S03|E04: Full Disclosure & Hoofprints on the Heart

In this week's episode, we look into the wonderful world of nature documentaries and find that truth behind the lens and the microphone is sometimes hard to find. Also, a heartwarming story from our podcasting friends in Montana, HumaNature, about a man who set out on a long journey with his trusty sidekick who just happens to be a real ass. 

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Parts 1 & 2

FullDisclosure.jpeg

Full Disclosure

Nature documentaries and wildlife films transport us to places in the world that still feel wild, but what if the wilderness they present is staged? What if, in order to capture nature’s unvarnished beauty and conflict, filmmakers have to engage in a bit of fakery? In this episode we examine how deception is used to enhance the drama of nature documentaries, from Disney’s Oscar-winning film White Wilderness, to the incredible footage featured in the BBC’s Planet Earth II. Plus, we own up to some of the production tricks we use to make this podcast. 


Part 3

HumaNature: Hoofprints on the Heart

This week on the show we’re bringing you something a little different, a story from someone else. Caroline Ballard and Micah Schweizer started HumaNature, which is based in Wyoming, and they’re part of the team responsible for bringing us the story of a man, his walk through an unfamiliar culture and an unexpected friendship, in a couple of different ways. 

Jon set out on the longest, toughest walk of his life. But along the way, he met someone who helped carry the weight.

The piece was produced by Erin JonesAnna Rader, and Micah Schweizer and hosted by Caroline BallardHumaNature is a production of Wyoming Public Media.

Seattle Denver Arms (Instrumental) by Loch Lomond is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License. Based on a work at http://needledrop.co/artists/Loch-Lomond


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks to Phineas Quimby and Dan Barrick this week for being participants in our experiment in radio deception. Also thanks to Cynthia Chris and to Elizabeth White, she and the rest of the folks at Planet Earth have actually put out some behind-the-scenes footage of how they made the iguana snake scene that we reference earlier in the show, and have been really candid about their practices, in case you want to learn more about how they do it.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Mon Plaisir. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from this artist.

Episode 35: Full Disclosure

Nature documentaries and wildlife films transport us to places in the world that still feel wild, but what if the wilderness they present is staged? What if, in order to capture nature’s unvarnished beauty and conflict, filmmakers have to engage in a bit of fakery? In this episode we examine how deception is used to enhance the drama of nature documentaries, from Disney’s Oscar-winning film White Wilderness, to the incredible footage featured in the BBC’s Planet Earth II. Plus, we own up to some of the production tricks we use to make this podcast. 

Nature Documentaries: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

I’d love to say that I’ve never used TV as a parental crutch, but there are days when I’m trying to work from home, or am just plain exhausted, when I’ll do anything to keep my 5-year old son distracted for a solid hour. As a form of dubious justification for letting my flat screen babysit, I’ll put on something “educational”—which usually means choosing something from Netflix’s extensive collection of nature documentaries. The BBC series Life is a household favorite, or the new Planet Earth II. The basic philosophy is that learning about porcupines is more valuable than learning about Pokémon, that watching bats is better than watching Batman.

This behaviour has never been filmed before! Hatchling marine iguanas are attacked by snakes hunting on mass. This clip was taken from the Islands episode of Planet Earth II.

But then again, what’s so inherently valuable about the wildlife programs? Like all TV, the genre varies widely when it comes to quality. There’s the BBC stuff with the incredible “how-did-they-do-that?” shots, but there’s also the now infamous “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives”, a fake documentary that aired as part of Discovery Channel’s 2013 Shark Week.

“The question is not, is wildlife or nature programming educational,” says Cynthia Chris, author of Watching Wildlife.  “The question is, what is it teaching? Is it teaching us factual things that will help us care for and protect the environment? Or is it teaching things that will encourage us to fear and disdain and destroy the environment?”

I can hear you groaning from here. Why does everything involving the environment turn into a finger-wagging message about social responsibility? I hear you. I don’t want to take the fun and wonder out of nature documentaries. That’s what makes them so great! But there are some ways we can watch them a little more thoughtfully even if we’re watching a show about a giant fictional shark.

Teach Younger Kids to Get Savvy: Listen For the Sound of Deception

The best nature documentaries are able to get incredible close-up shots of animals - so close you might wonder, how the heck did producers capture that amazing sound? Sadly, the truth is that they probably didn’t. Wildlife filmmaker and author of Shooting in the Wild Chris Palmer will tell you that when you hear a bird flapping it’s wings, that’s likely sound engineer opening and closing an umbrella. (I suggest that you go try this one immediately.)

