21st May, 2012

Kingdom of Plants 3D: David Attenborough explains the tech behind the trees

David Attenborough has travelled all over the world, but it was whilst watching the rough cut of a series shot in London's Kew Gardens that he admits his jaw dropped.


Speaking to Wired.co.uk at the botanical gardens, Attenborough says, despite having filmed in 3D before, he was astonished by the results of his latest project: "What I couldn't have known was how fantastic, how transcendental and how hypnotic plants are [when filmed in 3D] -- the whole business of watching a flower unfurl its petals and an insect enter. When I sat in the editing suite, my jaw dropped. It worked out far better than I imagined."


Kingdom of Plants 3D -- the first episode of which will air on 26 May -- is a three-part series, which will be shown on Sky both in 3D and 2D. It is the third 3D collaboration between Attenborough and producer Anthony Geffen of Atlantic Productions -- one of which, Flying Monsters, won a BAFTA award. Bachelor King 3D, which follows the life of one penguin from adolescent to adulthood, and was shot over five months in South Georgia, is to be released soon.


Attenborough says that he was unsure about the medium when Geffen first mentioned the possibility of 3D projects: "I became so apprehensive that I said that perhaps we should start with fossils as they don't take flight and you can get quite close to them. Also, one knows that CGI is very exciting in 3D. That was our first attempt together. It worked well. So what next? Well we decided penguins as they're all identical and they don't give a damn as to whether you're there or not, so we made this film in South Georgia."


This latest series, he says, is special because it will allow the audience to "see things no human eye has ever seen before" -- everything from a plant casting around a tendril for something to grip onto, to the flowering of the titan arum, which only happens once every seven years.


To capture this footage in 3D was not without its challenges, not least because some of the camera technology simply did not presently exist. This is, however, a conundrum the production team has faced before. Says Geffen: "When we took on Flying Monsters, we didn't have the technology to complete the production, which is why it's such an ambitious film. When we started this latest production, people said that you can't get inside a plant to shoot 3D -- it's not physically possible -- but if you push hard enough, you can always get there."


In fact, Geffen recounts how he showed Avatar director, James Cameron, the footage shot with a "periscope camera" at a tradeshow, and even he was surprised at the results.


Working with camera rental outfit ONSIGHT, the production team used nine different cameras across the series and, says series director Martin Williams, had to increase Atlantic Production's usual 2D documentary team of four filmmakers to a crew of more than 20 people. "3D adds an amazing extra dimension, but it is infinitely more complicated in terms of cost, logistics, personnel and time," he states.


As well as the 70kg rigs, which take four people to move, the team developed specialist macro kits for extreme close-ups. The 3D time-lapse footage was captured using DSLR cameras, "configured on motion-controlled stepper, parallel, and mirror rigs," the team explains. They even created a "copter cam" to capture an insect's view of some of the plants. Described as "a small tea tray with little motors on each corner," this camera can be guided to a particular flower as well as being programmed to reproduce an exact flight repeatedly.


There was also the constant noise of air traffic from Heathrow Airport to content with; the fact that cameras don't like the humid conditions of the greenhouses at Kew; and then the general public. Williams recounts that the team had been waiting to film the annual blooming of the jade vine, which grows in Kew's Palm House. "We couldn't believe it," says Williams, "we'd waited weeks for the right moment to film the flower of this spectacular tropical plant and the day before, we get word that somebody -- a child in a school group -- had picked it. We had to abandon the shoot."


The technical difficulties and costs make shooting unsuitable for some types of productions. Attenborough says: "For quite profound technical reasons, you can't use long focal lenses. If you went into the wild with a top cameraman and said to him, 'I want you to shoot some really sensational footage that will draw people into the iMax and knock the public for six, but you can only use a 75mm lens', he would say, 'Forgive me but you're nuts'."


Geffen says, though, that technology is developing all of the time and productions like Kingdom of Plants 3D actually drive R&D. Just a couple of innovations could make a huge difference. Much smaller cameras "that can shoot faster, zoom better, and lock quicker and simpler," he argues, could make 3D production accessible to a wider range of companies. On the consumer side, 3D technology that doesn't rely upon glasses and 3D tablets could be "game changers", he states.


However, both Attenborough and Geffen argue that not all content should be shot in 3D anyway. Geffen states: "You have high and low-end content. The issue is that if you do everything in 3D, you could get a lot of lower-quality 3D content. The danger then is that people will just watch it and say so what -- so the power of the medium is wasted. There will only be a number of programmes that really push the boundaries in 3D, and so you should keep the medium for the right experiences. Also -- to be honest -- HD is still fantastic. It's not a lesser medium, and in fact I have now gone back to 2D after shooting in 3D with a greater vision of how to use it."


Attenborough says that we could simply end up with a mixture of 3D and 2D content. "I was responsible for BBC Two when we introduced colour. We simply didn't have the cameras and the studios to colourise everything immediately, and so we had what we called a piebald service -- some programmes in colour and some in black-and-white", he recalls. "I can imagine that this may well happen for 3D. After all, do you want to go to all of that trouble to have, for example, a quiz show in 3D? Why would you bother with all of the complications of making it in 3D? However, there will be these gala occasions when you will want the content in 3D."


The presenter adds that it was important to him that the content was available in 2D as well, and believes that this could actually drive people to consider watching in 3D, not least because the range of 3D content available currently is so limited. It is factual documentaries that could change this, says Geffen, as they can be pioneering. "The plant world is better than any world that could be built for a film like Avatar, and we're inside it. With feature films, they often have to dimensionalised as they don't get shot in native 3D. We're taking control from beginning to end," he says.


Geffen hints at a deal with Nintendo that could see two minutes of footage from the series loaded onto 10 million DS machines as well as DVD releases, an app for Kew Gardens using Attenborough's commentary, an iMax film and books, which could increase the possible audience of the series -- all potential 3D converts.


Just weeks after Kingdom of Plants 3D airs, Geffen and Attenborough are heading to the Galapagos to capture the inhabitants of the islands in 3D. Geffen is already promising the discovery of a new species. He says: "The Galapagos production is taking all of the elements of our other shows and putting them together to deliver something new. But we know where the Galapagos animals are, and also that they're quite tame. To go to Africa to try and film big cats for example would be absolute lunacy."


Working under the mantle of a shoot-off of Atlantic Productions called Colossus, Geffen is promising "some very ambitious 3D over the coming years". He adds: "All of the time, we're testing things. Recently we filmed free climbers in 3D. We're also looking at taking 3D cameras into organs in the body, which is amazing."


Being ambitious with the medium is the key, he says. "Everyone said that 3D is going to take over and then when it didn't, they said it had failed. It hasn't. I don't think it's going to take over but I do know that it has a place."


Attenborough argues that the current technical restrictions will be resolved and is excited at the prospect of shooting more projects in 3D. "If somebody had said 100 years ago, 'I'm going to invent a way whereby you can send pictures through the air and you'll have a little box that will pick them up', then many would have told them to grow up!" he said. "It's therefore dangerous to say that the technicians will not solve the current difficulties with shooting 3D as they may. It hasn't happened yet but I hope that it does happen, because then I can have a go at all sorts of other things."


The first episode of Kingdom of Plants 3D with David Attenborough airs on the 26 May 2012 at 6pm on Sky 3D and will be simulcast in 2D on Sky Atlantic HD


WIRED Magazine online 21/05/12