Animal Documentaries

One thing that Grizzly Man (2005), March of the Penguins (2005), and The Cove (2009) have in common is that they all have to do with wild animals. Grizzly Man is about the Alaskan grizzly bear, March of the Penguins is about the Antarctic emperor penguin, and The Cove is about the bottlenose dolphin. Although all three documentaries are about animals their intentions are all different. The following will look at the films objectives; the director and crews screen presence; the film’s approach; and the films unique filming techniques.

Film Objective

The Cove (2009) advocates for the bottlenose dolphins that are needlessly slaughtered in a cove in Taiji, Japan. This film follows a group of “activists, filmmakers and free divers” as they try to get footage of the rumored cove where dolphins are slaughtered (The Cove website). The audience initially watches as Psihoyos (the film’s director) and O’Barry (former dolphin, now activist), try to gain access to this cove. The area surrounding the cove is covered with signs that say no photography; some even have barbed wire with signs that tell people to keep out. This does not stop them. What does stop them are the men that come up to them, tell them to go away and beat them. There are even times that the cops ask Psihoyos what he is doing and tell him that he cannot record the dolphins in Taiji. All of the signs, the men that shoo people away, and the cops telling the director (Psihoyos) he cannot record in certain areas; leads the audience and the director to believe that something is happening in that cove that most people are not allowed to know.

The team (activists, filmmakers, and divers) is assembled and the audience watches them as they sneak around to get the hidden cameras in place. Then the audience and the team watch in horror as dolphins are corralled into a netted area of the cove and harpooned. The cove’s water turns red with the blood of the dolphins and the audience watches as the bodies are pulled into boats. Throughout the film the audience is told how 23 thousand dolphins are killed in a year and that they are not protected like whales are. The audience also shares as moment with one of the divers, who snuck to the shore of the cove, and sees a dolphin sink in the water as it dies. The camera crew even takes to the streets of Japanese cities to inquire about the knowledge of the dolphins slaughter, people are unaware and shocked that it could be happening, some even deny it.

These eye-opening and horrifying shots of dolphin slaughter are seen after the audience hears about how dolphins often save surfers and lost at sea from sharks. This film also notes how captivity is damaging to dolphins and that many die while in captivity. This film uses images and words to show and tell how the dolphins in Taiji are suffering. The Cove (2009) is an angry heartbreaking documentary about the human destruction of peace (Ebert 2009).

March of the Penguins (2005) fallows the “life cycle and mating habits of the Antarctic emperor penguin” (Grant, 2009, p. 136). At the beginning of the documentary the audience sees the penguins as they emerge from the ocean and start their trip across the ice. As the penguins’ are surfacing from the ocean the audience is told that the penguins have been feeding for three months and will now travel inland to the breeding ground that is 70 miles away. The audience watches the penguins’ walk and slide inland. With the penguins trip finished the audience watches as they search for mate, the narration of what is happening continues. Once a mate has been found the penguins breed and eggs begin to appear. The audience watches as the penguins carefully transfer the egg from the mother to the father, not always successfully. With the egg now in the father’s care the mothers go back to the ocean to feed. Here the documentary splits, following the mothers as they go back the 70 miles to feed, and other times following the fathers as the huddle together to keep the eggs warm.

The audience sees the eggs start to hatch, babies are now being born. The documentary continues with the fathers feeding the babies their first meal and keeping them warm. As the babies start to grow the mothers return, and it is the fathers turn to head to the ocean for food. Once the fathers leave the story stays with the mothers and the babies, this story is of course about the life cycle of the penguin: now the babies are the focus.

The rest of the documentary follows the babies as they grow. The audience watches the babies try to crawl under their mothers to stay warm, but they are getting too big; eventually the baby penguins are seen huddled together. The audience also sees the babies move about the ice with each other, sometimes trying to avoid predators. After a while the audience sees the mothers start to leave, and we are told that the babies will be on their own. In the last bit of the documentary the audience watches as the babies start to lose their downy feathers and move towards the ocean, which is now much closer. In the last few shots the new generation of penguins’ are seen entering the water and the audience is told that they will return to this breeding ground after four years in the ocean. This documentary follows the penguins over the course of several months, starting with the parents leaving the ocean and ending with the new generation entering the ocean for the first time. March of the Penguins (2005) is a nature documentary that was made to create an awareness and appreciation of nature and the environment.

Grizzly Man (2005) “chronicles the life and death of Timothy Treadwell” (Grant, 2009, p. 75). The film opens with the Alaskan frontier, first it is just the land, but then a bear enters the picture and then another. Shortly after the bears show up there is a voice off camera that starts to talk about them. Soon the voice enters the picture and crouches into the shot, so that the audience sees both the bears and the man talking about this, the man is Treadwell.  Treadwell then goes on to discuss how he cannot show fear of weakness or he will be killed by the bears. It is ironic that the film opens with Treadwell stating he would ‘‘not die at their claws and paws” because in the end it is a bear that kills Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard (Schutten, 2008, p. 202).

