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Sir David Attenborough (85) took to the air in a glider next to the CGI of a flying monster from 71 million years ago, so we could see just how big these animals were, he tells Andrew L. Urban. It would have been a hang glider, but the insurers wouldn’t let him.

The day before our phone interview, Sir David Attenborough (85 last May) was filming in London’s famous Kew Gardens for a new 3D project about plants yet to be officially named. The day before that, he was watching rough cuts of wildlife footage taken in Southern Georgia earlier in the year, for another one-off 3D film. 

"having a great deal of fun"

Not only has Sir David not grown weary of filming and telling us about our planet, he is still having a great deal of fun. In his latest adventure, Flying Monsters 3D (opens August 11 at IMAX), he wanted to show the audience the largest animal that has ever flown on earth, the giant pterosaur called Quetzalcoatlus with a wingspan of some 12 metres, a long beak with sharp teeth and as tall as a giraffe, which soared above the land looking for prey, 71 million years ago.

“This was the big finish for our film and to really show its size, we had to put something alongside it,” he explains in his signature breathy tones. “Originally I had a two man hang glider in which I would fly, but the insurance people wouldn’t let me, so I thought of a glider.” What we see, thanks to a camera in the helicopter alongside, is Sir David in the front seat of the glider, talking to us about the flying monsters, and, thanks to CGI, the Quetzalcoatlus flying ‘in formation’ above it – in 3D. 

In that single shot, we see the world today side by side with the world millions of years ago, in full animated motion and in intricate detail. It was something similarly awe-inspiring that tweaked Sir David’s interest in natural history as a child in Leicester, England, where his father was Principal at the University of Leicester. 

"an extraordinary experience"

“Finding a small rock and hitting it with a hammer to discover an incredibly detailed fossil inside which no-one in the world had ever seen,” he says with enthusiasm, “was an extraordinary experience . . . to think the sun hadn’t shone on this for millions of years, and then to see that clearly it had been a creature from the sea … but how, Leicester isn’t by the sea.”

By the age of 7 he had accumulated a small fossil museum and his curiosity for nature has driven him ever since. “There’ll never be a point when I will feel that I’ve done all there is in exploring the planet,” he says, “but surely there will come a time when I am no longer asked to do anything. It’s great fun and I’m amazed and grateful to have been able to keep doing it.”

A widower since 1997 (after a 47 year marriage), Sir David is as busy now as he was 25 years ago when he started work on Life on Earth, the first in a long and acclaimed series which explores and explains our natural world. It wasn’t his first natural history project, but it became his signature series. 

"over a bottle of wine"

Sir David’s love affair with 3D has only just begun, with the making of Flying Monsters. It started over a bottle of wine: “We were filming one day in the Canadian Rockies,” recalls Sir David, “when (producer) Anthony Geffen of Atlantic Productions came down and said to me, ‘Great news! We have someone who wants to finance a 3D film – what do you want to do?’ So, over a bottle of wine we talked about what we should do and I’d always been interested in pterosaurs, so I suggested that as the subject.”

Within two days Sir David had written an outline script (his standard operating procedure) and they were given the money – and an impossible 18 month deadline.

The production process was exceptionally challenging. “I didn’t realise it took four men to move the gear!” he says. But it would be an understatement to say he was happy with the result. “No, I was absolutely knocked out by the computer imagery,” he says. 

First published in the Sun-Herald
Published August 11, 2011

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Sir David Attenborough


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