary adoption of non-violent and non-interventionist tactics, turn to social media activism, and the celebrity acclaim of slaughterhouse vigils, have placed a renewed emphasis on the role of “bearing witness,” a practice wherein the observance of cruelty is tied to its value as a testimonial image.
Through an examination of the undercover cruelty image as a counter-visual animal liberation and advocacy tactic, this presentation will analyze the history and development of both analog and digital testimonial images in animal advocacy while acknowledging the respective uncanny entanglement of icon and index presented therein. The circumstance of the undercover cruelty image bears multiple possible indices—the witness or activist as an index of the event, the image as an index of the spectrality of the animal, the photographic materials as an index of the non-human animal slaughter, and the digital image encoding devices as an index of the non-human animal slaughter. The undercover cruelty image provides a discursive line to approach the symbolic process by which non-human animals are reproduced and disseminated as both image-signs and commodities (meat, gelatin, and fixative).
Nicole-Antonia Spagnola is an artist and Ph.D. candidate at UCLA in the department of Cinema and Media Studies. Her research and academic work engages histories of non-human animal representation and visuality. Spagnola’s ongoing dissertation project, Animal Liberation is Our Liberation: Bearing witness, visual tactics, and testimonies in animal advocacy; 2001-2021, traces the testimonial significance of the animal-image in animal advocacy during the post-9/11, “Green Scare” era.
Sophia Gräfe (M.A.) is Research Associate of the project “Transdisciplinary Networks of Media Knowledge” at Philipps-University of Marburg as well as guest researcher at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. Before she has been working in the Department of History and Theory of Culture at Humboldt-University Berlin (2015–2019) She has been a member of the Research Area “Knowledge of Life” at Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in 2019. Her research interests are the media history of behavioral science, research film as well as cultural animals studies. She is co-publisher of the JCMS Online-Dossier “Teaching Nontheatrical and Useful Media.”