China's first series of nature documentaries has won audience
acclamation, although its makers faced a struggle due to lack of
funds and knowledge.
By JING XIAOLEI
China's first commercial nature documentary series Forest China,
which hit TV screens across the nation on December 1, 2007, has
been met with mixed opinions.
Since 2004, the crew for the 11-episode documentary has been
dispatched to remote and mysterious parts of China, exploring
mountains, forests and deserts. It took four years to finish the
filming of the documentary, a stunning production that brings the
audience closer to China's natural habitat.
"Forest China reminds me of the masterpiece documentary
Microcosmos. I never expected we Chinese filmmakers could make such
a smashing work," one viewer said in a comment on the website of
the documentary series. Another viewer said that the filming was so
excellent that every picture taken from the documentary could be
used as a desktop computer background.
On the official website of Forest China, a public survey shows
that the top three attractions of the documentary were beautiful
scene (27 percent), music (19.9 percent) and interesting commentary
(19.3 percent). When asked to compare Forest China to foreign
documentaries, 47 percent of respondents said they thought the two
were neck and neck and 28 percent said they thought the Chinese
documentary was better.
Tell a story
Before shooting began in 2004, the documentary directors were
given a week of training by two veterans from the world-leading
producer of factual television Natural History New Zealand Ltd.
(NHNZ), Michel Stedman and Peter Hyton.
"NHNZ might not be the most powerful documentary producer, but
for sure it has harvested the most trophies in this field," said
Chen Xiaoqing, the documentary's general director and a veteran
Chinese TV producer who works for the country's largest TV station
China Central Television (CCTV).
The words, "You must tell the audience a story," were embedded
in Chen's mind by the NHNZ veterans. One documentary follows golden
monkeys because an animal expert told them it was time for the
monkeys to choose a new king.
Chen's crew focused on a family of black cranes, but filming was
disrupted when the birds' environment was disturbed by
Such things happened a lot during the filming. The crew in
charge of rain forest filming planed to shoot an endangered species
of gibbon in Hainan Province, but found only 12 very alert and
difficult to film animals living on a mountain. The crew waited in
the rain for almost 10 days to shoot nothing, but a shadow of one
of the gibbons.
The documentary team came up against obstacles during the four
years it took to make the series, including weak scientific
research and lack of knowledge about the environment, but their
biggest problem was lack of funds.
Though they received 10 million yuan from the State Forestry
Administration and the Ministry of Finance, the team found this
money fell far short of what they needed. Although 10 million yuan
might be a big investment for a documentary project in China, it is
only one thirtieth of that of a foreign documentary, said Chen.
The filming equipment was the biggest complaint for the
cameramen. "Our equipment fell far behind that of other countries,"
said one of the crew Xiao Wei. Chen also admitted that one third of
the 550-minute documentary was shot by DV.
The film crew rented a micro camera to shoot the close-ups. As
it was the best weapon they had in their film equipment arsenal,
they had to arrange the schedule for the camera. "It was used by
the eight teams of us one by one, a few days for each team," said
Shanghai TV Festival, the first international TV festival in
China, has a category for nature documentaries. Since the festival
was established in 1986, the award for best nature documentary has
never been awarded to a Chinese documentary. The most frequent
winner has been the BBC. Chen has been a judge for the documentary
award and believes the poor results for China have got much to do
with a generally depressed environment for documentary production
in the country. One of the major reasons for this is a lack of
funds. "Chinese documentary producers are starving," he said.
Documentary making in foreign countries has become an industry
with a mature production line from choosing the topic to
distribution, said professor Lin Xudong from the Communication
University of China.
In some sense the Forest China is an assignment for CCTV from
the country's forestry administration and not made for the market,
Another big obstacle for Chinese nature documentary is
knowledge. In the history of nature documentaries the most
important pioneer is David Attenborough. He has a profound
knowledge of the world through studying anthropology and he is
member of the Royal Society. A broad and profound professional
background is one of the key factors that contribute to the making
of a mature nature documentary.
When the Discovery channel filmed a documentary for the PBS
(Public Broadcasting Service), all the cameramen were people who
raised birds of prey. One photographer even tied a camera to the
back of a bird and documented how it dived and captured a rabbit at
a high speed.
The crew for Forest China by comparison lacked such professional
knowledge in the natural science. Most of the crew were engaged in
humanity documentaries before and this was their first nature
"This time we have strong support from the Financial Ministry
and the Forestry Administration. I'm not sure whether there will be
a second chance like this," said Xiao.
"Many of the cameramen for nature documentaries in foreign
countries are experts in a scientific field in the first place,"
said one of the Forest China directors Li Taishan. For the present
China's nature documentary makers fail to reach that level: the
cameramen are not engaged in scientific research and the
researchers do not film.
When the crew was filming golden monkeys on Qinling Mountain,
they were shown a batch of precious video clips, in which a mother
monkey feed her baby for 30 days even after the baby was dead.
However the quality of the video was so poor that it could not be
used in the documentary.
Will China have its own David Attenborough? It's not going to
happen soon, according to Chen. It will take time to bridge the gap
between documentary and scientific research, but Chen is optimistic
that it will eventually happen.
(Beijing Review January 7, 2008)