Explore the Depictions of Animals in Film. Analyse the Societal Effects

Seen These??

Lion King (All images are Creative Commons)

If you were a 90’s kid the chances are you definitely have. Now. Think about when you were a kid and you encountered or seen any of the animals which are featured in these movies. For example let’s say you go to the Aquarium and you see this fish:

Nemo

CREATIVE COMMONS IMAGE

Did you immediately say to yourself (Or say out loud): “Oh it’s Nemo”? Even as adults that thought is still something that can pop up into our heads when we encounter this fish. In this blog I will be exploring the depiction of animals in films, and analysing the effects on society. The two central types being Fictional Film and Documentaries. The societal effects that will be focused on is how we may view fictional films as children and hold onto the fantasy based depictions of animals, and how documentaries can inform us of the reality of these animals, with the expense of a minority of filmmakers using dodgy methods.

Fictional Films

The films above are only a few of countless movies which involve animals with traits that of a human. This is the most common technique used in these films and it’s called Anthropomorphism. Almost every film which are centred on animals use this technique to an extent, even documentaries.

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human behaviour, characteristics and traits into non human objects. What’s important to note is that the human characteristics which are applied to these animals is based on their perceived attributes. 

This technique is a cinematic blue print in entertainment, especially in children’s films which serves to work every time (Almost every time). A common trait that this technique carries is that an underlying theme or moral lesson which is relevant to the viewers is heavily portrayed by these animals. This goes to show that these human values and moral lessons are sometimes, best given to us through non human characters. And we fall for it every time. 

So why is anthropomorphism of animals very engaging to us? Reasons include:

  • The unfamiliar appears familiar
  • Humans find it much easier to relate to non human characters when their own emotions, behaviour and habits are shown by these characters
  • We relate to non human beings when when we see ourselves in it

Effects of the Depiction of Animals in Fictional Films on Society

Moral lessons and values are the primary positive effects that come out of these films, and what is important to note is that human values and lessons are very effectively expressed to children through non human objects that are anthropomorphised.

While the depictions of animals in fictional films may offer positive effects, it can be hard to ignore the negative effects, and the effects could be more severe than what meets the eye. While most children are able to differentiate fantasy and reality, sometimes a fantasy can be perceived as reality, and these thoughts can even be held through to their adult years.

According to Goldman (2014), presenting animals to young children in ways that are similar to how humans act and behave is likely to be counterproductive for learning scientifically accurate information about the biological world. Films that do not present animals and their environments accurately will not only lead only affect their learning, but also influence young children to adopt a human-centered view of the animal world.

In a study featured in an article in the website Bustle written by Tori Telfer;  ‘Anthropomorphic Animals Don’t Teach Children Facts”, researchers presented a range of lesser known animals to children (e.g cavies, oxpeckers and handfish) and read stories to the children which either presented scientific facts or scientific facts mixed with fantasy. When the children were quizzed about the animals, “the ones who’d heard the more fantastical versions were more inclined to attribute feelings to the animals or believe that the animals could talk. The children also had more difficulty remembering the scientific facts embedded in the fantastical stories.

According to psychologist Patricia Ganea; “Anthropomorphism can lead to an inaccurate understanding of biological processes in the natural world,”. The result of this is that it can lead to inappropriate behaviours towards these wild animals which may result in dangerous consequences.

Though the anthropomorphism of these animals in fictional film is enjoyable, and creates an effective platform to teach moral lessons, to an extent it can be harmful if the fantasy depiction of an animal is perceived as reality by children. The films that do not present an accurate representation of an animal and their environment accurately will just affect their learning, but also will lead to children to gaining a human-centred view of the animal world. The perfect quote to sum up this is:

“The point of children’s stories is to stretch a kid’s imagination, maybe creating a little empathy in the process, and historically, nothing’s captured little kids’ imaginations like a talking animal. There’s a time and a place for hard scientific truth — but bedtime stories have always been the realm of dreamers, and they should stay that way.”-Tori Telfer 

Depictions of Animals in Documentaries

Opposed to fictional films, documentaries take a different approach, though a story is usually told. The intent is to be factually informative and many times seem to hold an environmental message to the viewers.

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A popular structure used for animal documentaries were established by Disney. Documentaries that present facts and environmental messages, but are integrated with a story. Those seem to be the most popular type.

