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TV Review: Attenborough’s Life Stories – “Life on Camera”

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This first episode of the three-part series Attenborough’s Life Stories focuses on the technological advances in filmmaking throughout his 60 years in the field. (For perspective: when his first documentary aired in 1954, gas was approximately 22 cents a gallon and the average monthly rent was $85.) The new PBS series celebrates the veteran natural history filmmaker who has brought us so many landmark series.

Attenborough presents this tapestry of past footage with current experiences and interviews as “Life on Camera” weaves together many never-before-seen sequences (for the time of their filming). The soundtrack is at times intriguing, scary, adventurous, peaceful, and understated, establishing a dynamic mood.

[David Attenborough in Sabah, Borneo. Photo Credit: © Adam Scott 2011]

We sit with Attenborough as he takes us back to his first foray into the world of natural filmmaking as a child, watching films featuring one of the earliest pioneers of wildlife filmmaking, Cherry Kearton. Attenborough’s delight shines through as he remembers dreaming of one day following in Kearton’s footsteps, traveling to faraway places to capture the natural world for others to enjoy.

As a former student of documentary filmmaking, I can imagine how many generations Attenborough has inspired in a similar fashion; throughout every one of his many documentaries, his childhood joy, fascination and connection with the natural world has apparently never left him. Attenborough says, “I’ve been lucky enough to live through what might well be considered the Golden Age of natural history filmmaking.” He later says, “But the wonderful thing about wildlife filmmaking is that no matter how much you’ve seen and filmed, there’s always going to be something to surprise you.”

In the space of an hour, Attenborough shares clips from many of his documentaries: Zoo Quest for a Dragon (1956), Eastward with Attenborough (1973), Life on Earth (1979-seen by 500 million people), Trials of Life (1990), The Private Life of Plants (1995), The Life of Birds (1998), The Blue Planet (2001), The Life of Mammals and In Search of Killer Ants (2002), Life in the Undergrowth (2005), Planet Earth (2006), Life in Cold Blood (2008), Nature’s Great Events and Life (2009).

Attenborough shares advancements made in video recording technology that allow for filming underwater sequences that were previously impossible to capture: infrared and starlight cameras that open up nighttime and cavernous worlds; thermal photography that bring cold-blooded animals to life; advanced technology that permits entrance into the secret lives of insects; security developments such as motion-detection cameras (to keep out thieves) that natural history filmmakers use to discover unique moments; aerial photography from the first attempts in noisy planes to hot air balloon ventures to modern-day miracles with in-flight filmmaking through stabilizing camera mounts; the playing with time, capturing the exquisite unfolding of spring in 20 seconds or drawing out the beat of a bird’s wings to celebrate the creature’s innate grace; and the animation of extinct species through models, line drawings and computer-generated graphics.

Attenborough also shares a side of documentary filmmaking one rarely sees as the consumer (unless we enjoy watching the behind-the-scenes bonus features) where the filmmaker will dedicate weeks or months of their lives in the quest for that perfect shot. But, as Attenborough says: “These days, with every year that passes, we seem to get more and more equipment—longer lenses, more electronic bits of kit—but in the end, often the most memorable shot comes from just one camera, and one person with a deep understanding of the natural world.”

[Sir David Attenborough with filming equipment in Sabah, Borneo. Photo Credit: © Adam Scott 2011]

Attenborough is clearly one such person, as he describes the natural world and various stages of filmmaking without engaging in a lot of jargon, so that this series may be enjoyed by documentary filmmakers, his fans, and by anyone who has ever been enchanted by the elegance, unadulterated wildness, and magic of nature.

Even though I was familiar with Sir David Attenborough before this experience, I had not properly appreciated him. This episode made me smile, gave me goosebumps, and reaffirmed my strength in pursuing my own dreams; this series is one I will enjoy time and again (and one I am sending to my former professor for her future students to enjoy).

Attenborough’s Life Stories, “Life on Camera”, premieres Wednesday, January 23rd, at 8pm EST on PBS. The two other episodes (on science and the environment) air on the consecutive Wednesdays, on January 30th and February 6th, also at 8pm EST. Visit the PBS website for more information. (For more on Sir David Attenborough, visit his website.)

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About Joanna Celeste

Joanna Celeste is at heart a storyteller, writing reviews, short stories, poems, articles and the occasional novel-in-progress, as well as interviewing others to discover their point of view, in the celebration of story. She welcomes emails from her readers at joanna_celeste [at] ymail.com, though she is currently booked for reviews through to January 2014. Visit her at http://joannaceleste.com
  • Great review, Joanna.

    David Attenborough is a legend. Cant wait for the remaining 2 episodes!

  • Thank you, Buddy2Blogger.

    Yes, I feel bad that I deleted the gushy “legendary natural history filmmaker, celebrated the world over for his landmark documentaries” preface I originally used for Sir David Attenborough (figuring that went without saying) since now I wonder if I accidentally understated his importance. We’re lucky to have access to his unprecedented body of work, even from his first episodes of “Zoo Quest”.

  • Igor

    It’s a wonderful series, just as you’d expect from Attenborough.

  • Igor

    Attenborough is a fabulous international treasure, to be cherished by all humans. Many of his films can be found on PBS.ORG, and BT’ed from MVGROUP.

    Many areas of science are benefiting from filming advances, these days. It’s a wonder that anyone watches the dramas and sports on TV anymore, being as shallow as they are.