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David Attenborough’s ‘Penguins 3D:’ 4K Location Production for the Nature Documentary

Send British naturalist and documentarian David Attenborough to the native habitat of virtually any creature in the world and he’s certain to deliver a fascinating expose paired with compelling footage of never-before-seen behaviors.

Three kings on Salisbury Plain. Photo by Paul Williams/Atlantic.

Attenborough’s team recently returned to the wild, spending five months on location on the remote island of South Georgia, a British territory in the southern Atlantic roughly six days’ sail from the Falkland Islands. The result of their foray, Penguins 3D, premiered in American theaters on May 24 (Memorial Day weekend) and will be featured in select cinemas throughout the summer.

Attenborough, who wrote and narrated the documentary for Atlantic Productions, shares the story of a young male king penguin on an epic and often perilous journey back to the place of his birth, Penguin City. His sub-Antarctic island home supports albatrosses, two types of seals and an estimated six million fellow penguins. Attenborough’s tale follows this king penguin as he earns his place among the flock and fulfills his destiny of finding a mate and raising a family.

Penguins 3D was filmed primarily in 4K 3D. “Filming wildlife is frustrating, but filming wildlife in harsh sub-Antarctic conditions using vast, ungainly, highly sensitive 3D equipment is frustrating with knobs on,” Attenborough says.

“To be at the cutting edge—when you know you are doing something that no one has done before—is exciting and a great privilege. I feel hugely privileged to have started my life on 405 black and white [U.K. television] and to finish on 3D,” he adds.

Danny Spencer and Hugh Miller transport the Quasar rig. Photo by Oskar Strom/Atlantic.

Although Attenborough didn’t travel to the southern Atlantic for the shoot (he had been there twice before), he was the creative force driving the project, according to Penguins 3D producer Anthony Geffen, CEO of Atlantic Productions. “The whole film is David’s vision. He’s worked on absolutely every aspect of it, from the script to the cutting room.”

Paul Williams, the film’s 3D stereographer, says that virtually the entire documentary takes place on South Georgia, which has notoriously unpredictable weather. “Winds can come up out of nowhere and suddenly drive the temperature down to -20°, and there is constant danger of frostbite,” Williams says. “We would spend 20 minutes changing a single lens at times because of the numbness in our fingers, while we’d also be dealing with random torrential downpours that threatened our equipment. And that was when we were shooting above the water.”

In a departure from similar productions, the final product is being offered in a variety of formats and versions. While it was shot primarily in 4K 3D with RED MX cameras mounted on Element Technica Quasar stereoscopic 3D rigs, distributor nWave Pictures is releasing multiple versions (20/40-minute length, 2D/3D, 15 perf/70mm and digital in 4K and 2K) to IMAX, RealD Cinema and other giant-screen facilities this spring and summer.

Paul Williams and Kevin Zemrowsky prepare a shot. Photo by Oskar Strom/Atlantic.

“No one has attempted this kind of high-quality 3D film of the Antarctic before, let alone tried to take underwater footage there, because the technology poses such tremendous challenges,” says Geffen, who worked for many years at BBC Television. “3D cameras are extremely heavy. It takes four people just to move one camera! They’re also highly sensitive to moisture, which is a ridiculous hazard for filming in extreme weather or underwater. And they don’t come with a zoom, which is a pretty essential tool for most wildlife filming. So we had to adapt the technology. We pushed it to a new level, taking specially designed 3D stereoscopic equipment that could withstand the demands of filming in the Antarctic,” says Geffen.

Co-producer Sias Wilson says the crew had set out to tell a dramatic tale. “We knew we’d need to put movement into the scenes to create narrative emotion. This is easily done with 2D camera systems, but it’s not so easy to achieve with bulky 3D cameras in a harsh remote location. During preproduction we looked at a number of ways to give the camera freedom of movement. We eventually settled on a purpose-built crane and scaffolding support system, which allowed the crew to follow the action and the very specific penguin behavior that were required for the narrative,” Wilson says.

Filming elephant seals on Gold Harbour. Photo by Oskar Strom/Atlantic.

To film underwater, Geffen says the team used a custom-built housing for the RED camera. “The first big test was to take this groundbreaking rig to a depth of just 10 meters, which went well initially. But then Hugh Miller, the underwater cameraman, surfaced, looking heavily shaken. The rig had imploded right next to his head, crushing the housing and destroying the entire camera. It was a freak accident that caused a long delay in filming underwater scenes. Three months into [above-water] filming, a passing [cruise] ship was able to drop off urgent supplies—including a new underwater housing for the camera,” Geffen says.

Before filming began, the producers sent out a team of researchers to observe the penguins’ behavior “so that we could then ‘create’ a composite character—kind of like a Mike Leigh film, but with a penguin,” Geffen jokes. “The king penguin faces epic challenges as he grows to adulthood, finds a mate, raises a chick and then sends it off into the world. We knew straight away that we had a brilliant story.” The team went as far as to draft a script detailing emotion, plot points and camera staging as if it were a drama production featuring human beings.