Following Treadwell’s opening scene is followed by Herzog’s first commentary, which tells the audience about the number of summers (thirteen) Treadwell spent in Alaska studying bears and how by filming the bears Treadwell was crossing a line. Though Treadwell crossed the line Herzog did admit that the footage he left behind was full of “beauty and turmoil” Grizzly Man (2005).

Shortly after the opening remarks the film shows pictures of Treadwell in school talking about what a celebrity he bad become. In the first part of the film there is an interview with a friend, who said that he knew the worst had happened before the words we announced on the TV. Then the audience follows the pilot, Fulton, to Alaska where he talks about and reenact’s his finding of Treadwell and Huguenard. Most of the people interviewed about Treadwell’s death say that he got what was coming to him, saying that bears are not as harmless as Treadwell thought.

Not only does the audience watch as Treadwell films the bears, fighting, eating, walking, and laying, but we see his interaction with them and with a fox that he befriends. Throughout the film the audience hears the names that Treadwell gave the bears as he interacts with them, generally from a distance. During the audience also learns about Treadwell, sometimes he talks to the camera about his relationship problems, what he should wear for certain shots, or about how he hates that animals get “fucked over” because to him they are miracles. The audience also learns about Treadwell through interviews with his friends and friends that take place throughout the film. Jewel talks about how she and Treadwell met, by both getting in trouble at work and how he had problems with drugs, but was working through it by going to see felons get convicted. The audience also hears about his love of animals from his mother, and how not getting a part in Cheers probably lead to his substance abuse issues, that in the end pushed him into the wilderness.

Towards the end of the film Treadwell calls himself the crazy man that bears know and that no one else could do what he has done. During the final part of the film Herzog records, Jewel, Fulton and another friend spreading the ashes across one of Treadwell’s last campsites. After the spreading of the ashes Herzog mentions the tape that records the screaming of Huguenard and Treadwell’s plea for her to run one last time. The film ends with Fulton flying over Alaska and a recording of Treadwell walking down the river with the bears. Grizzly Man (2005) is not just a nature about grizzly bears; it is a tool of discovery about the audiences and directors relationship to nature (Grant, 2009,  p. 77).

Screen absence or presence

In the film The Cove (2009) the director (Psihoyos), O’Barry, and the team are seen as much as the dolphins. The Japanese are also prominent in this film. People from other nations are mostly seen in meetings, but are sometimes given short interviews.  The slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan is done by humans and is a horrifying issue that O’Barry and Psihoyos want to bring to the publics’ attention. The film could have advocated for dolphins with just the images and narration of dolphin slaughter. But by adding the personal stories about how O’Barry dolphin trainer turned dolphin activist added to the plight of the dolphins. As does the story of what the team has to go through in order to bring us the horrific images of these helpful and intelligent creatures.

Throughout the entire documentary March of the Penguins (2005) the only beings on-screen are the penguins, and very occasionally a predator, such as the seal or the hawk. During the final credits the audiences gets to see how the crew of set up some of the shots. The crew is seen crouching among the penguins and moving gear in the snow.  However, these pictures of the crew are only shown at the end of the American release of the documentary. In the French (original) documentary the director and film crew are completely absent from the screen. The lack of director, crew and human presence is due largely to the fact that this documentary was made to observe the life cycle and mating patterns of the Antarctic emperor penguin (Grant, 2009, p. 136).

In Grizzly Man (2005) the person that is seen the most is Timothy Treadwell. Occasionally friends, family member, and colleagues are seen –as they are being interviewed about Treadwell. The director (Herzog) is heard, but rarely seen. When Herzog is seen, at Jewel’s house during an interview it is from the back and he is not the focus of the shot. Herzog’s and the crew’s absence makes sense as the film is about the life and death of Treadwell and fascination with the Alaskan grizzly bears (Grant, 2009, p. 75).


The Cove (2009) is a participatory documentary. In a participatory documentary the filmmaker is on-screen and presents an argument (Lindenmouth, 2010, p. 12). Richard O’Barry, the director, Louie Psihoyos and their team penetrate the tight security around the Taiji cove and obtain “forbidden footage of the mass slaughter of dolphins” (Ebert 2009). Psihoyos not only mentions that dolphins are being killed in Japan, he goes there and gets records proof of the killings. He also records what he and his team goes through to get that proof, which makes them an integral part of the film. In a participatory film a person is part of the draw (Lindenmouth, 2010, p. 12). In this film the draw is O’Barry, a man who once trained dolphins, but now sets them free from captivity. O’Barry tells the audience why he went from training dolphins to freeing them; stating Cathy’s (one of the dolphins he trained) “suicide” as the catalyst.  The audience then watches as O’Barry, Psihoyos and the team try to get officials to see the damage in dolphin captivity and finally in dolphin slaughter. There can be no doubt that the opinion of those involved in The Cove (2009) advocates for dolphins’ freedom to live in the wild, without being captured or hunted. Though their opinion may be correct, their perspective is c is still biased, and a biased perspective is common in participatory documentaries (Lindenmuth, 2010, p. 12).

