David Attenborough: ‘3D is a far greater perception of reality than colour alone’

Peter Cooper

david Attenborough 300x225 David Attenborough: 3D is a far greater perception of reality than colour aloneHis voice is synonymous with footage of nature at its most spectacular, his knowledge on it is seemingly unfathomable, and his warm charisma on screen has cemented his place as a national treasure.

Since he began broadcasting natural history for the BBC with ‘The Pattern of Animals’ and ‘Zoo Quest’ in the 1950s, he has gone on to amaze and inspire millions more in the following years.

Now Sir David Attenborough continues to expand his incredible repertoire with his latest project, ‘The Penguin King 3D’, a dramatic tale of the incredible life lead by a male King Penguin on the island of South Georgia. I spoke with him ahead of the DVD release to discuss the new dimensions the documentary adds to the world of wildlife film-making.

So what does 3D bring to the wildlife documentary?

The added reality, the added impact, the added vision. I mean, if you saw something that was rather fuzzy and out of focus and said ‘what does it need to bring it into sharper focus?’, you wouldn’t have any doubt as to what that was. Whereas if you see it in 3D, you see it in even more detail than that. Similarly, if you’ve seen something in black-and-white you see more when it’s in colour, so in the same way 3D is a far greater perception of the reality from colour alone.

You and the rest of the creative team for this film were previously involved in making Flying Monsters 3D, which was a CGI production focused on Pterosaurs. Why were penguins chosen for the move towards a live-action 3D documentary?

Because if you work in 3D, you know that due to the size of the camera, it takes four people to carry it, and it takes another eight people to deal with all the related problems. They’re very temperamental machines. It takes three quarters of an hour to change a lens alone. So with all those complications, you can’t use long focus lens, you can’t creep up on things, you need animals that are not going to be put off by your presence. It means that you can’t just go up and make a natural history film in the way that you would with normal cameras. So you have to pick a subject that you can get close to and won’t be alarmed. The number of animals with which you can do that is quite small and penguins are one of them.

And I suppose penguins have that charisma which makes them good ‘movie star’ animals?

Yes and not only that, because on South Georgia there aren’t just penguins, you also have huge elephant seals. They’re about 10 feet long and weigh three or four tonnes. And they just lie there, they’re not frightened of you. The danger is that they’ll actually run over the camera and destroy the damn thing! They are just very big, heavy animals. And then there is the albatross. They court by stretching out their wings, which can grow to about 10 feet, and these all make great visual images. From all points of view, South Georgia offered a lot of 3D opportunities.

The Penguin King, whilst fundamentally presented as a cinematic drama for all ages, is not afraid to show the harsh realities of nature, with scenes such as the predation of penguin chicks by giant petrels. When it comes to education or spectacle in a wildlife documentary, what do you feel should be the priority?

I don’t think we look at it in terms of education or knowledge, you look at whether it is a good story or not. I think you have a responsibility about the truth and that it must be told truthfully. But the story of a single penguin’s life, from chick to adult or young adult to parenthood, is a great story. It’s easy enough to tell it but one of the things about penguins, and coming back to your point of why we chose them, is that they all look identical. Now quite a lot of animals don’t look identical, lions for example. With them you can tell if you have a character, if you film a different individual and try and pretend it’s the same lion, people would see immediately. But you can’t tell the difference between one adult penguin or another. Even if you wanted to, even if you said ‘I’ll be absolutely strict, and I’ll be absolutely certain that the penguin we film today will be the same as we film tomorrow’, unless you marked or painted it in some way you just wouldn’t be able to tell. You finish filming, have a sleep, get up in the morning and there’s another ten thousand penguins out there. Which was the one you filmed yesterday?

In the end you can only really tell the difference between an adult and a chick. So you take images of penguins as they turn up and put them together to construct a story. We underlie this in a rather obvious way, as we say at the end of this film that several penguins appeared in this story. But it’s a true story in the sense that every young male penguin goes through what we’ve just seen.

So what animal or ecosystem would you like to present in a 3D film next?

The ones we are filming next are insects and spiders and centipedes, the small invertebrates. Partly because 3D is at its most effective when in close-ups. There will also be time lapse footage of a plant opening, which is from another 3D series we did at Kew Gardens (Kingdom of Plants 3D), the images of flowers opening and buds bursting and so on, coupled with butterflies and bees coming in and grasshoppers running about, it’s riveting stuff. So that will be the subject of our next 3D film.

Following your 3D projects, where do you think natural history film making will take you? Possibly, something in an even more detailed medium than 3D?

Well, who knows? Having done Penguin King and with the invertebrate film I’ve just mentioned next, I’ll be going to China to do some filming about fossils in January but that’s not in 3D.

The Natural World, as you well know, is shrinking dramatically. Yet at the same time it’s losing awareness amongst our growing population, at a time when it needs it the most. Do you think wildlife documentaries, particularly if presented as a motion picture like The Penguin King, can bridge that gap in our society?

Yes, I certainly think so on television. It reaches far more people than the cinema does. And so I think that, as you say, one of the most important functions of television is that it should keep people in touch with what’s going on in the wild world. The United Nations declared a few months ago that over 50 per cent of the world’s population are now urbanised, so ultimately, over 50 per cent of people today are out of touch with the natural world to some degree.

And yet, we are asking the population of the world to do quite complicated things, and sometimes expensive things or things that they don’t particularly find comfortable to do, on the grounds that we have to protect the natural world.

Well if they don’t know what the natural world is, they don’t have affection or curiosity for it, because they don’t think it’s valuable. If they don’t know the mechanisms which control the natural world and which affect us because we’re so dependent on it, then they won’t take these actions, and they won’t ask their politicians to do anything about it. So the function of natural history programming is actually quite an important one in my view.

The Penguin King 3D is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Monday 19th November

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  • VicTheBrit

    Unfortunately digital 3D has had justifiable bad press in the last few years mainly by trying to display poor 3D on TV. I’ll be interested to see how the BBC intends to improve on this.

  • wyq

    Sir David has put us in our undying debt. Without the video commentaries he has done, the world would have been a much poorer place tn terms of our knowledge and awareness of Nature. Let’s hope before retiring he will have trained people like himself to carry on the legacy.

  • LJB57

    Ahh 3-D brainwashing…isn’t that nice.

  • MontyBest

    3D came of age with Avatar, & as technology improves, combined with falling prices it will eventually be as common as colour TV’s are today.

    The added value of 3D is easy to see in Mr. Attenborough’s Natural History presentations; ‘Kingdom of Plants’ as well as ‘Flying Monsters’ which brings professionalism to 3D entertainment.

    Attenborough’s work in the 3D, Natural History arena, had the same impact on me as when I first witnessed ‘Planet Earth’ in 1080p HD. a sort of epiphany…

    Keep up the GREAT work!

  • Rick B

    Trouble with celebrities is they say something and all the muppets go “oh yeah, he/she must be right, they’re a celebrity”. Reality is somewhat different. This particular celebrity decided to tell the muppets that the world human population is to blame for man-made climate change. Only, he’s not entirely right. It’s not the population, it’s the West (particularly USA) who use far too much of the World’s resources than the planet can sustain. If the Western populations lived within the means of the eco-system, there would not be nearly as much of a problem. Also, this particular celebrity does enjoy his aeroplane jaunts… but come to think of it, so do the muppets!

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