T3 chats with the go-to man for beautiful nature telly about his illustrious career and how to make the most of 3D technology
(Hushed tones) One of the most...awe-inspiring sights that the... natural world has to offer is that of Sir David Attenborough crawling through the undergrowth in a beige suit, in order to introduce some mind-boggling nature footage. Sir David has been making programmes for over five decades and introduced colour TV to the UK - popularising snooker as a side-effect - as controller of BBC 2 in the sixties.
Never one to rest on his laurels he brought us 3D aerial lizards at Christmas with Flying Monsters, when not trying to discourage travellers from throwing pebbles at lions...
Flying Monsters is the first 3D project I’ve done. I knew computer graphics would be crucial. Look at Avatar: it’s the most powerful way of using 3D. You can do it very quickly and painlessly compared to shooting in the wild. I also knew 3D cameras are huge, so it was no good trying to do a shot pursuing a charging gorilla with them.
I had just made a film about fossils called First Life, and I love fossils. I thought, ‘Gosh! 3D would be a great way to bring fossils to life.’ So I suggested pterosaurs. Why pterosaurs? Well everybody knows about dinosaurs, but for some reason no-one’s paid much attention to the reptiles flying above them. And of course they could suddenly rear up and take off the cliff and whoosh over the viewer’s head. So it was an obvious subject.
Logistically it was a nightmare. Usually there’s me and a camera man and maybe a sound man and you can go anywhere. You can whip out a camera and shoot out the Land Rover window. Well it takes four men to move a 3D camera, and 12 people to service it, so it’s totally different to making normal wildlife films. But of course the reward is very thrilling.
A good natural history film is a distillation of what happens in the natural world. You see things it has taken months or even years to film. The worry is that people go to these places and expect eagles to be pouncing on unsuspecting rabbits and carrying them off in their talons, lions to be mating, and when they don’t, they go, ‘It’s just sitting there asleep, someone throw a pebble at it and make them eat one another or something.’ So I don’t think natural history television will be spoilt with people travelling more, in fact it might be the other way around.
We’ve got to sort out how to deal with 3D. We’re only at the beginning. It’s all very well for me to sit here waxing enthusiastic about how exciting it all is; I’ve got a vested interest, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. Are people going to put it on in their rooms, put on their glasses and watch it? We’ll see.
In my television career I’ve seen black and white move from being the latest wonder we all look at with our jaws slacking to becoming part of the wallpaper. The same with colour. I don’t think 3D will quite do that, partly because the glasses isolate you from your companions. You can’t knit and watch 3D, you can’t chit-chat, you’re either watching or you’re not, and that makes certain demands on the viewer.
I think 3D shows will be “events” and if that is the case, they’ve got to have some substance. Narrative has always been the essential thing in television, and never more so than in 3D. Of course the temptation is to have these monsters flying over your viewers’ heads, but you can only do that once or twice in a programme because viewers don’t want to see it again and again. It has to have a solid narrative and hopefully this does.
Sir David’s next 3D documentary, Penguin Island, will air on Sky 3D later this year.