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Sir David Attenborough Talks Penguins
The wildlife master on his new film, The Bachelor King 3D

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At the age of 85, you might be expecting Sir David Attenborough to swap his well-worn wellies for a pair of slippers. Yet the legendary nature documentarian has never been busier. Now he‘s wrapped on the BBC’s Frozen Planet and Sky’s penguin-centric companion piece The Bachelor King 3D, he has two more Sky 3D series in development, one of which will involve a trip to the Galapagos Islands next year. Empire sat down with him in a London hotel to talk The Bachelor King, his legacy and what he’d like to see in Avatar 2…

Sir David Attenborough Talks Penguins

As well as The Bachelor King, 2011 has seen the release of movies like Mr. Popper’s Penguins and Happy Feet 2. Why are people so fascinated by penguins?
Well, they look like little waiters, don’t they? They waddle around clumsily, they’re funny-looking and they’re very engaging. And from the point of view of making 3D programmes, the great thing about them is they don’t mind people hanging around. A 3D camera is a whopping great beast — it takes four people to carry it, and three-quarters of an hour to change a lens. It’s very temperamental and isn’t the sort of thing you’d want to use if you’re creeping up on a very shy bird. But penguins don’t mind.

They’ll accept you being there without any problem?
Oh yes. They’ll come and sit right next to you. They choose places to nest and rear their young that are inaccessible, because of course they’re very vulnerable. I mean, a dog would make mincemeat of a penguin colony. But there aren’t any land animals in South Georgia. Even big things like sea lions and elephant seals, they’re sea creatures. There are no land animals except for humans, so they don’t mind us at all.

So you've never been the subject of a penguin attack?
They won’t attack you. Though they’ll peck you out of irritation, maybe!

You've talked often of your fondness for the bird of paradise, with its astonishing courting dances. Could you make a 3D film about them?
It would be much more difficult. It would be murder, actually. It’s pretty bad getting to them without a 3D camera — in New Guinea there are damn near vertical slopes of mud, every tree is covered in prickles and spines, and it rains half the day, every day, from one o’clock. It’s not the place to take delicate gear.

The unique thing about The Bachelor King is that it follows one penguin throughout its life…
Yes, it’s telling the life history of a penguin, from egg to adulthood. Since it takes 18 months for a king penguin to become adult, and we weren’t there for 18 months, we obviously used different animals. All penguins are identical really, so you can’t tell the difference.

Sir David Attenborough Talks Penguins
Photo: Copyright Atlantic Productions photographed by Danny Spencer

Is it satisfying to get shots now that you couldn’t earlier in your career?
It is. The ones you really want to get are the underwater shots. There are only a few in this, because the early life span of a penguin takes place on land. When they’re half-grown they have a kind of fur coat of downy feathers — if they went in the sea they’d die immediately. So all the story, conveniently, takes place on land. But there is a small amount of underwater photography, and it is stunning.

Is there a reason why you chose to follow a king penguin?
Yes, there is. Because the king penguin is so big, it takes the young chick 18 months to develop the swimsuit of feathers which lets it go to sea. It has to endure all the winter and the next spring and then some. The consequence is that there are penguins of all ages on the beach. So you can find the characters you need to tell the story, all there at the same time, which is very convenient.

Were you concerned about portraying them in too much of a human-like way?
We don’t personify them in any enormous way. But you can tell the genuine story of one penguin that does find a mate and rear young, and one that doesn’t. They are truthful situations, and there is genuine sadness and tristesse. King penguins incubate eggs on their feet, and the urge to do that is very powerful. So some penguins who don’t get to mate actually try to steal eggs or somebody else’s chick. Or they’ll just take pebbles and try to incubate them. It is an anthropomorphic thing, but you look at a male penguin with a stone on its feet, who’s going, “Why isn’t this bloody thing happening? Everyone else’s is but mine isn’t…”, and it’s really quite sad.

The Bachelor King is being shown at cinemas. Is it a thrill for you to see your work on a big screen?
Yes, it is. And particularly in 3D. Flying Monsters was the first 3D film we made, and we were quite cautious there — we made a film about fossils, which you don’t have to creep up on and don’t fly away! And that’s why we chose it. Coupled with the fact that what you do know will be a surefire success is computer-generated imagery. You can justify using CGI to some degree if you’re bringing fossils to life. Fortunately Flying Monsters did very well — it got awards and so on — so this time we’re being a bit more adventurous. We haven’t got any CGI at all.

You’ve moved from fossils to slow-moving sea-birds. What’s the next step?
We’re currently making a series in 3D at Kew, about flowers. We’re doing it with macro-work and time-lapse, which is transcendental in 3D. It’s most moving. Watching a flower unfurl is magical anyway, but in 3D it has extraordinary beauty.

