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Nature filmmaking: Ready for their close-up

Smaller, lighter and better than ever, the latest equipment is helping documentary-makers capture nature as you've never seen it before. Chris Evans speaks to the creators of a breathtaking new BBC film

'The HD camera was focused on a baby elephant being attacked by 40 or 50 lions in the pitch-black of night," says the documentary director Alastair Fothergill. "The camerawoman was the only one who could see anything through a viewfinder, and had to talk to the guys handling the infrared lights in the Jeeps. All the while surrounded by frightened female elephants charging about the place and lions on the prowl."

For the makers of nature documentaries, the world can be a dizzying place. There is, of course, the danger of being set upon by the stars of the show. But as technology reinvents itself, enabling the crew to venture closer than ever to the action, and film in the most extreme conditions, there is also a bewilderment at what may be possible, and, indeed, what all the buttons do.

The lion attack was just one of the stunning shots captured using groundbreaking HD (high- definition) cameras for the documentary film Earth, made by the BBC Worldwide and the production company Greenlight Media and due for release in UK cinemas on 16 November.

Filmed over five years, in more than 200 locations worldwide and using 40 cameramen, Earth has been described as the Ben Hur of nature-film making. Shot at the same time as the TV series Planet Earth, the film version follows, among other things, the migration paths of three animal families: polar bears, elephants and humpback whales.

The £23m budget created the first ever opportunity to experiment with the latest HD technology. "We were guinea-pigging it from the start. There was a lot of time put into training and developing cameramen and techniques," says Jeff Wilson, Earth's field director. "It was a steep learning curve. We had to test £50,000 worth of equipment in locations as diverse as the Gobi desert at minus 30C, and the Afar desert at 40C. The room for error was marginal."

The most stunning examples in the film of the benefits of using HD over the more traditional super-16 or 35mm cameras are in the slow-motion shots of a great white shark leaping out of the water to grab a seal, and a leopard chasing a gazelle across the desert, with every sinew on display. "The camera we used for these super-slow-motion shots is a Photron digital camera that records straight on to a hard drive. There's no film or tape – it creates digital files that are stored straight on to a laptop," says Simon King, the cinematographer. "It can film at 2,000 frames per second, which means we can slow an event down by up to 40 times but maintain the clarity and detail of the image."

The camera was originally developed for crash-testing cars, but a lab is a very controlled environment. King needed it to work in a completely different way, so he adapted it. "The camera needs to stay hooked up to a processor and computer, from which it is controlled, and a regular power source. However, out in the field, you don't have those, so a series of 12V car batteries were rigged in the back of a Land Rover or speedboat to provide power," says King. The result, adds Fothergill, is "a shot of the shark leaping out of the water, which lasts 45-50 seconds in the final movie, but in reality only takes 1-2 seconds."

Shots from the air are equally stunning, thanks to what is known as a Cineflex Camera Stabilization System attached to a helicopter. At previous attempts, using the old equipment, animals were scared off by the noise of helicopters approaching, but the Cineflex allows the cameraman to shoot from an altitude four times higher than normal.

The kit has been widely used on feature films, commercials and news programmes, but this was the first time it was used for a nature documentary. Operated by an experienced hand (Michael Kelem, who was aerial director of photography on Mission: Impossible), via a joystick, the system consists of a camera stabilised by gyroscopes and housed in a 14.5in-diameter ball at the nose of the helicopter. Compared with bulky 35mm-film camera systems, the Cineflex is fairly lightweight, at about 85lb.

"It has a lens four times more powerful than any we had used before, and without it we would not have been able to shoot scenes such as the wolves hunting, as they are notoriously shy, nervous animals," says Fothergill. "Equally, we were able to film the migration of the humpback whales in rough seas, and the polar bears stranded on the ice."

Previously, film-makers would have been forced to ground the helicopter as soon as they ran out of film, by which point the wolf would be well over the horizon. And as is illustrated by Fothergill's tale of lions, elephants and infrared lights, new technology is enabling crews to shoot in low light. In Papua New Guinea, in the depths of the rainforest, Jeff Wilson was able to capture the behaviour of male birds of paradise at dawn or dusk. "When people have come here in the past and used super-16 or 35mm film to shoot these birds, they've come away with very dark, grainy images. In low light, you wouldn't see the beautiful, iridescent colours of their wings. With HD, you can capture everything."

