PBS’s Nature premiered the first installment of a three-part series entitled Attenborough: Life at Work last night. Last night’s episode, Life on Camera, focused on Attenborough’s 60-plus year career spent chronicling the natural world. Ostensibly a primer on how far technology has advanced and how these advancements have helped make natural history filmmaking, the hour-long program was concise, insightful and a visual treat.
Whether he was waxing rhapsodic about the advent of underwater cameras, geothermal technology, how the security industry augmented natural history filmmaking or the changes in aerial photography, Life on Camera was a real treat. As much a career retrospective as it is a valentine to the advancements of digital technology, the documentary was a sweet and enjoyable hour of natural history filmmaking. The second installment, Understanding the Natural World, which premieres next Wednesday, digs a bit deeper.
The program opens with a feature on Australian scientists Conrad Lorenz and his breakthrough tome “King Solomon’s Ring.” Attenborough uses the text as a segue to how far scientists have gone in using imprinting techniques for their own purposes. That segment introduces us to Rose Buck and her work with goslings. A shimmering segment includes Attenborough’s encounter with giant Galapagos tortoises (from 1979’s Life on Earth) and how their existence proves Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Attenborough deviates towards earth science for a segment from 1984’s The Living Planet, which documents Icelandic volcanoes and how their eruptions help explain continental drift and the subsequent displacement of animals the world over.
For a slice of levity, Attenborough recalls his attempts to summon native species, be it a Patagonian woodpecker, a North American cicada, a Minnesota wolf, a Floridian lizard or an Australian seabird. The takeaway moment from this jocular segment however is watching verdant monkeys avoiding an attack from a python. Attenborough dives into personal history and recounts reading Alfred Russell Lewis’ The Malay Archipelago and his long-held desire to see the enchanting birds of paradise. That lifelong goal was fulfilled in 1957’s Zoo Quest for the Paradise Birds. Much like the first installment, it’s neat for younger generation folks such as myself to see 1950s natural history filmmaking in all its primitive forms.
And therein lies the beauty of this series. As much as it is celebratory and self-congratulatory, the series is also a paean to nature and its abundant charms and lessons. Though it probably would flop on larger screens, the series is as topical, important and impacting as ever and one can only hope many are tuning in. Now in his 80s, Attenborough won’t be around for long and his contributions to the advancements of natural history filmmaking are without question revelatory and deeply profound. Do yourself a favor and tune in.