Storytelling cooks the truth

Have you ever wondered how those breathtaking sequences in nature documentaries are filmed?

One moment, you see a young impala that is nonchalantly grazing by the wayside. Suddenly, it perks up its ears and looks backwards. Without warning, the antelope is then pursued by a cheetah sprinting behind in top-speed. The next moment, the cheetah has grabbed the unfortunate creature by the jugular.

Despite how it is portrayed, this entire scene in the documentary would not have happened in a span of a few minutes. Instead, the documentary’s film crew spends several days filming animals and stiches several moments into a continuous shot. The glimpse of the impala grazing might have happened a week before the cheetah chased it down. Those breathtaking close-up shots of the cheetah sprinting forth need not have been from the successful hunt. Besides, owing to the action being quite faraway from the camera, most of the sounds you hear from the scene are added in later.

Every nature documentary is a story – one where facts that happen over weeks are bent to fit them into a 50 min episode. By distorting the truth in this manner, the makers of the documentary do us a service. If a nature documentary was entirely truthful, it would be too boring to incite any interest – like somebody filming an hour of their safari ride.

Like a chef turns raw ingredients into a sumptuous meal, the act of storytelling cooks the truth to make it more palatable. When done responsibly, this distortion can be a generous service rather than deception.

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