David Attenborough's First Life

Making the Series

For First Life, David Attenborough returned to the film-maker’s road in order to make the series he believes completes his journey into the story of life. First life is the final piece of the jigsaw that lies at the very beginning – the origin of life itself. During an eighteen month production schedule, the First Life team travelled 40,000 miles across four continents. They battled snowstorms in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, floods in Morocco and 40˚C heat in Australia in search of leading experts and the latest discoveries. Combining new fossil discoveries, cutting edge science and groundbreaking computer generated imagery, First Life is a series that would not have been possible to make a few years ago – many of the pieces of the puzzle of the earliest life on Earth have only recently come to light.

The companion film Attenborough’s Journey is a remarkable portrait of the man behind the legend as he faces the challenges of a complicated shoot. The result is a revelation as we delve into the mind and character of one of the world’s most iconic broadcasters. We discover a man in his element, immersed in his three great passions: fossils, the natural world and film-making. We discover the method and craft that lie behind his iconic delivery, his unerring sense of humour and his reflections on a career that virtually spans the history of television itself.

Sir David holding sponge on Heron Island

Making the CGI

This landmark series uses state-of-the-art technology to recreate some of the earliest animals that existed on the planet in photo-realistic CGI (computer-generated imagery). By closely examining fossil evidence and consulting leading paleontologists, the production teams at Atlantic and ZOO (a specialist visual effects studio) have brought to life these fascinating animals and their environments in startling and accurate detail.

This process not only helps everyday people to visualise these creatures; it helps the experts too. By seeing realistic, moving examples of the animals they have studied in fossil form they can understand to a finer degree the exact capabilities of these creatures in terms of their movement and behaviour.

The slideshow to the right allows you to step through the various stages of this recreation.

1. From Fossil To Wireframe

1. From Fossil To Wireframe

Using fossil evidence and expert scientific advice, visual effects artists create a wire frame model animal – in this case, Cambrian predator Anomalocaris.

2. Creating The Environment

2. Creating The Environment

A marine environment is created for Anomalocaris using the same technique.

3. Preparing The Model For Movement

3. Preparing The Model For Movement

The artists 'rig' Anomalocaris with a digital skeleton so they can animate the creature and move him around his environment. The wire frame is interwoven with digital 'material' so that the creature and his environment can be viewed as solid objects.

4. Adding Texture

4. Adding Texture

Textures inspired by real environments and modern-day animals are moulded onto the solid shapes. The environment textures are based on evidence from fossils, such as the local rock type, sediment and plant life. To create the body texture the artists study modern day animals that live in similar environments and fill the same ecological role – in the case of Anomalocaris they looked at the body texture of modern-day marine predators such as the mantis shrimp.

5. Lighting And Visual Effects

5. Lighting And Visual Effects

To make Anomalocaris and his marine world look more realistic, the visual effects artists use a variety of techniques to add depth and perspective to his body and environment. Anomalocaris can now be brought to life. A virtual 'camera' placed inside his 3D environment allows the team to 'film' him and other creatures from the Cambrian period for sequences in First Life.

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