Galapagos 3D – a precedent setting 3D documentary?

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The latest addition to the collection of David Attenborough hosted and written 3D documentaries, Galapagos 3D raises the bar for future 3D productions.

Galapagos 3D is the first show to come out of Colossus Productions – the joint venture between Sky and Atlantic Productions. Produced by Anthony Geffen (Flying Monsters, Bachelor King, Kingdom of Plants), the three part series sees David Attenborough return to the protected oasis for the fourth time and the first time in 3D.

Galapagos 3D has been in production for over a year and the idea to document the place where Darwin conceived the idea of natural selection, came from David Attenborough himself, who is celebrating 60 years on television this year.

“After Kingdom of Plants, David and I were sitting contemplating future projects,” said Geffen, Producer and CEO of Atlantic Productions, “and I mentioned the Galapagos. David turned to me, paused, and then his face just lit up. I knew immediately that we had our next film.” 

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The Galapagos Islands rose from the ocean over four million years ago. It is a unique highly protected place. Despite having a combined land area of just 3,028 miles, the area boasts some of the highest levels of biological diversity in the world. Due to the lack of natural predators, the animal inhabitants are incredibly tame, and comfortable in the presence of humans, useful when a 22 strong 3D production crew are visiting with ten tonnes of kit.

Commissioned by Sky Head of Factual Celia Taylor, the three part series is split into the themes of Origin, Adaptation and Evolution.

Galapagos 3D incorporates and perfects several 3D filming techniques developed for other Atlantic Productions documentaries such as macro and micro filming, time lapse photography, underwater filming and CG sequences.  They have all been thrown into this series making for a visually varied and dynamic interest sustaining show.

“It’s only now that the latest developments in camera technology have given us the possibility of filming the full range of wildlife in 3D,” said Attenborough. 
“To film the wildlife was complex, as we needed to use lots of different types of cameras and 3D rigs; some in the air, on the volcanic islands and under the sea.” Said Director, Martin Williams.

“No one in their right mind would attempt to make a 3D film in Galapagos,” Geffen comments. “There are absurd challenges involved in taking 3D crew and kit to such a remote and difficult place, and any number of things could have gone catastrophically wrong. But you don’t move the 3D medium on without pushing the boundaries, so we did – and the results exceeded our wildest expectations”.

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But pushing boundaries can often mean things are more likely to go wrong, as they did on several occasions. 

The helicopter for the aerial unit broke down leaving crew scattered across remote volcanoes. They were rescued two days later after surviving on a daily diet of a litre of water whilst waiting for the delivery of a spare part. 

Attenborough had to be persuaded to ditch the trademark pale blue shirt for a darker colour as 3D cameras cannot use colour filters like 2D cameras.

Animal boredom was also a problem. With it taking up to half an hour to set up a 70 KG camera, even the friendliest tortoises got bored and wondered off. To solve this, the crew developed a ‘stealth filming’ technique, crawling close to the animals in silence, and placing the camera on a sand bag.

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Broken cables, constant sea spray on the mirror of a time lapse rig, and the tough hot conditions of an old insect quarantine facility all added to the challenge of the shoot.

Apart from the logistical challenges of moving such kit around, the eco-sensitive area is protected with strict rules, one of which requiring the entire kit to be meticulously disinfected before entering certain areas. Even the crew had to change into clothing that had been in a cooler for 48 hours, to kill all bugs. 

All the trials and tribulations were worth it.

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I watched the second episode (Adaption) which sees David Attenborough investigating the driving forces behind the dramatic evolutionary changes the islands have experienced over millions of years.

I agree that Galapagos 3D really pushes the boundaries of 3D and uses it to create an experience, rather than attempt to document how we would see the islands as if we were really there. This is the direction I would like to see future 3D documentaries go – using 3D to create something breathtaking rather than ‘normalise’ the format. For example, one of the sweeping landscape time lapse shots was filmed with cameras 100 metres apart. The stunning shot was one of hyper-reality rather than one of true realism  – this is where 3D can come into its own. As David Attenborough said: “When we look at a cloudscape or the setting sun we see it in 2D.  But 3D cameras can refocus the human eye, allowing us to see “a moving drama of clouds in 3 dimensions in a most extraordinary way.” This creates a mind-blowing cinematic experience. “I’ve never seen an image like it.”

