Thursday, 8 January 2015

A flying Attenborough in the Bat-Cave

As Vicki Power, writing in The Express put it:
Few people would be willing to dangle 250 feet in the air on just a few ropes. Even fewer would do it in order to allow a massive swarm of bats to fly around their head deep in a Borneo cave.

But then again, not many people are Sir David Attenborough.
How true.

On Monday evening, Madam Arcati and I were privileged to get to see the great man in person, on the occasion of the launch of his new technologically-advanced nature documentary Conquest of the Skies, with its focus on the flight of birds, bats and insects. I managed to get tickets via the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) website, one of the rare occasions when their events are open to the hoi polloy - and just in time, it would seem, as the entire Princess Anne Theatre (the Academy's prestigious venue on Piccadilly) was packed to the gunnels.

We watched a specially put-together episode and highlights from the series, in full 3D, which was remarkable; my first ever film where things fly out, around and past your head - the sparrow-hawk vs starlings and the hummingbirds being particularly spectacular. Then the man we had all come to see took to the stage for a panel discussion.

Sir David simply oozes charm and affability, and, despite his great age (and evident deafness) he is as sharp as a razor in his observations. Being a born adventurer - he informed us that as a youngster he was an avid rock-climber, which explains his lack of vertigo - it was obvious how much he really enjoys the chance to get out in the thick of it, to observe the natural world and its wonders first hand.

Dangling in that bat cave, strapped into a chair and accompanied only by a flying 3D camera called an "octocopter":
“I’m sitting up there for about half an hour before the bats are due to fly and of course after a few minutes the blokes on the ground forget you. You’ve got a lot of time to think ‘That rope’s very thin’ and ‘What are they doing down there? Playing cards? What about me?’ It was challenging.

“It did occur to me that maybe a bat would hit the octocopter and if they did, would it fall and which way would it fall? Would it be coming my way?”
Thankfully no disasters befell him.

His love for new gadgetry, technology and techniques of filming obviously tempted this "archetypal BBC man" away to the arms of Sky TV - commissioners with deeper pockets - and the production company Atlantic for this series. Among their innovations (as well as "octocopters" and 360 degree 3D and "4D" cameras) is the highest quality computer generated animation (CGI). Sir David loves it, but has reservations because nature programmes, in his opinion, simply have to be honest - otherwise even the "experts" such as he may be fooled:
“The plain fact of the matter is that actually we can now produce an image of an animal doing absolutely anything we wish.

“The audience are not silly. They will become more and more aware that that’s the case.

“The good intentions of the producer and the person who presents it is absolutely one of the most valuable things we have.

“The Life of Pi for example. I’m in the business and I was taken in by the story until suddenly I saw this tiger moving towards the actor. I do know a bit about tigers and I suddenly thought ‘you’re a bloody fool, what are you thinking?’ And it took a long time for me to realise this is CGI."
Whether tramping through boggy undergrowth to watch a stag beetle take off, or riding in a speeding boat dodging the flapping wings of swans less than a foot away from his head (semi-tame birds, he revealed, who are "imprinted" with their owner's voice so they follow the boat), his enthusiasm is like that of a child at Xmas.

He is indeed a treasure. We adore him, and this evening was a great treat.


Conquest of the Skies Trailer:

Conquest of the Skies - the Story of Evolution:

Conquest of the Skies - Swan Adventure:

Conquest of the Skies - Bat Cave Sequence:

Conquest of the Skies is on Sky 1 and Sky HD


  1. I've said it before and I'll say it again.

    The man is a national treasure.

    1. It is my ambition to be called that one day. Unfortunately I believe I'd need to be buried first. Jx

  2. Replies
    1. I was sorely disappointed to find my name was not on the list. Jx


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