Looking back at some of the older nature film documentaries – such as Microcosmos (1996), Winged Migration (2001), and even the BBC's previous effort Deep Blue (2003) – you can tell the difference in quality of the images. "The evolution of technology used on nature documentaries is incredible," says Alix Tidmarsh, Earth's producer. "With Deep Blue, the footage was just taken from the TV series Blue Planet and worked on in post-production. Fortunately, people are more forgiving of sea shots because most of them have never been to the depths of the ocean before. But with Earth, most of it is above water, so the quality of the imagery has to be spot on, which I think it is, thanks to HD," says Fothergill.

That said, there are still many benefits of using the trusty old kit, and sometimes 35mm film cameras were preferred to the latest digital HD versions. "In perfect light conditions, the 35mm remains probably the highest quality," Fothergill insists. And Wilson adds: "When we filmed in Antarctica with emperor penguins, it was too much of a risk to send an HD camera out. With an old 35mm camera, you can take it apart and put it back together again if something goes wrong, whereas you would have to be a technology genius to do that with an HD camera."

The quality of image on an HD is also not always perfect. "For the night-time sequence of the lions attacking the elephant, we had to rely on what we call 'perception of movement' because when you see the still image it looks dreadful, just random noise and dots, but when it is moving, your brain detects that the image is an elephant. The lower the resolution, the harder your brain works," says Jon Thompson, who put all the Earth footage together in the editing suite.

Furthermore, despite the obvious advances in technology, film-makers still insist on putting in the hard graft. For example, Wilson had to spend 16 weeks, 14 hours a day, seven days a week living in a hide to capture the behaviour of the birds. "That is what is great about the Earth experience. You are using the latest technology, but often it comes down to using very traditional techniques – hide work and tracking. Those skills will never be defunct, no matter how advanced the technology gets."

This traditional approach, however, raises an interesting debate about the future of nature documentary-film making. Fothergill is at pains to stress that "at no point did we use CGI [computer-generated imagery] for this film. It is all natural." But with such advances in technology, it will be hard for nature film- makers not to be tempted to fake amazing scenes, especially as competition increases.

There are already a great number of nature films looking to cash in on the success of March of the Penguins and take advantage of the HD technology developed by Earth. These include Animals in Love from the French director Laurent Charbonnier, who was director of photography on the Oscar-nominated Winged Migration (2001); National Geographic Films' Arctic Tale, which follows the life cycle of a polar bear and a walrus; and the BBC's next offering, The Meerkats, backed by the Weinstein Company.

"It is inevitable that some will be tempted to use CGI, and it makes me cry," says Earth's producer Alix Tidmarsh. Several film-makers on smaller-budget nature documentaries will inevitably tinker with special effects to cut back on costs.

"There's no way we can compete with Superman, either financially or technically, but the people who have seen Earth say, 'A lot of the images look like they've been created on a computer', and, 'It's so wonderful that our planet is so beautiful'. There is a yearning for the real thing," says Fothergill. However, as a producer at the BBC's Natural History Unit, Fothergill is only too aware of the BBC's plans to cut back its nature-documentary budget and staff numbers at the unit.

The result could be that the approach taken for Earth and Planet Earth, sending cameramen out for months at a time to remote locations at great expense, who would occasionally come back with nothing, will no longer be an option.

'Earth' is released at cinemas nationwide on 16 November. Chris Evans writes for 'Screen International'

Behind the scenes: the making of 'Earth'

Storm clouds

These were captured off the north-west coast of Australia from a weather plane using time-lapse photography. "We were able to take very accurate GPS data so we knew how the plane was moving and then compensate that movement into our computer," says Alastair Fothergill, Earth's director.

Polar bears

"For the polar bear shot we used an HD Varicam camera with a 800mm zoom lens. The camera needed to be kept warm as it was below -30C, so we developed a special jacket for it, which we called a polar bear jacket," explains Simon King, cinematographer.

Shark eating a seal

"We used a Photron high speed camera recording at 1,000 frames per second. Once you press the button it captures eight seconds of action (above, left), so you have to make sure the camera is focused on the right spot," says Fothergill.

Birds of paradise

"I sat in a hide for 16 weeks, 14 hours a day, seven days a week to capture the shots of the birds of paradise deep within the jungles in Papua New Guinea using an HD camera with an 800mm zoom lens," says Jeff Wilson, Earth field director.

Elephant attacked by lions

This was taken using low light, infrared HD cameras, and was very hard to watch, not just because it was pitch black, but because of the violent nature of the attack," says Alix Tidmarsh, Earth producer.

Earth from space

"We used thousands of still images from Nasa which we downloaded from the internet and mosaiced and graded them all together, then created a small, very gentle move on the computer which mimicked the movement of a space station," says Fothergill.

Humpback whale

"I filmed within a couple of metres of the humpback mother. I could see her eyeball and I could see her looking at me," Doug Allen, cinematographer.