Happy Birthday Sir David Attenborough! As I am sure we all know, last week marked this great mans’s 90th; a person who has more than anyone changed our relationship with the natural world, enthusing countless generations to appreciate the variety of life on our planet. His dedication, passion, relentless enthusiasm has undoubtedly inspired more people in our world to care and want to make a difference. I certainly am on this pathway because of him as well as other incredible individuals (including my mum!).
SO what makes him our natural treasure?
1# His enthusiasm
From collecting fossils as a child in Leicester, to loving creatures big and small, ugly and beautiful, his appreciation for all animals is why we love him so. He even says he is no animal lover, much to the bewilderment of many. However he is the ultimate curious intellect and shares a fascination for all of nature, and not the gushy anthropomorphic rantings of a bunny hugger…
2# His knowledge
Not only has he racked up 32 honorary degrees from Universities across the country (more than anyone else), but having studied natural sciences at Cambridge then Anthropology later…his knowledge of all living creatures and the biological, chemical, physical process that govern them is second to none. Go on, ask him a question!
3# THAT voice.
His dulcet, hushed tones, as well as powerful vocals mix into just about the most recognizable natural history narration voice of all time. David = Nature God. His warmth and clarity both hooks and fascinated you. I think I’ve spent most of my waking life listening to his voice either through the television or radio podcasts. I’m even starting a petition for a David Attenborough Tom Tom guide…
“..And here, we have the Lyre bird…”
4# Humble by nature
Despite his numerous awards, degrees, honours..he still remains a humble and grateful being…he loves economy class and never forgets to greet or thank you…
5# He’s been there for you: in B&W, Colour, HD, 4K, 3D and 360 baby
He is the only person to have produced television in B&W, Colour, HD, 4K, 3D and more recently with his VR dinosaur 360 video clip. He’s so with it even us youngsters have to keep up with him. I reckon a holographic projection David will be available soon…
Sir David Attenborough joined the BBC as a trainee in 1952, and his early career included the highly different television debate programme, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? But his audaciaous and determined nature meant that he wanted to show audiences new ways of making films and a life outside the television studio. The result was the hit series ‘Zoo Quest,‘ which combined live studio presentation with footage shot on location for the first time. He made us CARE about the natural world through education and entertainment.
7# He’s SO quotable
A master of verbal carpentry, his written scripts result in some memorable quotes, here are my personal faves;
“A hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on Earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity.”
“Our planet may be home to 30 million different kinds of animals and plants. Each individual locked in its own life-long fight for survival.”
GO on, give us another…
8# His wicked sense of humour
We’re no stranger to his witty, whimsical and wicked sense of humour. He’s been asked onto several major chat shows more than twice and his gentleman like attire and charm is irresistible. Even Cameroon Diaz can’t get enough of our David! More recently during an interview on BBC Radio One, Sir David was asked to narrate the video for Adele’s new song. He even gave it the trademark Attenborough voice-over.
“Like all pop stars, she needs to hunt to survive,” he begins. “The lesser spotted Adele is about to be everywhere again.”
9# He’s travelled more than anyone in history
Since his television career back in the 1950’s he started travelling around the world, and is now the most travelled person in the HISTORY of mankind...that’s some impressive migrating. It seems his life has been perfectly timed where he saw the world in its former pristine self… And so he’s not only just seen more wildlife, people and places than anyone else but also witness the greatest amount of change than anybody who has ever lived.
10# He’s simply the best #WishYouWereMyGrandad
All that said, we simply love him because he is our natural treasure and we all want him to be our grandad…he started the beginning of natural history filmmaking, and still is an amazing filmmaker and producer in his own right…love you Dave’s XOXOX
Here I write about my own encounter with the lesser spotted David, over 2 years ago…..
It was 6am, Spanish time. And yes, it was the summer, BUT Sir David Attenboroughtickets were on sale for his lecture on Alfred Russell Wallace in Cardiff New Theatre! I was poised with my mouse cursor ready to buy a ticket after refreshing the page… then to utter dismay all the tickets had sold out after 2 minutes of pending. I was overwrought. It happened by coincidence that I had a week long field trip to Dale Fort, in Pembrokeshire on the 18th September, and the very same day that David was giving his lecture, and so I had to book a ticket! So I put my self on wait list and hoped for the best. After a week, forgetting that I had even applied, I received an email saying I had 2 places to book tickets-result! Booked them instantly….then I thought about actually getting there.