“Margaret King explains in her analysis of the genre, Disney’s selective perception of animal life exploits humanity’s desire to find patterns in the natural world that are similar to its own. By subjectifying animals, the Disney format creates audience identification with animal ‘stars’ and arouses empathy with and affinity for their situations. Audiences are encouraged to relate to nature in human terms, watch how animals ‘enjoy’ family life, how youngsters grow up, learn their ‘trade’ and gain independence. In relating to animals thus, viewers are encouraged to judge them in terms of such human character attributes as beauty and ugliness, virtue and vice, suffering and reward.”

One of the most famous and important documentaries is Planet Earth which is one of the most expensive nature documentaries ever made, and explores a range of different habitats. Planet Earth received widespread acclaim. Anthropomorphism is achieved through different ways as in documentaries the filmmakers use dialogue, usually a voice over e.g David Attenborough most notably, or text on screen. This allows viewers to understand what’s going on in the captured film, but also in a way helps us relate to these animals as we’re being told what they’re doing and why.

Documentaries tend to implement a shock factor into the film. In Planet Earth there are some very graphic footage included showing the animals in their habitat preying on other animals, attacking them and making them a meal.

A problem that filmmakers for documentaries would come across is; Absolutely Nothing is Happening. Truth is sometimes, what happens isn’t so exciting. For fictional films at least there is always a world of possibilities for exciting ideas, but for documentaries you have to rely on the environment. Also with the nature of filming, sometimes shortcuts are made. This has lead to some reports of dodgy filmmaking throughout the years

In the Huffington Post, the article notes that the following have occurred in films

  • “Producers have staged Predator-prey interactions using MnM’s in found carcasses for trained animals to sniff out”. (Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker-Book)
  • Close up shots of the animals in the wild are actually shots of animals in zoos. (Frozen Planet documentary)
  • CGI may be used (Turtle: The Incredible Journey documentary)
  • Stories of animal families are cobbled together with footage from different animals (Whales-1996 film)
  • Producers set up hunt scenes where prey had no chance (Wild America tv show)

Effects of the Depiction of Animals in Documentaries

The subsequent effect that the presence of documentaries about animals in society is that audiences are more informed and also while being enjoyable. Books or articles don’t seem to reach the eyes of many of the general public nowadays, especially children, but through the modern documentary style implemented in animal documentaries, the films are able to be both exciting and highly informative. Anthropomorphism isn’t forced through animation or fictional techniques, but through examining the movements and behaviours of the animals in the footage, filmmakers are able to implement the human characteristics through that.

Sometimes documentary could be too motivated by an agenda other than presenting information about the animals such as politically, socially or especially environmentally motivated messages. While the messages are often or not always the promotion of environmental care, it may deter viewers from absorbing the information regarding the animals and wildlife that are being focused on.

The documentary style of filming don’t stray from the more darker side of nature, showing bloody footage which are absolutely terrifying. Though images are graphic and can be controversial, the purpose of documentaries are to inform, and you can’t just show footage of wolves just walking in packs, they would show when the wolves find a prey and display their method of hunting.

Though stated in the section earlier, the way documentary films are made, there are sometimes dishonourable filmmaking where the filmmakers create shortcuts, CGI, setup situations etc. This impacts the environment in a highly negative way and can ruin the reputation of the film. The documentary is meant to show the animals in their habitats, rather than show how they react when an off camera human presence or work has been implemented (e.g Producers staging situations)

Though the educational value is undeniable, do nature documentaries actually have impact on a student’s environmental education? In a study in the article  The effect of nature documentaries on students’ environmental sensitivity: a case study, Learning, Media and Technology, students are analysed if their attitudes and environmental sensitivity are actually increased after being exposed to nature documentaries. Three groups of students were shown different films, and answered a research questionnaire. The results that were found that their environmental sensitivity did increase, though on different levels for each individual

What is interesting is that “the results indicate that the non-verbal, less conventional documentary is more effective in the development of environmental knowledge and feelings about insects than, but equally effective in the change in attitudes and beliefs as, the verbal, ‘traditional’ one”. This shows that the traditional Disney format of documentaries is not a necessity.

 

Case Study: Marching Of The Penguins and Happy Feet

The culmination of both fictional films and documentaries with animals can serve to create a positive lasting effect on audiences through both working off each other, even unknowingly, to tell both a story and to inform. This is addressed in Chapter 2 of Considering Animals: Contemporary Studies in Human-Animal relations. Both texts follow the formulas popularised by Disney in their respective film styles. The backdrop of both film is the spreading of awareness of climate change.

