Elephants, tusk cams & nature films

Popping up on all sorts of blogs this morning is the news that the BBC natural history unit has been using elephants to film their latest documentary. The tone of most posts is in the “How cool is this?” vein, and while it’s certainly ingenious, I can’t help but be intrigued by it for different reasons.

Why? Well, if you read the original article, there is some interesting language used to describe the act:

Series producer John Downer, from John Downer Productions, said: “Tigers are so secretive and they live in such dense jungle that it is very difficult for a human film crew to get close to them.

“But elephants are the ultimate four-by-four camera vehicle – and have allowed us to film these animals closer than we have ever been able to film them before.”

So, in some senses this footage is being passed on as more authentic–something that humans wouldn’t get to access ((Due to our separation from the more-than-human world; check out this article by Dr. Matt Brower for more on that)). Elephants get to enter this authentic world and capture images that are only accessible to them. The language used to support this is quite blunt–the show is called Tiger – Spy in the Jungle. Spying, then, is key. We’re using these elephants to collect the clandestine acts of these tigers. If the acts were available to us, the show wouldn’t cast the nature of the relationship in these terms. So, from that point, the way the narrative of the documentary is set-up (access to hidden acts), it does nothing to move away from typical natural history story arcs and tropes.

I’m also fascinated by the language surrounding the use of the elephants. Downer goes on to say:

“The elephants were remarkably stable – almost like a steady-cam, and they only needed a little bit of training to carry and set down the cameras.

The way they’re spoken about–acting as steady-cams and 4×4 vehicles–I can’t help but think that they’re actually considered to be an extension of the technical apparatuses involved in the filming. Different, but still integral to the technical success of the film. As integral as the camera lenses and fake rock enclosures. Elephants act, in a sense, as our prosthesis. Since we can’t go out and get the footage, we’ll get trained elephants to do so for us ((This isn’t really a ground-breaking thought as “domesticated” Asian Elephants have been acting as our prosthesis for centuries–witness the relationship between logging and Asian Elephant labour)).

This brings me back to the initial assumption that we’re separate from the more-than-human world. In fact, the actions taken to make this film suggests that we’re entangled in these boundaries. Acknowledging that scholars are dubious to our typical, Western understanding of nature ((Which boils down to our problematic assumption that we’re separate from it)), I see an enacted network here where we’re not distinct from the filming of these tigers, but bounded up in it. For example, these Elephants would have needed to be trained to carry the electronics; training that was done by members of the production. The article is concluded with this Dower quote:

“It is a bit of a bonkers idea, and in my wildest dreams, when I thought about the challenges of filming tigers, I never thought we would suceed in doing what we did in this way, but now it seems the most natural thing in the world.”

Who knows. Perhaps it is.

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