We're taking you behind the soundproof doors into the world of Earth Touch's audio experts as they practise the finicky art of Foley & sound design. See exactly what it takes to enhance or recreate nature's diverse sounds and bring a wildlife documentary to life.

A lion tearing into a freshly killed antelope? That’s a someone cracking some fresh celery in half.

Not everything is totally faked, but footage shot in slow motion or sped up through time-lapse photography doesn’t capture audio at all, which means that whatever you’re hearing was at least captured separately and added in post-production. Sometimes, sounds are even created that don’t exist in nature at all. Frank Scheuring is a sound mixer and editor, and president of Capital Post Production. He also worked on the first Planet Earth series. He says that if you see something, you expect to hear something too. “A jellyfish probably isn’t going to make a sound at all, but if there’s no sound there, it’s less believable. It’s really just enhancing reality, and trying to bring [the viewer] into the environment.”

Dave Birch, audio manager at Earth Touch explains the art of foley.

Once you accept the truth that most nature documentary sound effects aren’t authentic, it can be a pretty big mood-killer. Is NOTHING real? But once you get used to the idea, it can make for an interesting game: try guessing if the sound you’re hearing is fake or not fake. Underwater scene? Fake. Slow-motion? Fake. Teeny tiny bird? Probably fake.

If you really want to get into it with kids, collect some household items, turn the TV to mute, and try making your own sound effects!

Introduce the Idea That They Aren’t Getting the Whole Story

Even the most reputable nature documentaries often steer away from issues like climate change, or deforestation, implicitly depicting the wild places of the world as pristine or untouched by human influence. That’s part of what makes them so beautiful: there’s a dignity to the elegance of the natural world it that feels timeless.

But it’s also pretty misleading, and both filmmakers and environmental philosophers have argued it’s counter-productive.

“It’s important that films carry a conservation message, and part of that message should be that people are not separate from nature,” says Chris Palmer. Palmer specializes in IMAX films, and says that getting those pristine shots we love is getting increasingly harder to do. “It’s hard to get a shot without a boat in the background, without a car in the background, without smoke, you know - there’s signs of people everywhere.”

This behaviour has never been filmed before! Hatchling marine iguanas are attacked by snakes hunting on mass. This footage was filmed for the Islands episode of Planet Earth II.

One interesting way to enhance the educational opportunity of a nature documentary is to have a map or globe handy while you’re watching. Occasionally pause the film to look up places featured in the program. How big is this island of seemingly un-fragmented wilderness? How close is the nearest human settlement? How might your impression of the scene change if you knew there was a safari tour bus just off-screen? Look out for “behind-the-scenes” videos that help illustrate how programs were shot and produced. It’s strange to see camera people, but it gives you a better sense of how filmmakers use their craft to get the desired reaction from the viewer.

A behind the scenes look at the snake/iguana scene, which reveals that the filming was - for the most part - continuous, and that the behavior being filmed is very real… Even if the sound is not.

TV shows like Nat Geo’s “World’s Weirdest” or “72 Cutest Animals” are a fun way for kids to learn about animal behaviors, and tend to feature rare or bizarre creatures that can really capture the imagination. The pangolin, which looks like a cross between an anteater and an armadillo, is arguably worth its appearance on Nat Geo’s “World’s Weirdest” series, but the fact that the pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world goes unmentioned. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, some 100,000 pangolin are slaughtered every year for their scales. Two species of pangolin are listed as critically endangered.

This begs an important question for parents: is it enough that these programs build wonder for the natural world or must they also put a spotlight on pangolin poaching? I tend to think a light touch on the bad news is the best approach. Research has shown that exposing children to calamities beyond their control when they’re too young may actually cause them to become fearful and even more disconnected from the natural world. But by remaining alert to what is left out of these documentaries, it can help you to connect the dots once your kid is ready.

As They Get Older, Teach Them About How Things Have Changed!

Some of the “classic” wildlife documentaries of the past are just as dramatic as anything you’ll see on the BBC, but not always in the ways you might expect. Jacque Costeau is remembered as a charismatic oceanographer, explorer, and co-inventor of the aqualung. He is also celebrated as an early conservationist who believed in protecting the quality and life of our oceans. Frankly though, his films are hilariously cheesy for modern audiences, filled with pulpy adventure narration and unnecessary shots of Cousteau’s bare-chested crew lazing about his vessel. Aside from the claymation fish, Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic is actually a pretty good recreation.

