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Discovery and the camera

This year's Graduates' Association Lecture, held on Thursday, February 13, 2003, at De Montfort Hall, Leicester, was a presentation by Sir David Attenborough on Discovery and the Camera. The following is a transcript of his lecture.
The capacity to observe, to notice things, to pick out the significant, that ability is an ability that every naturalist has to have. If you read, as I did as a boy, the 19th century naturalists their capacity to observe, notice, wonder and question was extraordinary.  [Photo: Sir David Attenborough at De Montfort Hall]

Darwin in the Galapagos just happened to notice that the finches on different islands had different beak sizes, and from that observation came a theory which has transformed science, transformed the way we look at the world. 

If you make natural history films you are always greatly indebted to the naturalists who have been there before you looking at the animals, you hope their writings and observations will guide you when you come to make your film. 

But just every now and again itís possible that you, with your camera, may be able to see things that even they didnít notice or indeed they could not possibly have seen. Everyone knows that the film camera works by taking 25 frames per second and then showing them at that speed, and the eye has such a kind of retentive memory that when you show film flicking at 25 frames per second it looks like a true movement. But of course if you vary that speed, if instead of taking 25 frames per second you take 100 frames per second but show it at 25 frames per second then of course you slow down the vision of the action four times and when you do that you can see things that no human eye has seen before. 

These days film cameras are perhaps being superseded by video cameras, but video cameras canít yet slow down motion in the way that film cameras can. So when you look at hummingbirds flying, if you film them at 100 or 200 frames per second, you can slow down their movement and see just how it is that they can hover in such a perfect way.

[Humming Bird video clip]

But there is the oldest trick in the book which cine-cameramen use, which is not to slow things down but a much easier thing, to speed things up. The very early natural history films discovered that instead of 25 frames per second you might take one a minute, or one every hour or one a day and then you can really speed up actions that no human eye has seen. 

Of course plants live on a different timescale to us and you tend to think that plants donít move, theyíre not very active, but of course you know thatís not the case because when you get up the snowdrops have come up, the blossoms have opened and when you really speed up the action of a plant you can see some quite extraordinary things. 

Let me show you the speed of action of one of the most aggressive and ferocious plants of the British countryside, quite a common one, itís called Ďdodderí and itís a parasite, that is to say it climbs around other plants usually nettles and sucks out their juices, just as an animal parasite does to another animal but when you see the actions of dodder speeded up, you see itís just as aggressive as many an animal in the wild.

[Dodder video clip]

Now you may have noticed that it wasnít just the dodder that was moving, the camera itself was moving so that the camera was able to follow one of those tendrils that went up the stems. When you think about it that means you have to be able to move the camera just as slowly as the dodder moves and thatís impossible to do by hand. To do that you have to have a little trolley on which you can put the camera and you get a motor which is linked to a computer which moves it a micro millimetre a second, to keep pace with the movement of the plant. 

So I showed that to botanists who had never really seen how a dodder strangles its victims. By using that technique, that slowing down technique, which you saw with the hummingbirds and insects, speeding up techniques which you can use with plants, we can combine those with filming out in the wild. 

We wanted to film one of the most extraordinary and beautiful of plants, the Giant Amazon Water Lily, and we wanted to film the way in which it was fertilised, pollinated by insects, beetles. We would have to slow down the flight of the beetles to see just what they were doing, we would have to speed up the spreading of the bud as it came out of the water and the spreading of the leaves, some of it out in the Amazon itself where the beetles live and some we would film under almost laboratory conditions which we did in fact in a cowshed in Oxfordshire. 

We built a huge tank, cow dung at the bottom, because Amazon lilies like a rich substrate, and we filmed it using a trolley, which moved across the surface of the tank so we were able to get movements above the surface of the water. We had to put a camera below water in order that we could see what was happening as the bud came up, and on top of all this we had to balance night lighting and day lighting because if there was a difference between the quality of the film it would flicker. A flicking change for the daylight movement then into night movement. 

So in fact we had to install an electric light, that would remain uniform twenty four hours a day and we also had to build covers to insure the humidity was right, so you could hardly have had more artificial circumstances combined with natural circumstances. You also got some shots that have the sky in, how are you going to fix that? In the end we brought all these ingredients together and produced a sequence about the flowering and the pollination of the Giant Amazonian Water Lily.

[Water lily video clip]

The camera can show new things either by slowing things down or speeding them up. But thereís another ability the camera has, and that is with the right lenses it can take you where the human eye can never go. It can look at really tiny things and produce vivid large images where you can really see whatís going on. 

