Natural Wonders

The technology of Life and the challenge of showing the world as it is
by Chris Wisniewski  posted April 16, 2010
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The "Plants" episode of the BBC documentary series Life, broadcast in the United States on the Discovery Channel in HD with voiceover narration by Oprah Winfrey, opens with a time-lapse sequence of a tree. "There's plenty of drama in the private lives of plants," Winfrey asserts, "but we just don't see it because their stories, with all their struggles and triumphs, unfold so slowly." Through time-lapse, though, Life purports to compensate for the limits of our perception—to show the world "from the plants' point-of-view." 

An early voiceover from the "Insects" episode expresses a similar sentiment: "Because they are so small, we rarely see how extraordinary they really are." With insects, the issue is scale, not time, and it is macrophotography, rather than time-lapse, that allows us to "enter their world." In both instances, though, Life claims to offer unique access to nature through its innovative use of technology, to reveal behavior that is invisible to the human eye.

Three years in the making, Life is the 10-part follow up to the Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning documentary series Planet Earth, broadcast here in 2007 with narration by Sigourney Weaver (David Attenborough performed the original voice duties for the British versions of both series). Seen by over 65 million viewers during its six-week American run, Planet Earth has been touted by Discovery as the “most watched cable event” ever aired (though Life has outperformed its predecessor in its first weeks of broadcast); it is also the best-selling documentary DVD of all time.

While Life emphasizes individual species and behaviors, Planet Earth focuses on ecosystems. Many of its time-lapse sequences, such as the one depicting the transition of the Boreal Forest from winter to spring in its debut episode "From Pole to Pole," were taken from space. By contrast, the Life crew reproduced a small corner of a British forest in a studio so they could show an entire growing season in a minute-long sequence less grand—though no less impressive—than the one from Planet Earth.

Despite Life’s increased focus on individual animals and plants and their unique survival and reproductive strategies, the new series shares many of the qualities that made Planet Earth such a remarkable success. As their grandiose titles imply, both shows are globe-spanning and encyclopedic in scope, and they foreground state-of-the-art high-definition technologies more commonly used in large-budget Hollywood films than in nature documentaries. Planet Earth broke ground with the Cineflex heligimble, a gyroscopic stabilizing mechanism that allowed the crew to shoot animals from helicopters at a great distance using powerful telephoto lenses. Without disturbing animal behavior, the show's camera crew could get crisp, clear aerial HD imagery of the migration of 3 million caribou and capture footage of one of the calves being separated from the group and hunted by a wolf.

The Life crew took these innovations further with the development of the Yogi cam, a similar stabilizing mechanism they used to mount cameras to land vehicles. From a half-mile away, the camera team followed a baby elephant's day-long, six-mile journey to water and the migration of a herd of reindeer. Because of these stabilizing tools and the lenses they made it possible for the crews to employ, Life and Planet Earth feature more camera movement and longer takes than most nature documentaries and extraordinary zooms that give the series a more cinematic feel than other films of the genre.

The shows boast an impressive catalog of never-before-filmed behaviors and creatures, which are highlighted in their voiceovers, in press releases, and on the Discovery Channel website. In Life, these include footage of a humpback whale mating contest called a heat run, a pebble toad evading a tarantula by rolling down a mountain, and komodo dragons hunting a water buffalo over a two-week period. The exclusivity of this footage contributes to an overall sense of monumentality—Planet Earth and Life are styled as television events, and they have broken through like no previous nature documentaries in part because they are self-consciously spectacular and designed to be milestones.

The series' technological achievements are central to their appeal. Using high-speed HD cameras like the Phantom and the Photron SA-2, the Life crew shot footage of bulldog bats hunting fish and the "Jesus lizard" walking on water at over 1,000 frames per second, thus enabling playback at extreme slow motion. Unlike high-speed film cameras, which are most easily used in controlled circumstances, high-speed digital cameras are well-suited to nature photography because they allow for the serendipitous capture of footage. High-speed digital cameras are constantly shooting and then erasing their data on a lag; when an animal exhibits behavior the crew wants to capture in slow motion, the cinematographer simply needs to pull a trigger, committing the data to memory. The technology was also responsible for one of Planet Earth's most iconic sequences, in which a great white shark attacks a seal at one-40th the speed it would take in life.

