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Tech behind BBC’s Life Story is driving forward the future of TV

Tonight, David Attenborough returns to your TV (iPad, computer, phone) screens with the BBC’s new landmark natural history show, Life Story.

Produced by BBC Natural History, the show follows the lives of animals all over the world, showcasing the trials each one goes through as it fights to survive.

I was lucky enough to see an early screening of the show last week and was blown away by the filming and technology used to get up close and personal with animals and insects alike. You can see the trailer for the show below.

The team behind the show spoke about all the technology involved and, keen to dig further, I spoke with executive producer Mike Gunton about how technology is revolutionising factual TV.

Technology has come on leaps and bounds in the past few decades. How has it affected how you do your job? What’s the most exciting tech that you now use?

Mike Guton April 2013New technology is one of the most important and exciting ways in which we can innovate in the world of natural history filming.

Over the last 10 years we have seen the emergence of cameras flown in stabilised-helicopters, ultra high-speed cameras, digital and tracking time-lapse and starlight cameras – each one has made an impact on the way we tell stories.

Currently we are all excited about UltraHD (UHD) drones and a new range of miniaturised stabilised cameras – all of which has been used to great effect on Life Story.

UHD cameras film in 4K, four times better resolution that 1080p. The majority of households don’t have 4K compatible TVs but Gunton says that the improvements are visible even on regular HD TVs.

What are the most technologically impressive/interesting projects that you have coming up?

The next project I’m involved in is Shark for BBC One. The team have been taking UHD into the underwater world and shooting in 4K. It will be the first series we deliver in full UHD.

The Natural History Unit is also making a huge Oceans series which is not only shot in UHD but will be using all sorts of new drones as well as manned and unmanned subs.

BBC Natural History

At the event last Thursday, the team were showing off the drones you used for filming Life Story. Ever crashed one?

I think flying drones is best left to the experts and Im pleased today as a result we haven’t had any disasters yet… Unlike the old style miniature helicopters we used to use for original drone-type shooting which we used to crash quite often!

There has been a lot of hype around 3D technology in the past few years. To what extent do you think it will replace 2D?

I have been involved with a couple of 3D projects and have really enjoyed them. I think 3D can be wonderfully effective with the right subject matter and when in the hands of really talented technicians.

I’m not convinced its going to replace 2D in the near future – I think UHD is the direction most of us will go in and I think the hardware manufacturers will be keen to encourage that too.

I’m sure 3D will come again, perhaps with holographics or perhaps when VR technology starts to make an impact.

You outsource some of the drone work and a few other aspects of the production. Do you anticipate the BBC being able to stay at the forefront of innovation with regards to film or do you think you will increasingly look outside of the organisation for some of the best innovation?

Hardware innovation is often external, in the hands of engineers, software designers and the like, but applied innovation is still very much at the heart of BBC production teams.

Often our innovation is in the shape of what you might call beta development or hardware hacks that bring new visual insights into nature.


David Attenborough touched on the fact that excellent filming equipment is available to amateurs around the world. If everyone can be a film-maker, how does it affect BBC Natural History?

In some ways a great deal and in some ways not very much, if that can make sense. Equipment is only a tool – field, photographic and storytelling skills are still essential to make an impact with any project.

Where it does make an exciting impact is the way it can encourage engagement in the natural word, self-published stories can tell stories that a big broadcaster like the BBC might find it impossible to cover.

And finally, is there anything you’ve wanted to film that you haven’t been able to film because the tech hasn’t been around?

I always used to say the Giant Squid (which is one of the most mysterious and impressive creatures on earth, living at extraordinary depths and in the pitch dark) but NHK Japan have just done it with amazing image intensifying cameras and all kinds of submarines.

Perhaps I’d say returning to one of the classics of wildlife filming – the ultimate lion hunt but filmed with a squadron of drones flying alongside, in front, above and in amongst the pride during the hunt – to get the most intense sense of what its like to be an individual lion on the hunt.

Life Story airs tonight on BBC One at 9pm.