National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

Sir David Attenborough Explores the National Cinematography Collection for new BBC programme

We get lots of requests from TV companies asking to film in the Museum or feature objects from the National Collection in programmes they’re making about photography, television, film or the internet.

Film crews always spark interest among staff and visitors alike, especially when a recognisable name is involved. When, earlier this year, the name happened to be Sir David Attenborough, it is fair to say excitement levels here reached fever pitch.

David Attenborough during filming for Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild at the National Media Museum 2012 © National Media Museum

Despite being the person who introduced colour TV to Britain (as Controller of BBC2 in the 60s) it is probably Sir David’s role as a naturalist and broadcaster for which he is most recognised. It is this very subject that brought him and his crew to the Museum; filming for the first episode in a new series looking back at his career in natural history – Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild.

He looked through items in our National Collection to demonstrate the technology available when he started in television. And while reminiscing about his earliest inspirations, he watched a film by one of the very first British naturalist filmmakers – Cherry Kearton – in our Cubby Broccoli cinema.

Richard and Cherry Kearton taking a photograph of a bird’s nest, 1900, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum © National Media Museum

Sir David then headed to the our Insight: Collections and Research Centre, which houses amazing photographic and cinematographic treasures, to take a look at some of the filmmaking equipment used in early documentaries.

He first looked at a 35mm cine camera designed by Cherry Kearton himself, which we have in the collection. Kearton, a pioneering naturalist, photographer and filmmaker used the camera to make his 1935 natural history film The Big Game of Life, and although used to good effect, it had its downsides.

Newman Sinclair Autokine 35mm cine camera, c 1927 © National Media Museum

Sir David compared this large, hand cranked, wooden 35mm cine camera to the Newman Sinclair Autokine 35mm Model E. Autokine cameras were very popular with newsreel and documentary filmmakers because of their lightness and reliability. Several different models were introduced from 1927 onwards. The camera was powered by a double spring clockwork motor – a single wind being sufficient to record on 200 ft of film.

However Sir David explained that he successfully argued to take the Paillard-Bolex H16 on his first filmed ventures. He considered its small size and even smaller film reel (16mm) as an asset, despite others at the BBC considering it to be ‘unprofessional’.

Paillard-Bolex H16 camera, Swiss, c 1930 © National Media Museum

Introduced in 1935, the Swiss-made H16 was the top of the range of Bolex cine cameras. Versatile and extremely well made, it became the camera of choice for many filmmakers and wealthy amateurs. And it is the camera used to make Attenborough’s first great success for the BBC – Zoo Quest.

Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild starts on Friday, 16th November on BBC2.

About Phil Oates

Press Officer at the National Media Museum, Bradford.

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