So bunked off the uni bus journey to go and see my hero- and the reason why all zoologists study their degree… so a pretty good excuse! It took 7 hours in total to get to Cardiff Central, with various stop-offs. Wasn’t cheap getting there but I had worked as a student ambassador to get the money. Went with a friend, and we went for a coffee opposite the theatre at 6pm to await the arrival of the greatest wildlife broadcaster to have ever lived…That hot chocolate tasted so good! I was positively jubilant! I could not contain my excitement as soon as I had received the lecture brochure and meticulously read through the talk. Then we walked out of the coffee shop, and at the same time a dark Mercedes tinted windowed car pulled up alongside the entrance, where he stepped out…I almost fainted on the spot then and there… He had entered the building!
When we got our seats, which were at the very back, (so we could go out and catch the train we had booked to go to Milford Haven, then to our field trip location) and then as Sir David entered there was a sudden gasp from the audience, followed by a rapturous applause! It was a fascinating lecture all about the great Alfred Wallace, and his humble beginnings and shear enthusiasm for adventure really. Some really hilarious clips and gestures by David, absolutely brilliant, wish all lectures were like this! Before I knew it, it was question time, I was the first to put up my hand, but sadly, at the back I wasn’t noticed until the end when they ran out of question time. They even handed me a microphone, at which point my legs had turned to jelly. After that, we had to rush out to get our bags and then run for the train, only just made it! Onwards to Dale Fort for our own adventures (and a lot of hard stats and collecting data from the field!). However, I did send him a long letter including the question I so wanted to ask, which was,
“Out of Darwin, Gregor Mendel and Wallace, who do you believe has contributed the most to society.”
He answered back too! His letter takes pride of place on my windowsill, (next to my fossil Archaeopteryx). I think its wonderful that a man who is so busy would even take up his time to read his fans letter, he truly is a remarkable, special man, and I am honoured to have seen him at his lecture and be alive during his lifetime- Thank you David- and may you long keep making Natural History programmes!
A tiger sauntering through the long, tall Vetiver grass, an African leopard quietly padding down a gully, a spider delicately reeling out and laying a deadly silken trail….
Their story begins with the fight to live another day in their unforgiving habitats – these ultimate “villains” of the natural world are given a second chance by Silverback Company Director Alastair Fothergill, Series producer Huw Cordey and their team in an epic visual feast- “The Hunt.”Packed with stunning visuals of the like you’ve literally never seen before, dramatic story telling through cutting-edge editing, colours to pop your retinal cones and sound to resonate with your wild animal instincts…The Hunt truly marks the new age for incredibly high-end drama and storytelling.
We (wildlife filmmaking students), were treated to one of the first talks about this remarkable new series….
In the heart of the Chemistry building in Bristol University, barely a student made a shuffle to reveal their presence in the dark. Their only light source permeated from a screen which displayed the never-before seen markings of a new landmark series. Then enters Alastair and Huw- the ultimate documentary predators of our time, a most formidable duo set to storm the wildlife film industry market with a flurry of experience and talented flair… we didn’t stand a chance- we were preparing ourselves to be amazed….
They both spoke with such eager passion and confidence about their remarkable 6X60 blue-chip landmark series, which explores the dynamic relationships between predators and prey, each based in a particular habitat, with its own unique challenges. One thing in common that unites these animals is their struggle to survive and fail as predators-something that Alastair really wanted to capture,
“We wanted to put our audiences in the footsteps of a Cheetah. The previous shows have always depicted predators as ‘red tooth and claw, and so this is one of the most exciting relationship to film. We decided to base the animals in different habitats where each of the different ecosystems create these different challenges. Be it the open ocean– a big blue desert with ephemeral and notoriously difficult to find species, or the vast plains of the savannah where there’s nowhere to hide- where competition (interspecific- between different species) between other predators is rife.”