And yet, watching someone known for being a pioneer conservationist, Cousteau reflected the values of his day. One scene from the Academy award winning documentary The Silent World is especially shocking: Cousteau’s ship strikes a young whale, injuring it badly. The crew decides to end the whale’s misery (their words) by shooting it in the head. The now deceased whale’s blood attracts a number of sharks, who start shredding it to bits. It’s already a gruesome scene, but escalates to new levels of horror when Cousteau’s crew start “avenging” the whale (even though they were the ones that killed it) by hooking sharks onto the boat and butchering them with axes. The scene lasts several minutes, and is narrated by Cousteau himself without a hint of irony.

(Now that I think about it,  this scene is pretty graphic, so it might be best to do this exercise once your kids are teenagers.)

The Silent World “Whale and Shark scene” 

As abhorrent as this scene is now, it tells you a lot about how much our understanding of the natural world has changed in the last century. This film was shot before the famous “Save the Whales” campaign, before the establishment of the EPA, even before the founding of the Humane Society of the United States. Even for an ardent conservationist like Cousteau, sharks were viewed as killers and so the world was considered to be better off without them.

When nature documentaries during this era weren’t killing animals on screen for entertainment, they were sometimes doing it behind the scenes as part of film production. Disney’s True Life Adventure series is one of the worst culprits, which you’ll discover in Bob McKeown’s excellent documentary on the subject for the CBC’s The Fifth Estate. For older kids and adults looking to pull the curtain back on early nature documentary production, this is a must watch.

This is Bob McKeown’s original documentary on animal cruelty in Hollywood for the 5th Estate, which includes his investigation into White Wilderness.

Final Thoughts: Are Nature Documentaries a Form of Journalism... or Entertainment?

Examining the natural world is, in part, the vocation of scientists and conservationists, and so there is a distinctly empirical flavor to nature documentaries. As opposed to non-fiction films that focus on contentious social or political issues, nature - it would seem - is simple, even in all of its evolutionary complexity. But nature documentaries, rooted in science as they may appear, are not bound by the same ethical considerations that science or journalism are.

I asked Chris Palmer, do wildlife filmmakers see themselves as journalists or entertainers?  “A bit of both,” he told me. “They have to be entertainers. If they don’t entertain their audience the ratings and box office numbers will be low, they won’t get rehired, and their career will be in tatters.” On the other hand, Palmer says, to call something a documentary is to claim that the work is accurate, truthful, and was responsibly produced. “The bottom line is that their are no rules; each filmmaker approaches this challenge in their own individual way.”

Elizabeth White, one of the producers for the new BBC series Planet Earth II, says that their filmmakers receive ethics training - something Palmer has openly advocated for. When I asked her how she sees herself, she said, “as a scientist and filmmaker who is trying to engage audiences through wildlife storytelling.”  

By teaching your kids what’s real and what’s not when they watch nature documentaries, you’ll be equipping them to see the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. And preparing them to enter a world that won’t cleanly delineate between facts and fiction for them.

Also… if you do this right, they shouldn’t believe the megalodons are still alive.

Here's a handy flow chart to help you watch documentaries with a careful eye. | credit: logan shannon


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Taylor Quimby and Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez. Logan Shannon was our digital producer.

A big thanks to Chris Palmer and Bob McKeown - more than thirty years on, Cruel Camera is still an amazing piece of journalism. A few years ago, they did an update on the show, and interviewed David Attenborough, and looked at how much has changed in wildlife filmmaking since the 80s.

Thanks also to Cynthia Chris. Her book Watching Wildlife traces more of the history of the wildlife genre, and digs into some really thorny philosophical questions about how we use animals as a proxy to reinforce cultural norms. We didn’t have time to get into it here, but it’s some heady stuff.

And special thanks to Elizabeth White and the BBC. She and the folks at Planet Earth have actually put out some behind-the-scenes footage of how they made the iguana snake scene, and some other amazing moments from the series. They’ve been really candid about their practices, so we’re not the only ones that are big on disclosure.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Music this week from Mon Plaisir. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from this artist.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.

S02|E04: There's No "i" in Team

When you walk a trail in the woods, have you ever wondered, how did this get here? Who carved this path? Chances are a team of hardscrabble men and women worked tirelessly to make sure the paths you follow blend right into the landscape. This week we find out why one such trail crew, known as the 'TFC', is the stuff of legend. Also, running and completing a marathon is an amazing achievement that is the culmination of many hours of hard mental and physical training. But can you really claim you finished when you collapse just a few yards from the finish, or is that cheating. And we'll finish it off with a heartwarming story of the ultimate gesture of sportsmanship from a place called Ushuaia, Argentina known as the "End of the World". 

