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Empire Meets David Attenborough
The broadcasting great on Galapagos 3D

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He's scoured Indonesia for Komodo dragons, been charged by rhinos in Africa and explored Patagonia for the rarest treasures of the natural world, all with an authorative burr that has made him recognised and loved the world over. Now David Attenborough is sharing the magic of the Galapagos with us. Empire, who to be fair has studied a squirrel or two in its time, was lucky enough to be invited to meet the great man and chat with him about his Sky HD series, Galapagos 3D. He shared his thoughts on filming the series, Avatar and his future ambitions, and shared some tips for lassoing anteaters.

Empire Meets David Attenborough

What was your most spectacular moment of 2012?
Flying in a helicopter over the volcanoes of Galapagos was pretty thrilling. It's very difficult to put a helicopter there - it's beyond the range of most helicopters - so it's a great logistical feat. You have to get all the fuel supply ships and back-up equipment. But once you get there, particularly with one of these vibration-free mounts and the stereo 3D camera, to see those volcanoes is very exciting.

Why make this series now?
It was my suggestion in the first place, because I thought Galapagos would provide unique excitement in 3D. I've made a number of 3D films before, and I know something of the limitations. Which are primarily the limitations of the camera. It's so big and so clumsy, and you've got to get within a few yards of whatever you're filming. So we're specifically picked the Galapagos because we knew the animals there have a certain tameness. They don't give a damn whether somebody is standing alongside them or not. So it is uniquely suited to 3D filming. And I'm just jolly glad that we're the people who got the opportunity to do it.

Is it true that James Cameron at one point expressed interest in filming the underwater sequences?
I don't think a film about my life would be interesting. I'm a bit-player. The stars are elephants and flamingoes.
I'm told that's so, but he didn't speak to me. He spoke to the production people. I haven't actually met him.

But you have seen Avatar?
Yes, and I enjoyed it. The point about Avatar of course is that it's CGI, primarily. That's what makes it tick. The basic fabric of it is computer-generated. And we can't do that in the Galapagos. There is CGI in the series actually, to explain the internal processes in the Earth that brought about the Galapagos. But that's all.

You've been away in Africa recently. What were you doing there?
There's a crew shooting in Africa as we speak for a series about insects and arachnids. They're getting some absolutely mind-blowing stuff. And I'm also working on an Africa series for BBC1. It's about Africa as a continent, and deals not just with the plains - elephants and giraffes and so on - but South Africa, the Kalahari, the Sahara desert, the northern rim, the Congo forest and so on. And I'm providing the commentary, as well as filming bits for the tops and tails. There's also a programme about the current situation with conservation in Africa. I was out in the Sahara for one shot - it took me about three weeks to walk all the way there to deliver a line saying, '...There to the north is the Sahara. And to the south is South Africa.'

Do you have a love of deserts?
No. They make me feel thirsty.

Is it true you've never been to the Gobi?
Yes, and I do want to go. A) because I've never been there, b) because it's the heart of a great and very interesting continent, and c) because there are wonderful fossil deposits there. What's stopping me? Money and a bad leg.

Have you ever been approached by someone wanting to make a film about your life?
No. I don't think it would be an interesting story. We film the natural world and I'm a bit-player. The stars are elephants and flamingoes. And I've never been in much peril. You take all the steps beforehand to make sure you don't have to be brave. You're part of a big team and you don't stick your nose into trouble if you can avoid it. The most hazardous situations that I've ever been in at any time have not been with animals, but with a soldier who's got a loaded gun, who doesn't speak your language, has been drinking rather heavily and doesn't like the look of your face. What do you do then? That's the time when you have reason to be rather apprehensive. Far more frightening than a charging elephant.

Empire Meets David Attenborough

Is shooting underwater scary?
It isn't if you're properly prepared. The problem about doing it as far as I was concerned is that you tend to get yourself in a situation where you arrive somewhere and the producer says, 'Look, I want you to do this shot 50 feet down, coming around some coral.' And you say, 'Hang on, I haven't been diving for a couple of years'¦' You have to restore your confidence and reassure yourself that you know what you're doing. Make sure your techniques are okay. If you train properly, it's great. But if you're silly enough to think, 'Well, I did it two years ago and it went fine, so it should be okay now', you'll burst your eardrum or do something very silly.

Have you ever been in a shark cage?
I'm not in the business of wanting thrills. I'm in the business of making films.
No, no. Why would you want to go in a shark cage? People who do that do it because they deliberately want to feel close to danger. Some even incite sharks by putting blood in the water, or dangling bits of flesh, in the hope that a Great White shark will come and exhibit all of its teeth and bite the bars of the cage. That's because they want a thrill. I'm not in the business of wanting thrills. I'm in the business of making films.

But while in that business, have you ever been bitten by something?
I've been bitten by a python, back in the '50s, I think. That's it.

Is it true that you once lassoed an anteater?
Oh yes. Early on in my career I was collecting animals for London Zoo, so I've certainly done that. I'm not that skilled, but it's quite easy to drop a noose over its neck.

You see many heartbreaking things in the natural world. Is there sometimes an impulse to interfere?
Well, if you see a little baby antelope and some leopard about to pounce on it and tear it apart, if your heart doesn't melt you're less than human. Of course it does. But the reality is that if you did interfere you'd almost certainly make it worse. You wouldn't be able to save the faun, the leopard would either attack you or go and kill something else, the mother of the faun would be distraught. You've got to recognise that you're an observer, watching the processes of the natural world. There are hunted animals and hunting animals, and your existence is independent of them. Of course you feel sympathy. There was a film I was commenting on the other day, of a baby elephant dying of thirst. I'm sure we're going to get letters from people saying, 'œWhy didn't you give it water?' The answer: there wasn't any water! And even if you did give it a pail of water, what would it drink tomorrow? It's a desert and there's a drought. Baby elephants are dying. Not only that one, but hundreds of others. So of course you should feel emotionally upset about seeing the death of a baby animal. But that's not the point.

Are there places you've visited that you can't return to now, due to changes in the world's political climate?
The whole of the Middle East is virtually a no-go territory. The eastern end of the Mediterranean is a fascinating area, archeologically, zoologically, many points of view. But it's very difficult to make films there now.

You spend a lot of time on planes. Are you a movie-watcher?
No. I did used to love movies as a child - in the '30s we went to the movies every Saturday. It didn't matter what was on.

Did you see any of the first wave of 3D films in the '50s?
No, I didn't. I do see 3D as a very interesting development. Having been in television at the very beginning, with 405-line black and white, to end up with colour, high-definition 3D is very nice.

You always have several projects on the go. Are you never tempted to just sit down and relax?
Certainly not. I can't think of anything worse. I do read the odd book, though. I'm reading David Copperfield at the moment. Don't ask me quite why, but I am. It was sitting there on the shelf and I started reading it.

Finally, what's the first thing you do when you get home after a long trip?
Go to sleep!

Galapagos 3D is on Sky1HD on Saturday, Jan 12 at 8.00pm.

Interview by Nick de Semlyen

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