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.