Life incorporates extreme slow motion more liberally than its predecessor, and it features equally innovative time-lapse work. Using remotely controlled, light-sensitive HD cameras, the Life team recorded underwater time-lapse footage in natural environments rather than tanks. Beneath the ice of McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, starfish and aquatic worms are shown devouring a dead seal pup 500 times faster than they would at normal speed. Some of its time-lapse sequences did however require the removal of plants and animals from their natural habitats. To capture footage of the nocturnal stalk-eyed fly inflating its eye stalks, the crew habituated a population of the flies (smaller than grains of rice) to a cage and then used a stroboscopic flash gun to shoot time-lapse footage with a macro lens.

The makers of Life are constantly solving challenges of speed and scale: slow motion, time-lapse, zooms, and macrophotography are the techniques they rely on most heavily to take viewers beyond the physical limits of their ability to perceive the natural world. In this sense, the BBC Earth team follows in the tradition of the Soviet theorist and filmmaker Dziga Vertov, who in the 1920s and ’30s argued that the film camera, the "kino eye," could perceive truths that were otherwise unseeable by the human eye: "I am kino-eye," Vertov wrote. "I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it." Though Vertov wanted to depict "the world as it is," he had no objection to manipulating imagery—through editing, time-lapse, and slow-motion—to reveal aspects of it that are inaccessible to human perception. Life undertakes a similar project. The stalk-eyed fly was taken out of its natural environment and photographed one frame at a time at an extraordinary scale. Though this sequence was carefully planned and deliberately—one could say, artificially—constructed, it depicts natural behavior that we would otherwise never be able to see. In Life, as in Planet Earth, nature becomes a strange and vivid high-definition visual spectacle for a mass audience—a spectacle that is both familiar and alien, more real than real.

Though neither acknowledges it explicitly, the principal accomplishments of Life and Planet Earth lie more in technology than in ideas or in technique, broadly defined. Jean Painlevé used many of the same strategies (underwater photography, time-lapse, slow-motion) in a career as a nature documentarian that began in the 1920s and spanned seven decades. Planet Earth has a vaguely conservationist ideology, and Life focuses on evolutionary adaptation; Painlevé's films, some of which were released on DVD in 2009 by the Criterion Collection, explicitly engage with artistic movements and express political ideas, demonstrating an intellectual sophistication largely absent from either BBC series. In the United States, Dr. John Ott, whose pioneering time-lapse work with plants was popularized in part by Disney in the 1950s, began his experiments as a high school student, also in the 1920s. From a historical perspective, neither Life nor Planet Earth reinvents the nature documentary, but because of their vast budgets, epic scale, and use of HD, they may represent an apotheosis of the genre.

In the shows themselves, Life and Planet Earth present their achievements as the result of human effort, not just technological innovation. The British episodes of each ended with short making-of segments that were relegated to separate, concluding “bonus” episodes for the series' respective American broadcasts. These sequences pull back the curtain to reveal people, not tools, illuminating the patience, perseverance, and ingenuity of their crews through a series of anatomy-of-a-scene vignettes: One camera operator waits three weeks to capture five seconds of a male bowerbird’s mating behavior; another team uses bicycle wheels and cable to rig a pseudo-crane shot of hibernating monarch butterflies that requires 17 takes to perfect; even the time-lapse of the British forest—a technical marvel that involved the construction of 15 tracks and the digital compositing of 96 layers—is described as an accomplishment of "almost superhuman attention to detail."

The human focus of these segments is surprising for a show that derives so much of its power and authority from technology. But if these brief segments seem to elide the central role of HD cameras and related technologies in making Life's most extraordinary sequences possible, they offer a welcome reminder that even the most advanced cinematic tools are valuable only in the hands of a dedicated and able crew: Life is the product of real work. 


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Article presented by Sloan Science and Film
Discovery Channel
A basilisk, or Jesus lizard, runs across the water surface in Life on the Discovery Channel
Photo Gallery: Natural Wonders


documentary  |  television  |  Sloan Science and Film  |  Life  |  Planet Earth  |  technology


Chris Wisniewski is Deputy Director for Education at Museum of the Moving Image. He is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot and has written for other publications including indieWIRE and Stop Smiling.

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