The next sequence Iíd like to show you is about ants, and I must say fairly ferocious ants, that build and sew leaves together on bushes in Australia with their silk, the queen is in her chamber right in the middle. But these ants are invaded by an extraordinary caterpillar, in fact when you first see it you wouldnít believe it was a caterpillar, to be honest when you see it enlarged with a camera lens it looks like a Yorkshire pudding. 

You will see it is a caterpillar, but not any caterpillar a very aggressive caterpillar, a hunting caterpillar, a caterpillar that eats ants larvae and so we had to take an active nest from a tree in Australia and using our macro lenses produce images which show how the caterpillar gets into the nest and what it does when it gets there. That, at least the last part, was something that entomologists had never seen so clearly.

[Ant and caterpillar video clip]

So a vision of what goes on in an antís nest, even the most keen eyed entomologist had failed to discover about the aggressive meat eating habits of these strange Yorkshire pudding caterpillars. But there is one liability, one thing that until recently cameras found very difficult to do and that is to film in low light. 

When I first started making natural history films 50 years ago we went into a West African forest and found that there was simply not enough light to film at all, well things have got better since then but electronic cameras have had a lead over film cameras for the last few decades. Film cameras are getting more sensitive but by and large low-light electronic cameras do a marvellous job and they enable you to see things you canít see with a naked eye, or only dimly, but of course they need some light. 

But I have to confess I have a passion, I have one particular group of birds which I am fascinated by, the birds of paradise. There are 42 species of them and they all live in New Guinea and Northern Australia, in very, very remote parts that are very difficult to get to. Itís not very pleasant walking either, itís very muddy, the forest is thick with plants covered in spines, when you eventually camp it will rain every day from midday onwards, sometimes earlier, everything gets covered in mud and everything has mould growing on it before you know where you are. 

We were very doubtful as to whether electronic cameras were going to be able to survive in these conditions but itís only in these places that some species of the Birds of Paradise live. 

There was one particular one, called the Sicklebill Bird of Paradise that has the most extraordinary epaulettes, the most extraordinary outgrowths from either side, from, as it were, the shoulder. 

When the skins of the birds of paradise first came to Britain in the 19th century artists like Jon Gould were given the skin and told to draw the bird from that, they had to try and reconstruct what the bird would do in life with its feather adornments and they were completely baffled by these epaulettes, didnít know what they were, some drew them so they stuck out from here, some from there, down on the wings nobody knew at all, indeed there was only the most generalised account of how the male Bird of Paradise displayed to its mate.  

So with this inconvenient passion of mine for the birds of paradise I wanted to make a film showing all the different types and I desperately wanted to see the Sicklebill, but it only displays very early in the dawn when thereís only just enough light to see your hand in front of your face in the forest. But even so I thought maybe, maybe the electronic cameras would be able to get us pictures and we would see something no ornithologist had seen before. 

Well it was an attempt that nearly came to grief because the first of our electronic cameras seized up, moisture got into it and it simply didnít work. Luckily they had another, and with that camera we got the first sequence of the display of the Sicklebill Bird of Paradise revealing what it actually does with its epaulettes.

[Sicklebill Bird of Paradise video clip]

Of course even the most sensitive electronic camera canít work in total darkness, it has to have some light in which to be sensitive. In total darkness electronic cameras wonít work, they have to have some kind of illumination and what you can do is to use not normal light but cameras that are sensitive to infra-red. Actually you can use electronic or film cameras but infra-red is what you illuminate it with. Infra-red is virtually invisible to human eyes which are about the size of my finger, with two infra-red lights you could illuminate the entire hall. 

Now when we make films in Africa we tend to give the impression that all the action takes place in bright sunlight, in fact that is not the case. Lions by and large spend most of the day lounging around; you tend to think they are rather idle creatures - that is because they are most active at night. Well we set out to film not lions but crocodiles, crocodiles we have filmed often enough during the day and we filmed them on sandbanks with their jaws agape but during the night theyíre different animals.

[Lion and crocodile video clip]

We have one further trick that we can use to see things no one else has seen before. Surgeons in the last few decades have used fibre-optics to put down peopleís throats to look inside their stomachs or lungs, we can use these fibre-optics in the natural world to see things people would not otherwise see.

Beavers up in North America are well known for their industry and a lot of people think they cut down trees just to make dams for the lakes in which they live. In fact these lakes also act as a kind of cold-store, they cut down the branches of trees and sink them in lakes in which they live, and they will remain edible and nutritious thanks to the near freezing water for the whole of the winter. By the side of the lake they build a lodge, a huge domed feature which when it freezes in winter has boulders and logs on it, itís as hard as concrete and in there theyíre as safe as they could possibly be, but what went on there in winter? 

