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When Cameras Trick Us and We Love It

Technological wizardry is allowing us to see the natural world in stunningly new ways

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Frozen Planet penguin

Where time speeds up and motion slows down, Frozen Planet photo courtesy of BBC

Every so often, when I’m disappointed that I don’t have superpowers, I’ve found that it helps to watch a nature documentary. Not that it makes me fly or see through walls or fly through walls I’m seeing through, but usually it does let me speed up time or slow down motion and that’s not too shabby.

It happened again the other night when the latest BBC nature mega-series, Frozen Planet began airing on the Discovery Channel. It’s from the same team that brought us Planet Earth, which became the best-selling high-def DVD of all time. This time they’ve focused exclusively on life in Antarctica and the Arctic, and while neither is in my vacation plans, I have a new appreciation for both because I’m seeing them through time-tricked eyes.

This was a reminder of how filmmaking innovations over the past decade or so have dramatically enhanced our ability to perceive the imperceptible of the natural world. Thanks to cutting-edge time lapse filming and high-speed cameras, I was able to watch ice grow and caterpillars freeze and thaw and penguins skim through the surf with a sea lion giving chase. It was the ultimate reality show. It just hadn’t been part of our reality–until technological innovation let us see it.

Consider, for instance, what is probably the most remarkable image of the Frozen Planet series, one that has yet to air on Discovery, but has been on the Web since last fall when the BBC broadcast the program. The subject is brinicles, bizarre stalactites that form when heavy brine from sea ice on the surface freezes on its way down to the bottom. They’re referred to in the show as “icy fingers of death” because anything they touch become encased in ice.

Not surprisingly, no one had ever filmed brinicles in action. But the filmmakers took on the challenge and built, on site, a time lapse camera that was both watertight and able to withstand the ridiculously cold temperatures. Overnight, the camera captured the stunning scene of a brinicle growing downward until it reached the ocean floor where it spread out in an icy line, killing dozens of starfish unable to scramble out of the way.

Another groundbreaking device is the heligimbal, a camera mounted underneath the front of a helicopter and equipped with a gyroscope that keeps it stable during even the bumpiest of rides. Once the BBC crew added a powerful zoom lens, it was able to capture closeups from the air, but from far enough way that the animals weren’t frightened. For Frozen Planet they figured out how to attach it to a boat, allowing them to film polar bears at close range, no matter how rough the seas got.

“There are images in this series that feel like Narnia,” Alastair Fothergill, Frozen Planet’s executive producer, told an interviewer. “In a world where so much cinema is about magical places, it’s amazing that on our planet, in reality there are spectacles that match anything some crazy Hollywood guy can dream up.”

Shots in the dark

Turns out that someone who fits the description of a “crazy Hollywood guy” is doing his own nature film, one that will go where not even Fothergill and his team have dared to travel. This week James Cameron, best known as the director of Titanic and Avatar, hopes to dive solo to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.

When Cameron drops almost seven miles under the sea in his specially-designed sub, the DeepSea Challenger, he will become only the third person to reach that depth. The other two, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh, took the plunge more than 50 years ago, but strictly as explorers.

Cameron, naturally, will be making a movie, in partnership with the National Geographic, and so he’ll be taking with him not only customized 3-D, high-definition cameras, but also–because he’ll be filming in total darkness–an eight-foot tall array of LED lights.

Tricks and treats

Here are other examples of how cameras are letting us see the world in a different way:

Video bonus: When Piccard and Walsh made their historic dive into the Mariana Trench, they took along a Rolex watch. Rolex was more than happy to make a little movie/ad to commemorate it.

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