Sir David Attenborough – “if it’s boring in 2D it’s going to be boring in 3D”

March, 2014
Reading Time
8 mins
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Image © Atlantic Productions

We talk to David Attenborough, the British icon behind some of the best 3D films ever made

Sir David Attenborough has been involved with documenting the natural world in a career that has spanned over 60 years. In that time David has seen technology progress through almost every echelon from primitive black and white to early colour to high definition. Such technological advances have allowed David and his colleagues to continually push the envelope of documentary filmmaking by utilising the developments as devices for explanation and storytelling.

In recent years stereoscopic 3D has revealed itself to be a powerful asset in the filmmakers’ arsenal when used correctly and David Attenborough is a strong advocate of the technology and now considers it to be critical in making films such as Flying Monsters, The Bachelor King, Galapagos and his upcoming film Micro Monsters.

Having watched The Kingdom of Plants, I personally thought it was the finest example of stereoscopic 3D that has been produced by anyone thus far so when David Recently spoke at the World’s Creative 3D Summit and I was thrilled to be able to get him on Creative Chair.

Sir David Attenborough

David, is there any film from your back catalogue that you feel could have really benefited from modern stereoscopic 3D developments?

Oh yes! I did a series called Life in the Undergrowth, which was nearly all close-ups, scorpions, spiders, that sort of thing and if we shot it in 3D it would have been a winner and we’re doing our best now because we’re covering a lot of that area with our next project, Micro Monsters

“if you’re going to do something in 3D you want something that moves in 3D.”

Micro Monsters

David had to think of an appropriate subject on which to cut his 3D teeth “I came up with the idea of fossils because they don’t go anywhere and the other thing I knew is that computer-generated imagery is comparatively easy compared to native 3D, and if you’re going to do something in 3D you want something that moves in 3D.”

Flying Monsters - Batchelor King

Flying Monsters envisioned prehistoric fossils in a way that had never been done before “There’s a much-neglected subject, and that is Pterodactyls or Pterosaurs to give them their technical name.”

Although Flying Monsters was only made a few short years ago, the technology has come along a long way, and that curve of technology has allowed filmmakers like David Attenborough to push the limits of documentary filmmaking. “By the time we made Flying monsters I discovered, to my surprise that Wildlife was a fantastic subject for 3D, but the fact of the matter is that you can’t use long telephoto lenses in 3D.”

The issue that makes shooting 3D content on telephoto lenses virtually impossible is that when the focal point is a great distance away, the difference between the two images will be anecdotal. If you attempt to counteract this by increasing the distance between the two cameras, the point of conversion will cause each image to have a different background, which means filmmakers such as David Attenborough have to box clever when undertaking a 3D project.

“We had to think of something that involved real animals that you could get close to and I eventually thought of penguins and the two great things about penguins is firstly, they don’t give a damn and the second thing is that one penguin is very much like another penguin so if someone says they diddled us, it wasn’t the same penguin all the way through, they’re right!”

The 16th 366 Award goes to David Attenborough for his outstanding creative work.

The Batchelor King was the perfect progression in David Attenborough’s ongoing 3D adventure. After months of living amongst the penguins, David and the team created a film that followed the life of a male King Penguin (or as it now turns out several male king penguins!) on South Georgia.

“I very casually wrote in the script that we’ll get wonderful underwater sequences not paying any attention to that fact that nobody, nobody had filmed 3D underwater.”

Anthony Geffen and the folks from Atlantic had to build an underwater 3D rig to handle the underwater scenes.

Given the progression from fossils and computer-generated imagery to live penguins, David Attenborough’s next project The Kingdom of Plants might, might to some, seem like a step backwards.
“Well, what we had learnt is that close-ups are the real exciting things, we only see 3D when its close up so we decided we wanted to do something really close u. It wasn’t practical to film plants worldwide, but fortunately, there plants from all over the world in The Royal Kew Gardens. What we don’t realise is that plants are not passive they move, and they communicate.”
Nine different systems were used in the process of the year to capture the secret lives of plants, and I would recommend it to absolutely anyone.

The next project was extremely ambitious and required all of the knowledge gained from the previous three films to document the naturally diverse Galapagos Islands.
“The thing about Galapagos is that we were able to use everything we’d learnt from the previous films, and the thing about Galapagos is that the animals are absolutely tame, the cameras were within 3 or 4 yards of them!”

Though only two years had passed since Flying Monsters, David noted the remarkable decrease in size, not only of the 3D cameras but the other equipment the crew operating it “we needed a crew of 12 in flying monster and 4 or 5 in Galapagos”.

Given the success of David 3D project, some people have questioned the viability of converting some of the BBC’s back catalogue “I don’t think it would work, quality-wise, the essence of 3D is that it is magnificent, one mind-blowing quality and if you lower the quality you are defeating the enterprise”.
The state of the 3D industry has been subject to much discussion so it was interesting to hear David’s thoughts on the industry, outside of his own film “I thought the life of Pi was right up there, and the interplay between the Tiger and the boy was absolutely convincing”. Anthony Geffen added that “I think what we’ve got it a very patchy situation right now because we have a lot of great ones and a lot of not so great ones, and I think that what we all know is that it’s the story that matters.”

David Attenborough has created some of the world’s best intellectually rich documentary films, and the onus has always been on the content.

“I think if you make a film that’s boring in 2D it’s going to be boring in 3D. I think, if you compare it to the introduction of colour, the best colour programs are in fact the ones where you got more information, you got that the colour of someone’s cheeks, delicate stuff, gentle things and you weren’t continually being punched in the face by something saying I’m colourful.”

David Attenborough - Polar Bear

Though David Attenborough is on the forefront of 3D stereoscopic filmmaking, he has some very clear ideas about the future of the industry
“The trick in my view, that will make 3D viable on a mass scale is when you don’t have to put glasses on, at the moment, there’s no doubt about it, you have to put 3D glasses on, and you feel divorced from the people around you.”

It was interesting to learn David Thoughts on whether or not 3D sensationalises the subject matter

“no, I mean it no more sensationalises it in 2D, we have done sensationalised programs in 2D. Turning something into a sensation is not so much the technique but in fact, the skill in which you tell the story, 3d will give you an added impetus, but I don’t think it will actually change anything”.

David Attenborough Atlantic productions Ltd

David has two new, as yet unannounced projects in the pipeline which promise to, again, push the boundaries of 3D stereoscopic filmmaking.

David Attenborough"
David Attenborough (2014)
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Sir David Attenborough
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