David Attenborough’s Unending Mission to Save Our Planet

    In order to capture this, they’re pushing technology from the simple to the surreal. Williams found a microscope in California that can film 10-micron-wide stomata—the minute openings in plant leaves and stems that allow carbon dioxide, oxygen, and water vapor to diffuse in and out of plant tissues, opening and closing to illustrate photosynthesis. And then there are drones.

    The unit pioneered the use of drones in filming, deploying them in 2011’s Earthflight, a good year before the first movie, 2012’s Skyfall, used them to shoot James Bond in a motorbike chase across the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. For some Green Planet shots, however, drones were prohibited due to local air traffic regulations, so Williams adapted a window-cleaning pole into a lightweight extendible boom called the Emu with the body of a broken drone at the end and a drone camera hanging underneath.

    The real drone challenge for The Green Planet, says Gunton, was hacking people, not technology. “We used FPV drones, racing drones, which have a camera pointing forward,” he explains. “The pilots are like computer gamers and have these extraordinary assault courses where they have to fly crazy acrobatics. What we wanted them to do is use all that incredible dexterous skill to be able to operate those drones in the most incredibly micro-detailed way, but take the foot off the gas pedal.”

    The result is footage that appears much the same as a sweeping drone shot in any big-budget movie or TV program, showing events that take hours flying by at apparently normal speed. For the real “red in tooth and claw” stuff, however, time-lapse cameras were the only option. Williams, Field, and the unit engineers set about hacking the Otto robot, eventually coming up with the Triffid, which uses the same technology Field created attached to an extendible ladder known as a slider. At full extension, the Triffid stands 2.1 meters high, but can quickly swoop down to ground level. Williams then spent more time on kickstarter sites and came across a 24-mm probe lens—slim enough to enter an insect-sized hole.

    Combining the Triffid and the super-slimline probe lens resulted in an astonishing sequence in the first tropical forest episode, which follows leaf cutter ants carrying their excised cargo from the high branches of the rainforest, down along a crowded trail and into their underground lair, where they feed leaf fragments to a carefully tended fungus garden.

    “It’s a three-and-a-half-minute sequence that meant programming the Triffid with 7,000 individual camera positions,” Williams says. “But then you always want to push further and smaller, so I found a scientist in Austria who has a scanning electron microscope system, and this allowed us to do motion-controlled shots around a single fungal spore. It’s essentially taking photogrammetry, a trick from the computer-gaming industry which takes 10,000 photographs of a rock and uses software to turn all those images into a 3D rock that’s photorealistic in every possible way. We’re able to create an interactive 3D video of a spore or leaf fragment, to get closer than ever before.”

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