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The evolution of 3D, according to Sir David Attenborough

29 August 2011
The evolution of 3D, according to Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough (pictured) has revealed ambivalence toward 3D filmmaking at the same time as he is helping to pioneer its role in natural history programming. The veteran broadcaster says the technology is limiting at the same as its effects can be liberating. 

“Watching time lapse photography of flower buds opening is marvellous in 2D but in 3D it really is transcendental,” enthused Sir David Attenborough. “You experience the sensation of being able to touch the plant.”
 He was referring to Kew 3D, a production about the landscape and wildlife of Kew Gardens currently in production and the third of three films he has made for Atlantic Productions.
 “3D works under certain circumstances and depends on how you produce it,” stated Attenborough. “Right now the technology is limiting although the results can be liberating. It takes 4-5 people to lift the cameras and 30 minutes to change a lens, which is no way to react to fast moving animal behaviour. The systems are very temperamental which means you could be sitting around for an hour and half while the cameras are aligned. 
 “Frankly it’s a nightmare to anyone accustomed to crawling through the bushes with a small camera capable of capturing sound and vision and trying to get close to nervous animals. You can’t do it with 3D – at the moment.”
 He also admits frustration with a perceived inability of the format to work with long focal lengths: “You cannot use long lenses to produce true 3D because doing so means you risk creating a flat, cardboard-like effect,” he says. “So if you ask a cameraman to go to South America and film the landscapes in 3D but you are not allowed to use lenses longer than 75mm then they are simply not going to be able to bring back content as good as if it were shot in 2D. Audiences expectations will be let down and that is to be avoided at all costs.
 “That’s why you have to choose you subjects carefully in 3D to exploit the value of 3D. I chose to work with fossils (for Flying Monsters 3D) and deliberately that of a creature which moved in three dimensions so that its 40ft wing span can fly over the audience if you wish it to.”
 It should be noted that the projects Attenborough is making with Atlantic are destined or cinema as well as TV and so use high-resolution and necessarily cumbersome Red cameras and rigs.
 Atlantic Productions’ follow-up is The Batchelor King, a narrative documentary currently in post production about a penguin colony on the island of South Georgia, again at Attenborough’s inception.
 “The thing about 150,000 penguins on a beach is that they look identical so that when they move or you lose track of them during filming you can construct the story from another one quite simply,” Attenborough says. “The other beach inhabitants included seals, and they don’t move too fast either.”
 He believes that the future for 3D depends on technical development. “At the moment the big problem with 3DTV is that you have to wear glasses which occlude light. That means you can’t see the person next to you or read a newspaper or do anything you would normally do in the living room other than watch the TV and that means that the programming has to be event programming. Until we get a version of 3DTV that is more user friendly I believe it will remain a bit of a niche.” 
 Although he has just completed another landmark production, Frozen Planet, following the cycle of the polar seasons, which took three years to film and saw him film at the north pole for the first time, Attenborough continues to search for new worlds to explore.
 “We still know remarkably little about the deep ocean because our technology is limited by depth – but that would make for an incredible subject,” he says. “As for the next thing after 3D, that could be holograms. Imagine that – creatures popping out of your TV and appearing in your living room.”
 Attenborough will receive IBC’s International Honour for Excellence at an awards ceremony next month in honour of his pioneering work using technology including colour, HD and 3D to further natural history filmmaking. 

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