Natural History television’s love for gorillas & great apes

Looking into the deep brown eyes of a gorilla or chimpanzee feels like looking into the eyes of our ancestors; our living relatives. It's this connection that makes it easy to see the appeal of great apes, which is why wildlife photographers and documentary makers keep focusing on these beautiful animals.

The nature documentary began with Disney's White Wilderness in 1958 and it has come a long way since then. Infamously, some nature documentaries have manipulated the truth in order to deliver the drama and tension that makes for a memorable wildlife sequence. Most infamous of all is the White Wilderness, which aimed to show the migration of hundreds of lemmings. The filmmakers shipped in lemmings and pushed them off cliffs in attempt to get the footage they needed to tell their chosen story!

Today's wildlife documentaries take years to make, with natural history film makers spending months at a time in inhospitable conditions to try and film snow leopards or other rare creatures. In addition, behind-the-scenes footage has become part of the joy of the nature documentary, showing us the gear, the hardship and the reward when they get that crucial shot.

However, controversy still follows wildlife film crews and production teams. The BBC came under fire during its 2011 Frozen Planet series, when the press and public discovered that a polar bear cub birth scene was actually filmed in a zoo in the Netherlands, rather than an actual den in the Arctic. The development of the wildlife documentary means viewers seek more intimate shots, but sometimes the things we want to see just aren't practical or would disturb the animals.

The technology

Advances in technology have changed the way nature documentaries are made and the types of footage they can capture. In the good old days film makers lugged heavy cameras about, running after their subjects, resulting in some shaky hand cam effects and glimpses of blurry animals racing past.

In contrast, today's cameras are much smaller and lighter, allowing crews to get into tighter spots and travel deeper into an animal's habitat. The technology has also allowed for incredibly smooth footage. In addition, drones have revolutionised wildlife photography. Now there's no need for a camera person to hang out of a helicopter to take aerial shots of migrating herds or birds. Light, agile remote operated drone technology means footage can be taken of a bird in flight, high up in the rain forest canopy or over the ocean's surface to capture whales and dolphins without disturbing them.

Anti-wobble technology means filming is smooth and new techniques and gear deliver a 360-degree shot with water droplets suspended in mid-air, as a whale arcs majestically above the ocean. And as cameras get smaller, crews can set up fake rocks and model animals to house cameras designed to capture behaviours never filmed before.

Breaking new ground

Although Disney's nature films began the genre and Jacques Cousteau continued to enthral audiences with the natural world, BBC's Life on Earth documentary broke new ground in 1979. It delivered 13 hours of footage, over 13 weeks, covering the history of life on our planet. It was full of great moments, but probably the most iconic sequence in wildlife documentary making is David Attenborough meeting the mountain gorillas. His team went to the mountains of Rwanda to film the community of gorillas Dian Fossey and her teams had been studying for years.

In the famous segment, David Attenborough is sitting among the gorillas, whispering his classic style of commentary, but then a baby gorilla rolls onto the presenter, lounging in his lap, in an unexpected moment of magic. The footage has become one of Attenborough's most memorable moments. Once again it could be considered slightly manipulative because those particular gorillas are not typical of wild gorillas. They've been studied by Fossey and her team for years, making them comfortable around humans. Today's natural history filmmakers would keep a much more respectful distance from their subjects. However, the scene is still part of the history of the wildlife documentary and the role it plays in helping the public care about our natural world.

Gorillas in the mist

Although not a documentary, the film Gorillas in the Mist was based on the true story of wildlife expert Dian Fossey and was nominated for five Academy Awards. The film shone a spotlight on this incredible woman and the plight of the mountain gorillas. It captured the public imagination, beginning a long love affair with the people who dedicate their lives to studying and protecting great apes.

Gorillas in the Mist follows Fossey's journey from the Midwestern United States to Africa, where she studies the gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda. As Fossey develops a bond with the animals, she also becomes wary of the poachers who prey on them. Fearing that the gorillas will go extinct if humans don't stop hunting them, she organises a defence league to protect the animals. In real life, this put her in serious danger and ultimately led to her death. The film captured this moving story and put the mountain gorillas on the map. And Fossey's research remains a cornerstone of conservation, bringing celebrities back again and again to this area to protect those gorillas.