Time-lapse photography must demand a lot of patience…
You have to be patient, that’s for sure. The difficulty is that you can’t check you got it right, you know? And you don’t really know what you’ve got until you run the whole thing. You can’t stop in the middle and take a peek, because it’s a continuous process. So it does occasionally go wrong. There have been incidents, not on this shoot but on an earlier series called The Private Life Of Plants, where we’ve found a slug zipping into frame and eating the whole bloody lot! And bang goes three weeks work…

Sir David Attenborough Talks Penguins
Photo: Copyright Atlantic Productions photographed by Oskar Ström

How far through the new series are you?
It’s all shot, and I do the last commentary next week.

Is it difficult to find new things to say about the same animals and plants?
No, because the commentaries I write aren’t those sorts of commentaries. They are there simply to buttress the vision. The ideal commentary has no words at all, as far as I’m concerned, because the picture tells the whole story. You only use words to explain what is not immediately visible in the picture. Once you start using words to duplicate what’s in the picture, you’ve got a dud commentary, in my opinion.

Do you fit the footage around the words, or vice versa?
The way we work is that the editor and you and the director put the pictures together in a way that you hope will require no words at all. Then finally, we go, “Right, okay, what words do we want to do?” I put it on VHS, because VHS is much easier to go forwards and backwards with than DVD. And it can be a painstaking process. When I was working on one programme, the first minute took me three or four hours to get right. Because the words mustn’t sound labored - they must sound perfectly natural - and you have to avoid clichés. Once you say, “This is the story of…”, you know you’re in cliché world. To get it just right is hard work. When there’s action on-screen, it does get easier. You just need a word here, another there. The pictures just drive it along.

Your narration always sounds very casual, though…
Well, that’s kind of you to say so. That is a compliment, what you’re saying, because if you look at the words, they’re really quite unnatural. You wouldn’t say those sentences in normal conversation. There are certain danger zones that you must avoid. “The rocks stand in mute testament...” Or the word “eons”. One of the phrases I find very difficult to avoid is “rich pickings”. Nobody, in my entire life, has ever said “rich pickings”. Have you ever said, “Well, there are rich pickings tonight, darling?” (Laughs) It’s nonsense, but that’s part of television vocabulary.

Being the owner of one of the world’s most famous voices, do you keep getting asked to record answerphone messages for people?
A whole generation is imprinted with my voice. They see me as their bird daddy!
Yes, that does happen all the time. People ask me to send them recorded messages for their weddings! You think, “Oh, come on, this is just silly…” There is a phenomenon in biology called imprinting, where when a bird hatches the first thing it hears and sees is deeply imprinted in its psyche. Human beings aren’t quite as imprintable as that, but I still think it may be the case that since I’ve been doing this for such ages — eons, even! — a lot of people first heard my voice when they were three or four. So there might be a whole population of television viewers who are imprinted with my voice. They see me as their bird daddy. (Laughs) I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s theoretically possible.

3D is also a big trend in Hollywood at the moment. Are you a film-lover?
I don’t watch as many feature films as I used to these days. So I can’t claim to be too knowledgeable. Avatar, I did see. It showed what you can do, and that’s what I would be doing if I had that kind of money — create creatures and do everything you can! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime movie, I thought, where it marked the beginning of proper 3D and the producers threw in everything. Every conceivable use of 3D is in there. [James Cameron] could be sure that 90 per cent of his audience had never seen 3D, so it really concentrated on the wow factor. But as time passes people become savvy to that sort of thing. If a film is no good in 2D, it’s not going to get any better in 3D.

One interesting thing about Avatar is that the sequel will apparently go underwater. So presumably Cameron will be creating technology that you can use for future documentaries…
That’s right. It’s not an accident, of course, that a lot of the characters in Avatar were able to fly, because that’s what you can do in 3D. You can take off and soar around. It’s one of the reasons where the first film that Anthony Geffen and I made together was about flying reptiles. Because we knew we’d be able to exploit that particular aspect of 3D. And the other place where you can fly is underwater. Atlantic actually pioneered the first underwater 3D camera for The Bachelor King, to get shots of penguins in the ocean, and demand has really exploded. I look forward to seeing what they try to do in the next Avatar. I suppose the blue people will be riding fish!

Finally, what are your plans for Christmas? Do they involve animals at all?
Do grandchildren count as animals? (Laughs) I’m going to be surrounded by grandchildren. A big family Christmas.

The Bachelor King 3D airs on Sky 3D on December 31. It will then have a theatrical release, before returning to Sky 3D in 2012.

Interview by Nick de Semlyen

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