WE are emerging, in sensational fashion, from a period where natural history filmmakers stressed a scientific, dispassionate approach to nature, turning a seldom-interfering analytic eye to their subjects at the expense of storytelling. Once they went to remote places and filmed everything that moved with their cumbersome equipment before returning to their editing suites where they spent years cutting it together. Then they presented the result as a film. Bringing natural history narratives alive to new audiences was hardly the point, even though the imagery was breathtaking and the science accurate.
"No people" natural history, it was called.
Now the audience has shorter attention spans and we want stories told with high excitement. Wildlife TV has to do battle with soaps, reality TV and the new cinematic-style HBO-style drama series. Audiences have become sophisticated in their understanding of plotlines and narrative development and the impetus now in wildlife TV is for stories that feature interesting, often eccentric and driven personalities who interact with animals in some way in exotic places.
It's a monumental change driven by the American factual channels, which have had huge success with long-running shows focused on groups of colourful characters, such as Deadliest Catch. Produced by the seemingly indefatigable Thom Beers, it is the most famous documentary-style reality series filmed and Discovery Channel's highest rating series. The same scarred boats turn up weekly, their ratbag crews like turbulent characters in an episodic seafaring novel. If you have never seen it, the series follows the now legendary captains and crews of six crab-fishing vessels doing one of the most perilous, and lucrative, jobs in the world: fishing for king and opilio crab in frigid Alaskan waters.
Almost as dangerous is the work done by the heavily armed rangers who patrol the flood plains and ancient sculptured escarpments of Kakadu, Australia's largest terrestrial park, danger and beauty often connoting the same thing to their wary eyes.
Filmed across 12 intense months, the ABC's new four-part series Kakadu, from Northern Pictures and Beach House Pictures, takes us behind the scenes as the rangers monitor biodiversity, battle raging bushfires, hunt massive rogue crocs that target fishing boats, and stake out the rogue hunters of the human kind. The latter are knockabout, piratical poachers raiding protected fish stocks and taking thousands of barramundi and crabs from within Kakadu's protective borders.
The rangers' beat is the size of Slovenia, about one-third the size of Tasmania, or nearly half the size of Switzerland. The mountains are as old as the convulsions of the Earth, some of the ranges coiled like prehistoric monsters; the landscape is often alluring beyond reason, voluptuous even, but always deadly.
As our rangers warn constantly, it is not a place to abandon yourself to, no matter how alluring it looks. Danger lurks beside the banks of every watercourse, a reptilian hostility, something gruesome and repulsive. Deadly predators lie beneath the surface of the pretty billabongs and creep through the rugged stone towers.
"You don't expect to find a great white shark in a swimming pool," one of the rangers says drolly of the crocodiles that laze about the water holes tourists visit. As Charmian Clift once wrote, "It is a landscape for saints and mystics and madmen."
The footage from director and cinematographer Nick Robinson is stunning, much of it hand-held in the manner of the manic little US surveillance series COPS. Created by John Langley and Malcolm Barbour more than 20 years ago, it still shows police officers apprehending crooks, barricaded criminals and all those half-naked losers and psychopaths, along with undercover drug raids and busts and all the procedural overkill.
Like COPS, much of Kakadu is filmed with hand-held cameras by embedded observational "fly-on-the-wall" operators travelling with the ranger units. The storytelling is driven largely by the commentary of the rangers, who turn back to chat or comment, and on the actions of those with whom they come into contact. The rangers film and record stake-outs and interceptions that may find their way into court.
They are dryly humorous about their adventures and sense of vocation. They speak tersely with a kind of understatement and knowing detachment streaked with the callous touch of the land and a cynical acceptance of the ironies of fate. Actor Tom E. Lewis fills in the gaps with a sparse narration that ties the various narrative arcs together into an overall story of rebirth, renewal and change. It should sell across the world.