Sir David Attenborough is back on TV this Saturday with a new 3D documentary series about plants, and I've been treated to a sneaky peek at the first episode. Kingdom of Plants 3D with David Attenborough was filmed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which I'm told has 90 per cent of all plant life represented there.
If you're anything like me, you won't initially be all that enthused about the idea of watching a programme about plants, but the first episode is fascinating stuff. There's copious amounts of stunning time-lapse photography that will make you look at nature with new eyes -- as Sir David's mesmeric narration points out early on, plants are just as competitive as animals.
The time-lapse photography lets you see creepers flailing around like a lasso for something to grip onto. Plants that can devour flies and mice give the episode the sense of jeopardy that's normally provided by something like a killer whale hunting a calf. You'll meet Carlos, the 'plant messiah' who works at Kew and saves an extinct species through his uncanny knack for bringing plants back from the dead. And it's all set to a stirring, orchestral soundtrack.
Kew was chosen partly for practical reasons, so the team could shoot the plants in a controlled space with controlled light, to save on travel costs and because Sir David lives relatively nearby. Over the year it took to shoot, the team had to create a series of new techniques to cope with the low light they had at Kew, plus the fact they wanted to use normal macro lenses to create the 3D effects.
I was shown one of the mirror rigs (above, photo 2) they made to shoot the close-up shots. The top camera stays still while bottom one moves -- when both are lined up, the image is flat, when the bottom one moves, you get 3D. The more it moves, the greater the effect. For extreme close-ups, the team would send the plants to a specialist lab, but for general macro work, they would use something like this.
The executive producer Anthony Geffen told me the results they received were so impressive that, when he showed them to James Cameron at a conference, he was so impressed he assumed the film cost tens of millions of dollars to shoot (it didn't).
Unfortunately in the screening, the 3D was the one element that didn't work very well for me at all. The background and foreground clashed horribly when the makers were trying to push a leaf out towards you when it was in front of other green things further back. Sometimes the wrong part of an image would thrust itself towards you. Overall the 3D was a massive distraction from the amazing time-lapse work, which I would expect to look very good indeed in 2D.
There may have been something wrong with the setup in the screening -- the organisers used a passive LG 3D TV, mounted unusually high, so it might be that I was just sat in the wrong place and the effect was spoiled. The series is destined to be re-cut into a 40-minute version for IMAX cinemas later in the year, and it's coming out on Blu-ray and DVD around July. Nintendo will be pre-loading a 10-minute clip of the series onto 10 million 3DS consoles later in the year, and there's an accompanying book and iPad app too.
With all that, it's hard to think the 3D will be dodgy when you see it, but if you watch it this Saturday at 6pm on Sky 3D or Sky Atlantic HD in 2D do let me know what you thought in the comments below or on our Facebook wall.
For now, here's a brief trailer:
The first episode of Kingdom of Plants 3D with David Attenborough airs on 26 May at 6pm on Sky 3D and simulcast in 2D on Sky Atlantic HD.