March of the Penguins (2005) is an observational documentary. Throughout the documentary the cameras act as if they were a “fly on the wall”. The audience observes the penguins as they leave the ocean and “march” towards the breeding ground. The audience also witnesses baby penguins rush about the ice to escape predators, to see one fail and die at the beak of a hawk. This “fly on the wall” technique is indicative of observational documentaries (Lindenmuth, 2010, p. 11). As there is camera and audience are meant to be flies there is little interaction between the subject and the observer (Lindenmuth, 2010, p. 11). At no point in time during this documentary is there any interaction between a penguin and a human on-screen. The audience simply sees how emperor penguins live and mate in the Antarctic. Then the audience sees how babies are cared for by both the mother and father for a few months before they are left on their own to make it back to the ocean, where they grow for years before they start the cycle. Penguins do not talk so to insure that the viewer knows what is going in March of the Penguins (2005) Morgan Freeman provides an “earnest narration” (Grant, 2010, p. 137).

Grizzly Man (2005) is a dramatic documentary. Dramatic documentaries provide truth about a subject that no longer exists (Lindenmuth, 2010, p. 13). The subject in this film is Timothy Treadwell, his life and death. In the film the audiences sees Treadwell and hears how he wants to protect grizzly bears in Alaska. The truth is however that bears are wild and dangerous, which is why Treadwell and his girlfriend die. A fact that Herzog and other critics of Treadwell are eager to point out. In order to learn about a person who has died a dramatic documentary uses home-video footage to see how the person behaved and conducts interviews with surviving friends and relative (Lindenmuth, 2010, p. 13). This film takes 100 hours of footage that was shot by Treadwell and combines it with interviews with Treadwell’s mother and ex-girlfriend Jewel, in order to give the viewer an idea of who Treadwell was. In dramatic documentaries narration is used to flush out the story (Lindenmuth, 2010, p. 13). Throughout Grizzly Man (2005) Herzog tells us about what Treadwell did and what happened to him. Narration also tells the audience that Amie Huguenard’s family will not comment on her death: and that even though she was afraid of bears she tried to protect Treadwell from the attack. Herzog’s narrations also lead into interviews that further answer questions about Treadwell and his death.


The Cove (2009) uses hidden cameras and microphones to catch what is happening to the dolphins in the cove. In the film the audience sees the crew sneak into the cove at night to place these cameras and microphones underwater and in the rocks surrounding the area. The film also uses portable cameras to record what the director and his team go through. There are times that the crew is being recorded as they talk in the car, which means the camera must be small enough to fit in the car.  During this film night vision cameras are used to record the team at night as they slip past the guards to place the hidden cameras in and around the cove.

March of the Penguins (2005) uses a mix of close-ups and long shots to make the film more dramatic (Grant, 2009, p. 136). At the opening of the film is an extreme long shot of the Antarctic, showing glaciers and oceans, it then cuts to a shot of a penguin shooting out of the water onto the ice. As the penguins march there are shots of penguins as if they were more than a football field away, and other times where they could be right next to the audience. While a couple of emperor penguins are mating there is a shot of their white, yellow and black feathers that slowly zooms out to show the couple, and then the couple in the larger group of penguins. Sometimes the camera seems to be coming from a bird’s eye view and the crew used a balloon, and other time the shots are from underwater (Grant, 2009, p. 136). A bird’s eye views would be as the penguins huddle together to stay warm during the storm, the audience looks down on them. Where an underwater shot would be when the mothers go back to the ocean the audience watches them dive and swim in the ocean as they look for fish.

Grizzly Man (2005) is a compilation film meaning that it is a film that is created from found footage (Mast and Kawin, 2006, p. 152). In Grizzly Man Herzog combines footage that Treadwell shot during his summers in Alaska, with interviews that the he shot of people who knew Treadwell, and his narration on how he viewed Treadwell and his footage (Grant, 2009, p. 75).  The film opens with some of Treadwell’s footage of bears in a field, and in fact most of the film is from the footage that Treadwell shot. There are many interviews that split up Treadwell’s footage, though most are short answering one or two questions. Herzog also uses photos of Treadwell and a few of Amie as he tells the audience about them. There are a lot of beautiful images that Treadwell took that seem according to the director to ‘develop their own life’ (Grant, 2009, p. 77).  Like the fox playing on his tent, or the hill and trail filled with long grass and other vegetation.

Final Thoughts

            Although The Cove (2009), March of the Penguins (2005), and Grizzly Man (2005) differ greatly in objective, filmmaker presence, approach, and technique they still have a common bond, animals. These documentaries inform the audience about how dolphins, penguins and bears live drawing the audience into their world and showing them things that they do not normally get to see. As with most nature documentaries these films interpret messages for the animal (Lee-Wright, 2009, p. 362). The Cove (2009) tells the audience that dolphins are happiest free, March of the Penguins (2005) tells the audience this is how penguins live, and Grizzly Man (2005) tells the audience that bears like to be left alone.


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