The godfather of natural history may have overseen 60 years of filmic advances, from colour to 3D, but he continues to look forward. Recognised at this year's T3 Gadget Awards, Sir David gives us his view on the future of television
Having started 60 years ago with 405-line black-and-white cameras mounted on bicycle wheels, In fact, every natural history series I’ve This was the first big technological shift, it is thrilling that I should now be making the ultimate visual refinement of the electronic image, with 3D. The cameras I learnt on are now in the Science Museum, as I was lucky enough to be in television right at the birth of broadcasting, when it was full of optical viewfinders and cameramen who viewed everything upside down. worked on has been triggered by some kind of technological change. I began producing 16mm films, which the television industry disregarded as being for amateurs. I couldn’t carry a hulking 35mm camera around Africa with me, though, creeping up on animals, so I had to protest. Happily, I won the day, and the BBC commissioned its first 16mm film. moving to smaller, handheld, mobile cameras. The second was colour, when suddenly birds looked wonderful and like nothing you’d seen before. The US had colour fi rst, then Japan, and it was a race to be the fi rst to adopt it
In Europe. I felt, perhaps childishly, that the BBC had been the first public television service available in the world, so we ought to be the first in Europe with colour. There was so much more to come. To capture the African mammals that spent much of their day idling around in the heat of the sun, we discovered highly sensitive electronic cameras that could record by moonlight. Then, for slow motion, which had typically required fixed cameras over a period of weeks, we discovered servomechanisms that harnessed computers to program periodic movements and capture plant growth. Then cold light sources allowed us to get decent exposures of spiders and insects without pouring light on the poor things. If you expect an ant to do something interesting with its sexual friend while being fried, you are usually disappointed. But there is always something new. Having made the step to HD with Life, I have been working on several 3D features, including Flying Monsters 3D. The 3D format’s had several births, with people stumbling around and learning how to use it, each one representing a further advance, but the end product now is as good as it’s likely to be.
What is going to change, as the technology continues to be refined, is the speed with which we can reach that end product and the technology on which we will view it. Why should it stop there, though? Smell-ovision is a definite possibility – I’ve certainly done some stinkers in my time – and the idea of hologram TV, where an animal can hop out of a television set and you can see all the way round it, is a mind-blowing concept. How do you wrestle with that? How would you make a plot and, above all, tell a story? I have no doubt that somebody will crack it. I have a suspicion that it won’t be me. I try not to think 50 years ahead. When I would come in from spending a few months in Africa, the production team would always say, “You will never guess what we can do now?” So why should I ask, “What can we do in 30 years?” Who cares. I’ve got tomorrow.
Sir David is the winner of this year’s T3 Gadget Award for Outstanding Contribution to Technology
Find out who walked away with the top gongs by watching our round-up video of the big winners at the T3 Gadget Awards 2011