David Attenborough: six innovations that revolutionised natural history film-making

From portable cameras to colour TV, the celebrated television naturalist pinpoints the innovations that transformed his iconic programmes

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David Attenborough: six innovations that revolutionised natural history film-making
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Bird’s-Eye View

A lot of what occurs in the natural world is best seen from the air, but until the introduction of a secure helicopter camera mount known as a heligimbal we could never really get the images we wanted. But this and long lens cameras have made it possible to film sequences such as in Planet Earth (2006) that we’d previously only been able to show in part.

Portable Cameras

Back in the 1950s television was regarded as something you did in the studio. The film in use was 35mm, which was very big and bulky. The 16mm clockwork camera I wanted to film in Africa with for my first Zoo Quest series was a fraction of the size, but the BBC thought cameras like that were unprofessional and the head of film told me that I’d only be able to use it “over my dead body”. There was a huge row, which happily I won, and Zoo Quest was the consequence.

Thermal Imaging

With thermal image cameras we were able to see for the first time how skilful animals are at regulating their own body temperature. Using this technology in Life in Cold Blood in 2008 we saw marine iguanas emerging from the cold sea as a solid black mass and then changing colour as they spread out to warm up under the sun.

Colour TV

The Private Life of the Kingfisher was the first BBC production to be broadcast in colour, although in 1967 most people would still have watched it in black and white. Initially colour TV had an extremely bad reputation: it was my job as controller of BBC2 to convince public opinion that it was a good thing.

Night Vision

Infra-red cameras were originally developed by the security industry but they meant we were able to see animals at night, when many are most active. In Planet Earth in 2006 a pride of lions was filmed bringing down and killing an elephant, something that had been considered highly improbable.

Ocean Wonder

Filming underwater was always the greatest challenge. Hans Hass first opened our eyes to this mysterious world in the 1950s, but probably the greatest advance came in the 1990s when videotape replaced film. This meant that instead of surfacing to replace film after ten minutes, our camera crews were able to stay underwater for 30 minutes or more, allowing them to film stunning and long-played-out sequences such as the marlin hunting in Blue Planet (2001).


Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2 (begins on Saturday 17 November in Wales)