This New Year’s Day sees the beginning of Conquest of the Skies 3D, the latest instalment in Sky 3D’s seven part Attenborough marathon. The series, which Attenborough himself has described as his most complex and challenging to date, delivers a comprehensive overview of the evolutionary history of flight, mapping the progress from the very first insects that once dominated our planet, through to the early winged lizards pre- and eventually post-feathering, and onto the present day aerial-masters.
The cinematography is jaw-dropping, which probably goes without saying based on Attenborough’s track record. It’s a visual feast from start to finish. A bit of a cliché I know, but maybe that’s appropriate; the standard is so unflinchingly perfect, that we can use clichés safely without fear of insincerity. Show me something else that deserves the label more and I’ll find some more original language.
In spite of an insect hatred, I sat completely transfixed as creepy-crawlies glided and pirouetted around with the most oddly beautiful grace. From the delicate yet precise acrobatics of newly metamorphosed dragonflies (am I the only one who didn’t realise they did this?) and the blundering, clumsy flight of a giant beetle (suspended in motion before Attenborough as he explains its adaptations) to the common housefly, expertly outmanoeuvring Sir David’s attempts to swat it away from his steak dinner with effortless agility. I’m not a fan of 3D in general but maybe this is the kind of thing we should reserve it for. Combined with the HD and frequent use of slow motion, the result is startlingly immersive. It feels almost like an invasion of privacy, like we’re truly stepping into the domain of nature’s aeronauts.
It’s often joked that Attenborough does not feature an awful lot on location these days (pretty ungenerously considering he is getting on a bit), but these jibes are made a little redundant in this series which shows us, in one remarkable segment, the 88-year-old harnessed up and suspended 200ft high in the Gomantong caves in Borneo, as hundreds upon thousands of bats swarm around him in an astonishing dusk time exodus. Sir David did note that during the first 30 seconds the crew were very concerned for his welfare and comfort, before realising they’d been a bit trigger happy, and drifted into indifference. Left swinging around in lonely solitude for the next half an hour as they awaited the bats’ arrival, who knows if he will be quite so willing a volunteer in the next project.
Of course, the majority of the skies are dominated by one particular group; Birds. Sir David’s personal favourites, Birds of Paradise, are missing from the series, but many others from the vast array of bird species do feature, each with their own unique evolutionary features. The series takes us from Rome to Borneo, Scotland to China and introduces us, to pick just a few examples, to the method whereby vultures catch a ride on rising pillars of hot air with the most minimal of effort, how hummingbirds are able to hover both stationary and laterally to collect nectar from a moving source, and the aerial warfare between predatory peregrines and swarms of starlings in the air above Rome.
The series is not without some mild detractions, though. One sequence wherein a long-ago extinct pterosaur was brought to life with the help of CGI did cause some confusion in terms of realism. I’m not suggesting, of course, that anyone had too much trouble sussing out that the dinosaur was a fabrication, but problems did arise later with some of the more remarkable real life shots, one in particular seeing Attenborough streaking along in a speedboat inches beneath a swan in flight. Some viewers seemed to have difficulty deciding whether CGI had played a part in this shot too, but no, it’s very real and completely stunning. Perhaps this taps into concerns about the future of natural science broadcasting; are we heading down a more computer-animated path that could detract from the verisimilitude of documentaries? Will form eventually outweigh content? Or are the viewing public’s perceptions likely to place restrictions on the evolution of the documenting process?
Attenborough, who himself has always been quick to embrace and pioneer new technology and techniques for documenting the natural world (the move to 3D being just one example), seemed to understand these concerns when they were raised in the post-screening Q&A—“God forbid we let our enthusiasm for technology outweigh our love of the animals we’re documenting,” to paraphrase his response—but ultimately believed that the outsourcing of technological development to specialist partner companies did still allow for the documentarians’ focus to ultimately centre on the animal subjects.
No doubt the team are busy brainstorming for next Christmas—I personally can’t wait to see what’s next.
The first episode of Conquest of the Skies 3D will be broadcast New Years Day at 7pm on Sky 3D and Sky1