In nature documentaries, do the crews agree on a general script then set out to film the scenes that illustrate the script? Or do they film what they can (animals / weather don't always cooperate, etc) then, at editing, see what script is supportable given the footage?

If possible, I prefer please answers about the making of an actual nature documentary.

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    Are you implying that the the animals are acting, or 'following a script' in some way? The documentations will interpret the activity of the animals, there would be no 'script' per se. Feb 1, 2018 at 16:11
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    @JohnSmithOptional It's not a question of "acting;" it's a question about the ordering of events. For example, the crew can have a script about sharks eating seals then go film that or they have footage of sharks eating seals then write the scripts to describe the footage. Feb 1, 2018 at 16:18
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    @JohnSmithOptional .... wildlife documentaries definitely have scripts. They don't turn up on site to film without an idea of what they intent to shoot. They have a clear idea what the overall arc of an episode is ... whet shots they intend to make, what story they want to tell. Such a script may even be required to be written prior to a documentary to be commissioned / greenlit.
    – iandotkelly
    Feb 1, 2018 at 16:31
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    They sometimes go as far as to drive lemmings off cliffs in a country not the one purported to be set in... just to tell a story.
    – Tetsujin
    Feb 1, 2018 at 17:56
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    @Wildcard, Tetsujin is referring to White Wilderness, which staged a scene of lemmings jumping off a cliff, supposedly into the Arctic Ocean, in downtown Calgary.
    – Danica
    Feb 2, 2018 at 17:22

2 Answers 2


This article is a very interesting read on nature documentaries.

It seems that yes, generally, a nature documentary does at least some scripting first. For example, on the BBC's documentary series 'The Hunt':

The Hunt took three years to film; the beautiful sequence of a blue whale eating krill took two years. The first year, the water was too murky for any of the footage to be usable.

From this source on the making of Planet Earth and Planet Earth II:

Anderson, a part-time mountaineer, had been one of the crew who, 10 years ago in the mountains of  Pakistan, captured on video a snow leopard hunting — the first ever footage of its kind — for the first Planet Earth. For the sequel, he was expected to pull it off again, this time tracking down those rarest of central Asian predators in the mountains of Ladakh in India.

Also, for less big productions (from the first article again):

Small budgets and limited time mean that filmmakers use captive animals for hunts, chum waters to send sharks into feeding frenzies, and otherwise sensationalize footage, giving audiences a false impression of animal behavior.

I also once watched 'Wilde dieren in Wildlands', a making of a nature documentary made by a Dutch Zoo. Here, they had a very clear idea of what they wanted to film: leaf-cutter ants transporting leafs and naked mole-rats huddling together for warmth amongst others. It was interesting to see how the cameramen would go about staging such shots. Again, this confirms that the general idea about which shots to include comes first, and the actual trying to film those shots latesr.


Well there is only so much you can plan ahead.

Just look at David Attenborough's experience with baby gorillas.

There is a youtube video of him and the crew thinking back to that time. I think it more or less speaks for itself:

You can plan to get close, you can plan to be accepted by the gorillas. The rest is up to the gorillas.

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