In what was definitely one of those very surreal moments in my science-bloggy life, I actually had Sir David Attenborough on my phone this morning as part of a teleconference organized by National Geographic Entertainment’s Cinema Ventures (NGECV). WOW…and YES, he sounds exactly the same on the phone as he does in his documentaries. David and his team are busy at work promoting the North American premiere of their feature film Flying Monsters 3D presented by NGECV, a ground-breaking combination of factual documentary and the latest in CGI and 3D technology.

Wait, what? A natural history film using CGI technology?

Sir David in a glider alongside Quetzalcoatlus, a pterosaur with a 40ft wingspan - the largest creature that ever flew. Image copyright Atlantic Productions/ ZOO.

Yes, you read that right. I’m not sure which came first - Attenborough's ambition to work with such cutting edge film techniques or his love of the mysterious Pterosaurs that flew in the skies some 200 million years ago. Either way, it’s a match made in heaven. Massive flying machines that require a serious CGI makeover (seeing as most Pterosaurs exist as small piles of crushed up bones) and the well-behaved fossils themselves. Flying Monsters has already proven itself to be award-winning material. It premiered on the UK’s SKY TV last December and bagged a BAFTA in the ‘Specialist Factual’ category. However, the early-October release date will see the film in its truly intended role: on massive 3D IMAX screens across North America and many countries world-wide.

Now, I’ve got to be honest here: I’m personally not a huge fan of the 3D experience. I find the glasses cumbersome and (with the exception of Avatar) I’ve never seen a film that made me feel that I’d really gained a whole lot from having seen it in three dimensions rather than two. I have yet to be convinced that I really need images to leap from the screen and into my reality. Based on the insane descriptions of the hardships of using 3D in the field from the Flying Monsters film crew, I’m not sure that the majority of natural history film-makers would be convinced either. The average 3D camera unit is approximately 150 pounds and requires a crew of 12 to operate. Once you’ve managed to drag it to your location, it’s certainly no picnic to achieve your images, explains Tim Cragg, director of photography for the film:

“Three dimensional images are created using two cameras that are rigged together, one pointing forward and the other downwards onto an angled mirror. The aim is to mimic the effect created by our own eyes; two images, taken from a short distance apart. The images are then laid one on top of the other to create depth”.

As if achieving that stereoscopic effect wasn’t difficult enough, 3D lenses have a fixed focal length – which means that they cannot zoom in and out. A lens change on a 3D camera unit is a tricky process that takes up to 40 minutes – requiring a HUGE amount of organization and shot planning in order to be even remotely efficient in time management for such a project (not to mention the chances for ‘missing’ that special behavior or sighting of a certain animal, and dealing with the elements).

Sir David with the subjects of his next 3D documentary: king penguins of South Georgia. Image via dailymail.co.uk

Without succumbing to a voice-crack, some kind of coughing spasm or outright heart-attack when it was my turn to ask some questions (yay me!), I managed to ask Attenborough whether all of this effort really lends itself to natural history films in general – because in my mind it does not. I wondered if he felt that there were certain natural history scenarios where this kind of process may be more successful than others. Overall he concurred that 3D technology can be very temperamental, and in all of his experience as a natural history film-maker the goal has always been to make the cameras smaller and smaller in order to ‘sneak up’ on animals and not to spook them from their natural behaviors. This is why Flying Monsters represented the ideal scenario with which to give it a try: CGI pterosaurs, and fossils that do not shy away from the camera. However, Attenborough did outline a few scenarios in which 3D filming in the natural world is working well. One of these is his recently completed (not yet released) documentary project set in the Antarctic called ‘The Bachelor King’ which focuses on king penguins, elephant seals and albatrosses. These creatures are a little more ‘3D appropriate’ than many due to their size, the kinds of movements they make and lack of fright responses to a marine vessel. The other major kingdom that lends itself more readily to 3D filming is (of course) the world of the plants. Attenborough detailed some of his recent work in the Kew Gardens near London, England which combines time-lapse and 3D technology to create images of blooming flowers, budding branches and hue-changing leaves that are (and I quote) ‘mind-blowing’.

Tapejara, another CGI created Pterosaur. Image copyright Atlantic Productions/ ZOO.

So it seems as though the entire natural history genre won’t be jumping onto the 3D bandwagon just yet. The technology is currently too cumbersome and unpredictable for most documentary budgets, and the animals themselves are not likely to rise to the challenge despite the best efforts of filmmakers. However, when you’ve got a storyline that lends itself toward the use of such technologies – as Attenborough does with Flying Monsters - it certainly represents a level of cinematic prowess that the world of the factual documentary has not yet seen. If James Cameron can make the imaginary Na’vi creatures of Avatar leap off the screen, then Sir David can certainly do the same with CGI Pterosaurs – and I for one am highly anticipating the result.

Flying Monsters premieres on IMAX screens across the nation on October 7, 2011. You can find a detailed list of theatres here.