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Is Technology Saving Wildlife Films from Extinction?

It is often assumed that the lifeline for wildlife programmes is the ever-improving film kit that allows viewers to be immersed into the natural world. It seems that wildlife films have had to evolve quickly or else the audience would stop getting that “wow” moment on the screen. "Life In the Air" (above) is a good example of how innoviative film techniques can tell great stories. For the audience, the question is how did they film that? For the professional, the exciting part of producing these remarkable documentaries is trying new kit, which promises to reveal something in biology that has never before seen.

In the mid 90’s I had my own experience of this. We acquired a low light camera from Sony; it was a prototype, with a serial number 000000001. It was the only one and a model Sony never put in production. I wanted it because we were filming nocturnal Hammerhead Bats displaying with their extraordinary noisy mating courtships in Gabon for a BBC Natural World. I was able to persuade Sony to allow us to borrow it from them. It was perfect, as we could only use very low powered lights to film these sensitive animals during the mating season. But, while we were filming there, the big surprise for us was to see River Martins gathering in the evening. The sky at first was covered with tiny dots, like small insects, high up in the air, which then grew larger as they descended to form huge flocks of tens of thousands, pulling together in a snap. As evening light faded a film camera at the time would not have recorded what we got, but this low-light camera did. Bird biologists had never before seen these murmurations, although the locals of course knew all about them. The sequence blew everyone away. The camera was so good that we could see more on the monitor than we could with our eyes. Without that camera we would have never been able to capture such a spectacle.

To me, making a wildlife film is on par with a Hollywood film production where every scene requires a specific piece of kit, such as macro, time-lapse, tracking, craning, rope dollies, aerials, and deep-sea vehicles. Even extinct animals have been brought back to life with animation, such as “Living With Dinosaurs”. With every challenge came new technology that improved the chances of getting the sequence, which in turn would get the audience at the edge of their seat. Every new commission demanded that the latest technology improved the quality of the programme. Commissioners and TV manufacturers loved what we were doing as it demonstrated why such improvements were of real value to the audience, who were viewing in ever larger numbers and who then went out to buy new TV sets to improve their viewing experience.

Technology has been driving nature programmes since the birth of cinematography. For sixty years we have seen key turning points in its development. Popular wildlife films on TV took off with the reduction in size and weight of the clumbersome film camera in the 50’s, allowing crews to get to difficult places more easily. Then it was the invention of the sharper zoom lens and long telephoto lens in the 60’s, which meant we could get closer to animals without disturbing them. By the 70’s, the advent of colour TV brought a greater realism to nature, which was perfect for the ground-breaking series “Life on Earth”. In the 80’s and 90’s the improvement of TV sets, with digital technology including stereo sound, made the images and sound much clearer, perfect for wildlife films. We used every trick to get the camera to reveal the natural world in far flung and inaccessible places by using new light weight cranes, collapsible portable dollies on tracks or on a wire, re-breathers for diving, hang gliders, motor controlled balloons, and model aircraft to film aerials. We used digital technology to drive camera movement in time-lapse, creating whole series on plants with “The Private Life of Plants”. While TV was using digital cameras in the 90’s wildlife programmes were still using film as the quality was far better.

Only by the 2000’s did we start using digital cameras because of the launch of High Definition. It brought the image quality closer to film, and it also allowed us to create 5.1 Surround Sound too, bringing a more realistic sense of the animals’ world. Digital high speed cameras allowed us to see great white sharks grab seal pups in ultra slow motion, as in Planet Earth - action like we have never seen before. Large TVs in our homes at last created the greater “cinema experience” bringing us closer to the action.

Since 2010, film innovation has been put into overdrive with exciting new film kit. This new generation of cinematography has really done more to take the audience into the animal’s world better than ever before. Camera traps, GoPros and drones have given us easier access to difficult places. New inventions have been of real benefit especially to nature programmes. An example of that is 3D that allows you to feel a real closeness to subject matter. This is largely due to the fact that 3D only works well when the camera is close to the subject and the 3D image can visually leap out of the screen. The problem with 3D is that although it works well for wildlife it doesn't work with such success with other genre. Sadly, making such programmes were too costly and the audience didn’t buy enough 3D TVs to make it viable and the manufactures recently stopped making them.

Following on its heels we have Virtual Reality, another technological break through which allows the viewer, with the help of goggles, to be completely immersed into a far distant landscape, where they can make decisions as to where and when to look. However this technology is in its infancy and has not yet been taken up into television. Currently it success is heralded in education, museums, exhibitions and home entertainment.

Planet Earth II launched its series with the promise that its audience would see the world in a new way by using light handheld roving cameras, which were steadied by gimbals, as well as drones that use similar technology. The camera travelling with the animal gave it more a dramatic real view presence in the action. It also was shot on new 4k Ultra High Definition (UHD) with High Dynamic Range, bringing a greater realism to the image. Although the UHD version was not shown on BBC because it doesn't broadcast in that format, it is available on UHD DVD, which is an important step in the development of future films. Cameras can now be taken closer and closer to animals, with superb enhanced detail, so allowing the audience to have a greater experience of the natural world.

Ever clever evolving tricks to film animals has given a more entertaining view of the world, and more recently with “Spy in the Wild”. Animal animatronic has replaced the wildlife camera operator with prosthetic animals that have eyes as cameras. They are so realistic these robotic animals are capable of fooling wild creatures in believing that they are as genuine as they are. These techniques have such a fresh take on seeing nature that even biologists are writing scientific papers about the results. Its success was so great the producers of “Spy in the Wild” are making a new series, using even more sophisticated techniques.

So is technology saving wildlife films from extinction? In part yes, but there is one over-riding factor that keeps wildlife from death’s door and that is the story especially the new story. No sequence is worth its salt, no matter how sophisticated the imagery, if it is not driven by a strong fresh narrative. That narrative or story has to evolve in order to bring us new insights into the living planet. Thanks to biologists and conservationists, who spend their lives in the field studying these extraordinary events, we are able to tell those new stories and discoveries, and with the help of innovative technology and techniques, we can tell those stories better than ever before. There is no doubt that for the present wildlife films will thrive, thanks to biological research and to the continuing technical revolution in film.

However, the real danger to wildlife films in the long term is far more obvious as it will inevitably die if the natural world itself heads for extinction. The important question, and indeed challenge, is whether the next generation of wildlife films will help prevent this from happening.

Copyright: Bernard Walton

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