Although he admits that they were going to film the “BBC blue chip” animals (ie: Charismatic species), but also the more unusual such as the ancestral Telophores and Portia Sider.
It took 3-5 years to make, and I’m guessing at least £3 million per episode to make… But when your throwing in all the possible latest kit (Cineflex or ‘Eleflex’ as its known in Episode 2, jibs, cranes, Sony F55’s, helicopters, editing suites, sound crew, SF, musical composers, flights, travel…ect), you can’t expect to get incredible visuals if you cut corners. The remarkable almost mystical image of the polar bear that talented cameraman Jamie McPhearson captured was made possible with the use of the £300,000 cinflex camera and boat crew- and a total of 14 people and 8 weeks to capture that sequence! The co-proability of this series will, I’m certain, make a lot of it back so that we can enjoy even more exciting series to come (such as BBC 1’s One Planet, 2017!)
Alastair mentions he often think about what the next series will be, for example after Frozen planetthey decided to look at habitats. But rather than just to look at the polar regions and tropical jungles for a sense of place, they also they turned to a new areas of natural history- animal behaviour…The most exciting dynamic behaviour is arguably between predators and prey. They haven’t forgot about the prey- despite not appearing as the “sexiest” of animals. One such species shown is the snow goose- where it will form large flocks to protect themselves from predators and use instinctive ‘next nearest behaviour’ movements to coordinate the huge triangular flock formations we associate them with.
Off to the Polar Regions in the first episode. If you live in the poles you have to be adaptable. After frozen planet he was worried there would be no new stories to tell about its iconic wildlife. But again they managed to give us a literal brain freeze with the superlative polar bear sequence filmed by talented cameraman Jamie McPherson– it was absolutely stunning! Hats off to the remarkable colour grading by Adam Inglis, and editing by Andy Netley too. At some point I felt as if I was transported into Narnia with its gorgeous cool colour pallet. These animals are unique in that they change their hunting tactics serval times during the stalk.
“We didn’t manage to capture how this incredible behaviour stats in Frozen Planet, and so we wanted to film it this time.”
This is usually when the ice breaks up and they are no longer hunting seals on the ice. The weather however made it very difficult for the team to make it through one of the most inhospitable places on earth. At the very beginning of summer when there’s meltwater, the skidoos can be used to get through this vast terrain. Polar bears weren’t at all bothered by their presence, if anything they could pose more of a threat to the crew and so they took “polar bear” security very seriously. At the end of summer, the ice breaks into a mosaic of ethereal blue-coloured ice pancakes, which forces the bear to change its behaviour accordingly. The ‘Aquatic stalk’ is where the bear pursues the ringed seals within the water, which is no problem for it is supremely adapted to swim with its webbed feet and high body fat ratio to prevent it from dying of hypothermia. The metal boat allowed the crew to move in the ice and move with the bear, use the parallax of the moving ice in a beautifulway, which led to creating this incredible sequence.
Another polar tale was filmed at Elsmere Island, most northerly Canadian islands. It is the nearest land to North Pole, 8 degrees north, and a total population of UK and Scotland (150 people), most of which are Inuit. This lack of people that makes it perfect for Arctic wolves, they are completely fearless of people. The challenge here for the team was keeping up with these finely tuned long-distance runners which can reach speeds of up to 40mph. So a larger crew was needed on the ice… 2 cameramen, 1 wolf scientist, 1 producer and 1 helicopter pilot. Then it was Arctic hare characters that leaped into the story with the wolves, leading to a rather entertaining sequence!
In this weeks episode we take a look at one of my favorite animals of all time- the Cheetah. This evolutionary powerhouse can run at 56mph at its top speed for 10 seconds, and has to get within 50m of its prey before the lactic acid burns into its fast twitch muscles and need to slow down to recover. The stalk is a very important part of the sequence, and the amazingly talented high-speed specialist camerawoman Sophie Darlington and the team tried to emulate this hugely important behaviour and put the audience in the footsteps of the cheetah… where every detail and sinew of the hunt can be analysed. They filmed it at a level of detail never seen before, capturing a very intimate and tense moment…at which most cheetahs will fails at this point to successfully make a kill.
