science documentary

A lion cub in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Discovery Channel’s reluctance to air the climate change episode of the Frozen Planet series–an episode they helped fund.  I asked that we label this act ‘unsustainable nature filmmaking’ because Discovery had failed to use its bully pulpit to protect the species that feature heavily in its films. An opinion piece in the journal Science this week, penned by Oxford geography professor Paul Jepson and colleagues, takes this argument one step further and asks that broadcasters like Discovery make direct monetary contributions to protect the ‘stars’ of wildlife films:

We ask whether it is time..[for] media corporations
producing and commissioning nature-based
programming…[to] adopt PES [payment for ecosystem services] principles.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of ‘payment for ecosystem services’, this is basically the idea that the many benefits provided to us by nature have a monetary value and that corporations profiting off of those services should give a percentage of profits back to conservation efforts.

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Thanks to the web everything’s being crowd-sourced–from encyclopedias (see Wikipedia) to science (see FoldIt) to journalism (see iReport) to political campaigns (see Obama’s, 2008). So it was only a matter of time before filmmakers caught the zeitgeist and started producing crowd-sourced documentaries.

The most ambitious such project, from director Ridley Scott, debuted last Thursday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. “Life in a Day” is a 94-minute film that documents the lives of regular people across the globe. Shot by amateur filmmakers at different times and on different continents, the film was edited down and arranged into the chronology of a single day.

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David Attenborough in "The Life of Mammals"

David Attenborough in "The Life of Mammals" Image: BBC Worldwide

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on

It’s 2011 and one of this year’s goals  is to relaunch this blog. When I started back in ’09 my goal was to build and grow a “portal” website that would cover a lot of different areas of science. But this is a fool’s errand unless you have limitless time and resources to play with.

So is back with a more personal bent and  a new focus, which is to explore the intersection of science, journalism and multimedia. Or in other words, I’ll  mostly be writing about how we tell true stories about the natural world using all of the modalities of multimedia available to us in the 21st century…whew! Don’t worry–I promise it will be fun.

So with that, let me start by sharing with you some of the science and nature documentaries that have made an impression on me over the years and continue to be a source of inspiration as I create my own body of work.  If you think I’ve missed an awesome movie or three let me know in the comments.

Death by Design:Where Parallel Worlds Meet (Friedman/sBrunet, 1995)

This is a documentary about apoptosis–a.k.a. programmed cell death; a topic most documentary producers wouldn’t touch with a very long stick.  But it’s  artfully pulled off  by Jean-Francois Brunet and Peter Friedman (a microbiologist and film director, respectively) by blending archival footage of Hollywood musicals with microcinematography of cells committing suicide.

Continue reading A few of my favorite science and nature documentaries

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