I'm not sure how well-known David Attenborough is in the U.S., but here in Britain, he has achieved a level of respect and admiration that is reserved for very few. Best known for making nature programs, from the relatively recent "Frozen Planet" and "Planet Earth" to the groundbreaking 1979 series "Life On Earth," he also had another career as a BBC executive.
He was responsible for introducing color television programs to the U.K. in 1967, and commissioned "Monty Python's Flying Circus." He probably could have risen to become the head of the entire BBC, but didn't want the job, preferring his life as a natural-history filmmaker.
In the U.S., you may have unwittingly seen one of his shows, as his narration is often replaced by one from a better-known Hollywood star (compare Sigourney Weaver's efforts on "Planet Earth" with Attenborough's). In Britain, his programs have come to represent all that is good about the unusual public service broadcasting model we have here, and at age 86, he is still making TV.
I spoke to him at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where he was promoting his new series in 3D for local broadcaster Sky -- "Kingdom of Plants 3D with David Attenborough." The offices at Kew where we met look and smell like an old-fashioned English boarding school (think Harry Potter's Hogwarts without the moving paintings and Sorting Hat). With all that, you can imagine that I was more than a little nervous when waiting to interview him.
But once I and a couple of fellow tech journalists had rubbed the stars out of our eyes, Attenborough had a lot of interesting things to say about shooting nature in 3D.
3D causes yourself a lot of problems, and I don't think 3D it's as natural as 2D was...The technical possibilities are huge, but it also creates restrictions. One stems from the sheer size of the apparatus. The other one, which is quite a profound difficulty: you can't use long-focus lenses. You have to be able to get quite close to animals, and that means that delicate and shy creatures, which are the mainstay of documentary films, you can't film them.
He also reveals why there seem to be so many documentaries about penguins:
Penguins are pretty good, because penguins are all identical and they don't give a damn whether you are there or whether you are there or not. If your camera man says 'God, this is boring' and moves away, which is what they tend to do, there is another one sitting alongside that looks exactly the same.
In the interview, the executive producer of the show talks about an iPod given to Attenborough by Bono, how he uses an iPad, has more lenses than anyone alive, and that "we certainly wouldn't go out to North Africa and start filming lions and tigers in 3D, it would be absolute lunacy." You can.
Attenborough's new show is filmed almost entirely at Kew and contains some stunning time-lapse photography. One particular sequence sees a creeper whipping around like a lasso for something to grip onto, and there's some creepy footage of flies being devoured alive by plants. You can, but to sum up, while it's a fascinating program that's very well-produced, the 3D element didn't work very well in my preview screening.
If you're not in the U.K. and want to watch it, I am told the series will be available on Blu-ray and DVD in June or July. It will also be recut into a 40-minute IMAX movie, and there will be a two-minute clip made available for people with a Nintendo 3DS. Oh, and an accompanying book and an iPad app. Hopefully that means you'll get a chance to experience it at some point -- it's well worth a watch.