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How Planet Earth Pushes the Boundaries of Filmmaking

With groundbreaking programs like Planet Earth and Blue Planet, the BBC Natural History Unit is has become one of the the most renowned producers of wildlife documentaries the world-over. Looking back at the impressive history of the company their success can be chalked up to two major factors. The first is their ability to create gripping narrative about the animals they feature. The second factor, and perhaps the more substantial of the two, is their use of the most up to date camera technologies to capture images that have never been seen before.

In the 1950's, Zoo Quest, Sir David Attenborough's first program, was revolutionary for its use of 16mm cameras. At the time 35 mm was the standard for broadcast television. Because of the portability of the substantially smaller 16mm cameras the BBC, and the world, would be rewarded with footage of creatures that had never before been photographed.

The use of ultra high speed cameras has recently become the norm but the BBC Natural History Unit had actually been using the technology in controlled environments for years. More recently, they were one of the first to take the technology into the field. And if you’re a practitioner of time-lapse photography using modern digital cameras, you owe a huge debt of gratitude to the BBC as the Natural History Unit was the first to develop a system to automatically take photos at programmed intervals.

In order to capture night footage on Planet Earth II, the Natural History Unit of course used a combination of the most up-to date infrared and thermal cameras. But in a move reminiscent of their deployment of 16mm cameras in the 1950’s, the BBC also used the prosumer Sony a7SII to capture night footage.

Finally, here’s a clip from Zoo Quest. In the world of educational television, the importance of Zoo Quest and Attenborough himself truly cannot be overstated.

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