We started to wonder about that and we thought of optical probes, so we very carefully bored a hole through the roof of one of these lodges and in one end we put an optical probe with a camera on the end of it and on the other side we put another tiny hole and we put in infra-red lights, lights that wouldnít disturb the beavers in any way, and we saw some rather remarkable things.

[Beaver lodge video clip]

We have one further way of seeing what goes on in the dark. Not by installing lights, not lowlights or any other kind of lights just using that bit of heat that every mammal radiates from their body. 

Now this thermal camera, thermal imaging as itís called, was something developed by the military because a thermal camera can detect the heat given off by a human face at 50 yards. They will pick up a tiny spot of heat which is simply produced by the thermal camera looking at an object which is slightly warm and the warmer it gets the more it changes its colour, when itís cold itís blue and as it warms up it turns red, but thatís an illusion, well the thing itself is actually invisible, itís the thermal camera which produces the images.  

We used a thermal camera in a place where there is not one particle of light of any kind, deep in a cave in Northern Canada. We went there to film bats.

[Bat video clip]

So we can use all kinds of tricks, we can use macro lenses, we can speed up action, we can slow down action, we can film in the dusk, we can film in darkness, we can use infra-red, we can use electronic cameras, all of which will do things which the human eye couldnít do by itself but none of these things are of any value unless the naturalist is there to direct the cameras in the right sort of way and indeed none of these things can supplement the human eye but never replace it. 

I would like to show you one more sequence, but a sequence which doesnít rely on any of these tricks but simply relies on the talent of the naturalist to get to remote places, find exciting things, sit down and watch. Iíve already confessed that my passion is for birds of paradise, there are all kinds of them, some with big plumes they throw up over their backs during display high in trees, thereís one which uses a trampoline to bounce up and down as he calls, but some of the most exciting and least filmed display on the ground. 

Because New Guinea is a huge but relatively new island, mammals particularly hunting mammals never got there, there are no weasels or stoats, wolverines or cats, or even rats to interfere with a bird on the ground and the birds of paradise have developed the most exotic, most fascinating set of displays and the ones that display on the ground clear a special dancing ground. Young males, who donít develop their full plumage until theyíre several years old will come along and watch the adult male as he displays to see what they should do. Sometimes as you will see the young birds try their hand at it. 

Well again thereís another Bird of Paradise called the Six-Wired Perotia Bird of Paradise, itís not one of the gaudy ones, itís dressed entirely in black except for an iridescent bib, it has six plumes sprouting from the top of its head. But what he lacks in gorgeous colour he makes up for in his dance steps.

We found the display ground of the Six-Wired Bird of Paradise in a very, very remote part of Western New Guinea, very high mountains; very cold, very wet it took a long time to find it. One of the ways of finding if a display ground is in use or not is to put a few twigs or leaves on it one night, come back the next morning and if the twigs are still there youíll know itís not being used anymore, but if the male is still using the ground he will take the twigs away, and to our delight the display ground we found was still being used and so the next morning before dawn, we were in hides, I was in one and the cameraman was the other side in the other one. 

I was there in order to spot what was going on and warn him when the birds were about to appear and we both had neck mikes on so we could talk to one another. Leaving the rest of the team behind, because we needed minimal people up there, he and I went up two hours before dawn in the pitch black, hid ourselves in the hide sat down and waited.

[Six-Wired Perotia Bird of Paradise video clip]

That was the climax for me of a lot of hard work, it wasnít too bad for the bird either, the sun then was fully up and the cameraman, Richard Kirby, and I came down the mountain side, slithering down the slope, happy as clowns. As I said we had mikes on our chests and when we came through the path we saw the camp below us. I called out ďDickie, Dickie we got itĒ and he said ďI not only know you had it, I know the very moment you did because I could hear your heart through the neck mike and it suddenly doubled its speedĒ. 

Thatís what we try to do with these extraordinary films, from these extraordinary things that go on in the natural world that the human eye has not seen before.

Thank you very much.  

[Photo: Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess]
WELCOME: The Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess welcomes Sir David Attenborough to Leicester.


Sir David Attenborough, with Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess and Graduate Relations Officer Kathy Whitehurst.

SIGN OF DISTINCTION: Sir David Attenborough signs a copy of his book.

Graduate Relations Home Page

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