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! We're currently offering up our seasons for FREE! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Part 1

Anothah Boston Cheat

Ari Ofsevit is a guy from Boston fueled by an intense, nerdy love for sports. The day after running this year’s Boston Marathon, his face was all over the cover of the Boston Globe and on all of the network news channels, but on the internet, people were accusing him of cheating. This is Ari’s story.


Part 2

WTF is TFC?

When you walk a trail in the woods, have you ever wondered, how did this get here? Who carved this path? Was this stone staircase always like this? Nope. Chances are a team of hardscrabble men and women worked tirelessly to make sure the paths you follow blend right into the landscape. In this story, we find out why one such trail crew, known as the 'TFC', is the stuff of legend.


Part 3

Don't Cheer For Me Argentina

In 2008, our host, Sam Evans-Brown, won the biggest ski race in Argentina, the Marchablanca. For him that was the whole story, but for the skier on the second step of the podiuma former Olympian named Martin Bianchithat race marked a major turning point in his life. 

Check out the highlights from the 2016 Marchablanca: 


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks to Martin Bianchi for giving Sam the big win and the opportunity to be a bus graphic celebrity in Argentina. Also thanks to Luis Antonio Perez for playing the part of Martin in our story; Weldon Johnson, former Yale runner and the co-founder of Let's Run; and former TFC members Kyle Peckham, Natalie Beittel, who are assembling a book of stories from the crew, and Barbara Whiton of the Trail Crew Association. Thanks as well to Rob Burbank of the AMC and Cristine Bailey of the National Forest Service, for setting up our day out on the trail.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, and Tyler Gibbon. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Episode 11: Anothah Boston Cheat

Ari Ofsevit is a guy from Boston fueled by an intense, nerdy love for sports. The day after running this year’s Boston Marathon, his face was all over the cover of the Boston Globe and on all of the network news channels, but on the internet, people were accusing him of cheating. This is Ari’s story.

The Boston Marathon, has a long, well-documented history of cheaters.

Of course, there was that most famous of marathon cheaters, Rosie Ruiz, who hitched a ride on Boston subway 10 miles into the race. But cheaters abound: there’s this armchair investigator who claims to have found at least 47 people who cheated back in 2015 by taking someone else’s bib, or by taking short-cuts in their qualifying marathon. There’s also the thriving online marketplace, where people say they’d be willing to spend as much as $5,000 dollars to get their hands on someone else’s starting number.

And this year, once again, a high profile Boston marathon finish is being called into question.

The racer in question is Ari Ofsevit. And he’s a friend of mine.

After the race, I was very surprised to see Ari was all over the internet.

I was then doubly shocked to learn that beneath every story written about Ari and in a forum of a website called Let’s Run internet  commenters were calling for him to be disqualified.

When Runner’s World noticed the online muck that was swriling around Ari’s story whenever it was posted, they stirred the pot, posting a second article about the reaction to the first article, inviting readers to “engage” on the question.

“So, there are people who say you cheated,” I said to Ari, when I interviewed him.

Ari responded with an exasperated snort.

With cheating you have to have intent,” he said, “People were saying things like, he shouldn’t have accepted the aid from those guys. Well you know, I didn’t have the opportunity to say that because my brain was not functioning.”

Today's episode of Outside/In (which I encourage you to listen to, instead of reading… I promise, it’s better) is the story of my friend Ari, his fifteen minutes of fame, and the bigger question: what’s a race like the Boston Marathon for? 

What Happened?

If you want to hear this story straight from the horse’s mouth, with an impressive dose of profanity mixed in, you can read Ari’s account of why he thinks he collapsed just before the finish line of the race. What’s below is my abridged account.

His preparation for the marathon the day before was pretty reasonable - despite making a transcontinental flight the morning before the race. Ari hydrated, he slept in his own bed, and he woke up before his alarm.

And that day, Marathon Monday, was gorgeous weather, 65 degrees and sunny. (Though Ari, who hates running when it’s hot, calls it “sneaky warm”.)

The first 17 miles Ari felt great and was on track to beat 3 hours. He says he was drinking every water stop. But as the race wears on he started to slow down, though he said it was nothing unusual.

“Most people are going to feel lousy on those hills,” he said.

