Credit: Windfall/Richard Taylor/Jones

A sperm whale’s penis has no bones. This allows its flexible member to penetrate a female sperm whale from any number of directions; a necessity when two multi-ton animals are trying to line up tab A with slot B in an unsteady ocean environment.

This and other interesting facts about sperm whales are the subject of the first episode of the documentary series Inside Nature’s Giants, which premiers in the U.S. on January 18th. Each of the series’ four episodes centers around the dissection of a large animal, which is used as a starting point to explore the animal’s biology. (A clever device, which I also used in this Scientific American video about jumbo squid.)

Continue reading Digging around inside nature’s giants

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A lion cub in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Discovery Channel’s reluctance to air the climate change episode of the Frozen Planet series–an episode they helped fund.  I asked that we label this act ‘unsustainable nature filmmaking’ because Discovery had failed to use its bully pulpit to protect the species that feature heavily in its films. An opinion piece in the journal Science this week, penned by Oxford geography professor Paul Jepson and colleagues, takes this argument one step further and asks that broadcasters like Discovery make direct monetary contributions to protect the ‘stars’ of wildlife films:

We ask whether it is time..[for] media corporations
producing and commissioning nature-based
programming…[to] adopt PES [payment for ecosystem services] principles.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of ‘payment for ecosystem services’, this is basically the idea that the many benefits provided to us by nature have a monetary value and that corporations profiting off of those services should give a percentage of profits back to conservation efforts.

Continue reading Should broadcasters pay to protect the ‘stars’ of wildlife films?

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On Tuesday the Daily Mail reported that the Discovery Channel will not broadcast the final episode of the popular Frozen Planet series in the U.S. Why? Because the show deals with climate change, an emerging threat to animals living in the subzero regions of our planet. Apparently, Discovery thinks this topic will offend the political sensibilities of some portion of its U.S. audience. How ridiculous. Climate change is a matter for science, not politics (or at least it should be). And even more ridiculous is that Discovery helped pay for the production of the very episode that they now refuse to air.

This got me thinking about the genre of so-called ‘blue-chip’ nature documentaries like Frozen Planet. These docs are built around charismatic megafauna engaged in life or death struggles. And honestly, some of these films are my favorites.  I mean, who can resist the pull of a full-grown male lion chasing down a hyena in a battle to the death? Who can say they don’t like Discovery’s ‘Shark Week’–just a little bit? Continue reading Discovery Channel and unsustainable nature filmmaking

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In the last chapter of his book In the Blink of an Eye (Viking, 2001) film editor Walter Murch explores the possibilities inherent in the digital future of  film editing. He predicts film editors will be able to manipulate moving images in much the same way sound editors manipulate many layers of sound:

Up until now…[motion]picture editors have thought almost exclusively in the horizontal direction. The question to be answered was simply, “What’s next?”…that’s complicated enough–there are a tremendous number of options in the construction of a film. In the future, that number is going to become even more cosmic because film editors will have to start thinking vertically as well, which is to say: “What can I edit within the frame?”

Last week Adobe previewed a new technology called a video mesh that looks an awful lot like Murch’s “vertical” dimension.  It allows the film editor to extract 3D elements from live 2D video and ‘re-shoot’ certain aspects of the scene (e.g. depth of field). It is even possible to reposition characters and objects within the scene once the 3D landscape has been defined.

In the future, video meshes and other technologies like light field photography may completely change the way we think about 2D images and how best to capture them. Will these new possibilities lead to innovative filmmaking or will too many options lead to a kind of self-conscious paralysis? As Walter Murch says, we already have a “tremendous number of options” at our disposal.

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