The documentary March of the Penguins is an example of a documentary style film which displays the human like qualities which penguins have without having to fictionalise a story. The film centres around the event of the hatching of emperor penguin chicks in the antarctic winter. In this documentary it all comes down to the shot selection and voice overs which detail the events. The blue print established by Disney in documentary style films is clear, though the film wasn’t made by Disney. The central theme this film shows is conservative family values demonstrated by the journey of the penguins and the film techniques in itself anthropomorphises penguins which is all done through the shots used e.g Wide shots of the pack of penguins travelling and close ups with penguins caring for the young ones to list a few, and are complemented by the voice overs. These film techniques in itself anthropomorphises penguins. The backdrop of this documentary is the spreading of awareness of climate change.

The film Happy Feet, while fictional and animated, rather than captured footage, has an incredibly similar effect to Marching Of The Penguins. The filmmakers went to great lengths for this film, sending crew to Antarctica to capture the textures, lights and landscapes which were then reproduced through CGI to create the setting of Happy Feet. The penguins in the film were motion captured through dancers who had to learn to behave like Penguins. The coming of age narrative in Happy Feet though conforms to the typical conventions of Disney animations, which tell a story filled with human-like situations and emotions.

While both films are different styles, by viewing both these films, audiences whether children or adult both gain an understanding of the Penguins, even through the portrayal in Happy Feet, barring the anthropomorphised behaviours (e.g talking, dancing), the movements, details and family values shown are traits also found in their depiction in Marching With Penguins. Both offer entertaining content, and as much as you also learn about penguins, you also enjoy a heartfelt narrative.

Podcast-Blackfish and It’s Effects

Below is a podcast I made in response to viewing the film Blackfish, and how it affected me. The article I mentioned is

http://cmsimpact.org/social-impact/breaking-down-the-impact-of-blackfish/

 

Conclusion

Depictions of animals in Fictional Films and Documentaries certainly have their similarities and differences, and the effects on society both types have such a wide range. Fictional films convey moral lessons and qualities that are beneficial to children who watch these films and emulate the values these animals display. However the consequences are that the depictions of animals may influence a fantasy based viewpoint on these animals to the viewers which consequently affects their knowledge and influenced a human centred outlook on the world, as the animals portray human qualities.

Nature documentaries on animals effectively inform the audience of the animals in a very realistic depiction which serves to educate the viewer, but also can potentially convey interesting stories that entertain the viewers. The documentaries also influence thinking which is environmentally aware e.g Climate change from Marching with penguins. However the animal documentary is more prone to have negative impacts on the environment in itself as the production is in those habitats and sometimes dishonourable filmmaking is implemented where filmmakers alter the environment or set up situations just to get footage.

It is important for audiences to take fictional films about animals as face value and not inherit “facts” from these films, just take in the messages and underlying themes. The facts can be found from the documentaries which can also hold underlying messages in itself of environmental value. It is essential audiences are able to pick out the right information to take in.

References

Center for Media and Social Impact. (2018). Breaking Down the Impact of “Blackfish” – Center for Media and Social Impact. [online] Available at: http://cmsimpact.org/social-impact/breaking-down-the-impact-of-blackfish/ [Accessed 30 May 2018].

Galloway, S. (2018). Anthropomorphism & The Film Industry’s Representation Of Animals. [online] prezi.com. Available at: https://prezi.com/bw3iarn2xhli/anthropomorphism-the-film-industrys-representation-of-animals/ [Accessed 30 May 2018].

Kerzhner, S. (2015). What are the effects of anthropomorphism?. [online] prezi.com. Available at: https://prezi.com/wg82cmkhfalz/what-are-the-effects-of-anthropomorphism/ [Accessed 30 May 2018].

Scholarworks.montana.edu. (2018). [online] Available at: https://scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1/2207/schneiders0512.pdf?sequence=1 [Accessed 30 May 2018].

Telfer, T. (2018). Scientists Don’t Approve of Talking Animal Books. [online] Bustle. Available at: https://www.bustle.com/articles/19524-anthropomorphic-animals-dont-teach-children-scientific-facts-concludes-groundbreaking-study [Accessed 30 May 2018].

Tasos A. Barbas , Stefanos Paraskevopoulos & Anastasia G. Stamou (2009) The effect of nature documentaries on students’ environmental sensitivity: a case study, Learning, Media and Technology, 34:1, 61-69, DOI: 10.1080/17439880902759943

Goldman, J 2014, When Animals Act Like People in Stories, Kids Can’t Learn, Scientific American, viewed 29 May 2016, <http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/when-animals-act-like-people-in-stories-kids-cane28099t-learn/&gt;.

Boboltz, S. (2018). Nature Documentaries Are Way More Fake Than You Thought. [online] HuffPost Australia. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/nature-documentary-tricks_n_7249528 [Accessed 30 May 2018].

 

 

 

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