Another incredible shot featured a shark tagged by a diver. The volume of the ocean and scale of the whale in comparison to the diver could only be delivered through 3D. It had the polish, visual trickery, big budget feeling of an IMAX movie.

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By deploying dedicated specialist units such as aerial, underwater and wildlife, the series is jam packed with visual variety that will hold anyone’s interest, even those like myself who would not normally choose to watch a natural history documentary.

The problem often inherent In 3D natural history documentaries is the card-boarding effect caused by the need to zoom into animals, preventing animals being disturbed in their natural environments but Galapagos 3D does not suffer such issues. Thanks to the trusting nature of the species there, depth was full of volume and roundness; elements were pushed into negative space more frequently than other 3D documentaries but in a smooth comfortable way.


My favourite sequence was the exploration of a cave, the home of some the most bizarre insects on the planet. The micro-photography techniques developed on Kingdom of Plants create a gloriously skin itchingly creepy scene.  The underwater sequences deserve a special mention too. Cameras follow the swimming animals as smoothly as the creatures themselves and the volume of the underwater world was sensational.

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Galapagos is a genuinely important moment for 3D documentary making. It seems the lessons of being too conservative have been learnt; that 3D is able to exaggerate elements to bring the drama closer. It was comfortable to watch despite its extreme 3D moments and used 3D in a sophisticated way that gives the viewer enough reasons to put on those glasses. It’s the opposite to those early dreary IMAX documentaries. In fact, an IMAX documentary called Galapagos 3D was released in 1999. Well done Colossus. If only more people could watch this in 3D – even the most cynical people could not disagree that 3D really can have a place in the medium of documentary filmmaking.  3D is finally being truly understood. 

If you own a 3D TV set and have access to Sky 3D, I highly recommend you watch or record Galapagos 3D With David Attenborough, which premieres on New Year's Day on Sky 3D at 7pm and simulcasting in 2D on Sky 1 HD.  Episode 2 will air January 5th at 20.00 and Episode 3 will air on January 12th at 20.00.

You can watch a behind the scenes video here and the official trailer can be watched here 


On approaching a new 3D production…

Attenborough: You are aware of some shots where you know 3D isn’t going to be a significant thing and then there are other shots where they are sensational. But if you are not careful you put the cart before the horse and say “let’s do this because it will be wonderful in 3D” and you produce a shot of no particular relevance.  In that case you would produce a dud programme. It is essential that it is a great programme and that viewers want to know what is going to happen next.  You have to appreciate it more when it is in 3D than when it is not – not the other way round.

Whether the general public are as concerned about 3D as the producers…
Attenborough: I can sympathise in a way; quite a lot of people don’t care about quality. With radio, it’s the music people listen to; the fact that it is not the highest of frequencies doesn’t actually ruin their enjoyment. When I was in television at BBC 2 we had 625, the new line standard, and I was very keen on getting high quality sound to go with it. We looked at the sets and saw the speakers were hardly bigger than an orange. We talked to all the people and asked why didn’t put in a decent sound system.  They replied that people were not interested in the quality and it is true.
On the sacrifice in resolution for 3D…
Attenborough: No it does not matter.  I think the best 3D shots are incomparably better than 2D. To see an insect pollenate a flower in 3D is so vivid but a landscape in 3D is of no consequence at all.
On home consumption of 3D…
Attenborough: Any person who spends a certain amount on a set is going to want to see a certain amount of output.  They don’t want to see an hour and a half every month – that’s not a very good bargain. There is a quite a lot of sport which is great in 3D but making 3D is expensive. Sky have gone out in a limb saying we want to advance the technology.