This sequence was made possible with the use of the Cineflex- slowing the image by 40 times at 1000fps. This ‘black ball’ is home to a very powerful lens, with gyroscopic stabilizers which could make Taylor Swift’s Shake it off look like a graceful ballet. Mounted onto a make shift arm on the safari vehicle…it makes for the most remarkable follow up shots as the animal glides through the savannah grasslands. They were able to track the cheetah alongside it as it stalked without disturbing it from 100m away, preventing any interference. Alastair tells us rather counterintuitively that one of the skills about filming cheetahs is…
“Don’t follow the cheetah… Predict and follow WHERE the prey will go, and then go beyond it to try and capture the “down the barrel shot.”
The Massia field guide, Sammy Munene, had the superb ability to get the team in the right place at the right time to capture one of the highlights of the series.
“The last and most crucial thing is to choose the RIGHT Cheetah.” They spent much time deciding who would be their hero…and it was to be Malaika, BBC’s Big cat diaries star, with four 8 month old cubs. Such a remarkable feat for a feline, as 50-70% of cubs die at within their first 3 months. She was under pressure to kill every day for her young and growing family- and so the action heated up…2 cameras on the vehicle, 2 aerials and 6 weeks later led to the team capturing one of the most detailed and incredible hunting sequences of all time. Make sure you tune in this Sunday (TODAY) 9pm BBC One to see it!
But it’s not just all about mammals- the army ant sequence filmed by the brilliant Jonnie Hughes was a feast for the entomological eye and bliss for keen sound recording artist. Just enough of the tittle-tattle sound of the tiny footsteps of one of the smallest and yet deadliest of predators in the rainforest, which demolished everything in its wake.
Equally the Darwin’s bark spider featured in episode 2 certainly proved that what it lacks for in size it makes up for in awe and charisma (YES I used an anthropomorphic word!) This spider was only described by science in 2009, and perhaps the reason it has never been filmed before. But nevertheless the teams found that the spiders were quite easy to find, and yet was still challenging in that they required just the right amount of wind and light to film. Huw tells us rather unwittingly that the number of camera kit cases required on such a shoot is inversely proportionate to the size of the animal- and with over 40 cases weighing over 40 tonnes… you can see why!
To really tell the story about the spider, a similar camera set up to the other sequences was required to get the shots they were after with all the dramatic elements and action. This quirky arachnid sprays out a stream of silk for over 20m, with which we are informed by the voice of natural history, Sir David Attenborough, that such material is stronger than steel. This sequences took 5 weeks (almost as long as the Wild dog and cheetah sequences) and so was no mean feat of technical skill and patience… even the smallest of creatures require the same level of detail to pull off a good story.
The sound effects of the silk being expelled sounds rather like a spring coil being trailed along the floor, and is rather entertaining I must say! Anyone hear the sucker squelching sound of the crocodile’s nictitating membrane of its eye opening and closing? Or the mission impossible zipping effects of the Portia spider? The last squeaking breaths of the mantis? Hats off to the foley effects artist for being so brave! The music throughout the series has been quite sublime, the perky little notes with our smaller insect protagonists and action bass heavy chase sequences creates so much depth and engages the audience further. Clearly Alastair and Huw were proud of their music assembly and so they should be. Attenborough’s performance as a narrator and storyteller as always is faultless…a true master of hitting every single syllable and verb with incredible passion and verve- what a true legend!
The shear amount of dedication that went into making this series is truly astounding – and a HUGE inspiration to us up-coming wildlife filmmakers. Now that we’ve learned about how the whole team coordinates and how the industry works, we can really appreciate the hours, blood, sweat, tears, talent and of course money that goes into blue-chip productions like this. But if you have the right team, you end up with a remarkable piece of natural history that will inspire others to want to protect these fascinating species, with their array of intriguing animal behaviours.
Can’t wait to see what’s next for the team! (**Hint hint.. Keep watching out on BBC 1 and Netfilx!**) Tune into BBC One tonight 9pm to see the Cheetah hunt!
[All images above were taken by BBC staff and I do not take any credit for them, simply sharing their content in a review/analysis/report].