He’s slowing down: from 6 and half minute mile pace, to 7 minute mile pace… to mile 26 when he’s up to nearly an 8 minute mile.

But he turned the corner onto Boylston street, and then end was in sight.

“I remember thinking, “Alright legs, go,” Ari said. That thought was the last thing he remembers before waking up in the intensive care unit four hours later.

Did he finish?

Ari got to within 200 feet of the finishing line before collapsing with a body temperature of 108.8 degrees. At this temperature, doctors told him he had a 30-minute clock ticking toward organ failure and brain injury.

ari did pretty well... right up until the very end of the race

ari did pretty well... right up until the very end of the race

Two runners helped him across the finish line. And first responders dumped him into a tub of ice. This actually led to an over-correction, and when they sent him off to the hospital he was actually hypothermic: his body temperature had dropped to 84 degrees.

Ari didn’t break the 3-hour mark, but he did get a time: a  very respectable 3  hours and 3 minutes. You can find his name, and his time on the results. He finished in 1848th place - and like all finishers, he got a medal.

Once his story started to hit the media, first on the cover of the Boston Globe, and then later on the network TV channels, certain parts of the running community started grousing.

“To me, it would have been considered, he should have been a DNF,” Jay Curry told me. DNF is runner-speak for “Did Not Finish”.

Curry is an an OR nurse, a cyclist and a triathlete. He’s never done the Boston Marathon, but he has done ironman triathlons: that’s where you have to run a marathon after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112. I found him through a Facebook comment he left underneath one of the articles about Ari.

“It kind of takes away from the sport, if anybody can just pick him up and carry him across the line  or I could jump on a bus and say, Jeez, I’m kinda tired right now, I’ve got two miles to go I’ll just call a taxi and take a taxi to the finish line and be considered a finisher.

Jay says he has no ill-will toward Ari, and doesn’t think he deliberately cheated. But he’s steadfast. Ari did not finish. And Jay’s not alone. For every 10 people who celebrate his finish as a story about good sportsmanship and community - there are one or two that say, nice story, but he should be disqualified.

Albert Shank a Spanish teacher and marathoner from Arizona is another.

“You’re toeing the line running the same exact course at the same time as these elite runners from Kenya, and Ethiopia, and the United States and all over the world, and I think you should be subjected to the same rules as they are,” Shank told me in a phone interview.

When it comes to this question of whether he deserves to be considered a finisher, there’s a legitimate point being made. If Ari had been in first place, he definitely would have been disqualified. This actually happened in the Olympic marathon in 1908. Dorando Pietri, an Italian, had to be helped to his feet by the course umpires when he collapsed five times in the last 400 meters. The second place finisher -- an American -- protested, and Pietri lost his gold medal.

Ari has done a lot of races... a lot of races.

Ari has done a lot of races... a lot of races.

What's a race for, anyway?

But there’s a big difference between an Olympic athlete , and Ari Ofsevit. Hell, there’s a big difference between the front of the Boston Marathon and Ari Ofsevit.

“I understand that there are folks out there in the world that, a rule is a rule is a rule, and I get it… god bless ‘em for feeling that way,” said Dave McGillivray, the race director of the Boston Marathon, one of the people who very well could have disqualified Ari.

The rules are that runners accepting aid from others “may” be disqualified, not that they “shall” be disqualified. Typically, the routine is that another competitor submits a complaint, which the race jury considers. In Ari’s case, there was no complaint… at least no official, not-in-an-internet-comment-section complaint.

“It was a gallant effort, and I feel he earned the medal. Let’s move on,” said McGillivray.

In reality, there are two races going on in Boston, with two different sets of rules. One of those races -- the elite field -- is really only about who is fastest. The other, is mostly just a community building event. One that would be totally ruined if you militantly disqualified thousands of people who did things like take water from someone other than an officially sanctioned water-stop.

Some of the complaints circle around the prestigiousness of the Boston Marathon. It’s really a tough to race qualify for, and so many people register that in 2016 more than 4,500 people who made the official qualifying time still got turned away.

Because he finished, Ari will likely qualify for next year’s marathon and he could be taking a spot from a runner who finished the race on his own two feet.

Take it up with Meb

So who gets the final word? I’m going to give it to Meb.

Meb Keflezighi -- olympic silver medalist, winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, and general goodwill ambassador for the sport of long-distance running --  actually tweeted a photo of the guys carrying Ari across the finish. That tweet was above, but here it is again.

You’ll notice, Meb didn’t write #ObviousDQ.