The gorilla king

The BBC's The Gorilla King, from 2008, tells the story of one of Fossey's research gorillas. This is the compelling story of a mountain gorillas with great longevity, a silverback called Titus. The programme starts in 1967 and charts the moment Fossey first made contact with a group of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Fast forwarding 40 years, the film reveals the story of Titus and how he's survived for so long, against all the odds.

Titus' father was murdered by poachers, in front of his eyes, and his mother abandoned him in the panic, leaving the young Titus alone. He should have died, but instead the filmmakers find Titus, the king, fighting for his place as the dominant male, as another silverback challenges his throne. The film follows this titanic rivalry to the very top of the mountain range, the Virunga Volcanoes. Using eyewitness testaments, the film looks back in time to reveal pivotal moments in Titus's journey to becoming the supreme silverback.

Celebrities meeting gorillas

The public appetite for intimate meetings with gorillas continues, as celebrities make the pilgrimage to meet Fossey's gorilla communities. The fact that these gorillas are familiar with humans makes them a prime target for film crews wanting to capture a bit of the magic Attenborough experienced in 1979. However, it's not a true representation of wild gorillas.

John Bishop's Gorilla Adventure is a 2015 show commissioned by ITV and sends the comedian to the forests of Rwanda. Bishop joins the 'Gorilla Doctors', a group of vets dedicating their lives to saving the mountain gorillas.

Bishop experiences the hours of trekking through mud and rain required to monitor each gorilla and treat them for illness or injury. At one point a huge silverback becomes aggressive when the team tries to treat a baby gorilla. The team also manages to track a young gorilla, who the vets had found at just three days old. Having amputated the bottom part of his leg, the forest team weren't sure if the youngster had survived, but four years on, he's on his way to becoming an adult silverback.

American chat show host, Ellen Degeneres has also jumped on the gorilla trail. Ellen travelled to Rwanda and had a memorable gorilla encounter. Since then she has become a dedicated sponsor of the work started by Dian Fossey. She has committed to helping fund the building of a dedicated centre for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, in Rwanda. The centre will provide a central place for education, data collection and conservation activating, as well as engaging with locals, tourists and scientists. It will also provide a training hub for a new generation of African scientists and conservationists.

Not just gorillas

'Jane' is the 2017 documentary film about Jane Goodall, the legendary conservationist, who challenged existing chimpanzee research. Goodall moved to Tanzania in 1969, in her mid-twenties. She was one of three women encouraged by paleoanthropologist, Louis Leakey, to study apes in their natural habitats. When Goodall started all she had was a secretarial qualification and a love of animals. As she entered the male dominated field she was greeted with deep scepticism.

Towards the end of her six-month trial she wrote of ground-breaking observations of a chimp adapting a twig to collect termites. Goodall had discovered animals using tools, overturning the assumption that only humans made and used tools. Goodall duly became one of the world's most celebrated conservationists.

The film pulls together the story of Goodall's research from over 100 hours of footage from the National Geographic archives. Unseen footage, archived for over 50 years, used in the film continues the grand tradition of the wildlife documentary and passionate public figures.

From Disney to David Attenborough, natural history filmmakers return to the great apes, such as gorillas and chimpanzees to craft emotive stories. These animals are our closest living relatives and a link to our past. By understanding them, we can understand more about ourselves. The gorilla was once thought of as a symbol of the violence and darkness of nature, but with the help of conservationists such as Dian Fossey, we learned that this is far from the truth. Gorillas spend most of their time nibbling on plant roots, while under threat from humanity's destructiveness. Wildlife documentaries play an important role in highlighting the plight of endangered creatures. They also fuel public empathy and passion for our natural world, inspiring more people to get behind and fund conservation activities. We only have to look at the impact Attenborough's segment on plastics, as part of Blue Planet II, has had. The public were shocked, leading to discussions and initiatives designed to tackle the plastic crisis.