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Attenborough Award at Santa Barbara Film Festival

Attenborough Award at Santa Barbara International Film Festival goes to...Sir David Attenborough

Leonardo got the red carpet.
Sir David Attenborough got contagious applause. Total energy.
Annette Bening and Kate Winslet got a hundred flashbulbs popping every minute.

Sir David got reverence.

Those who run the Santa Barbara International Film Festival know.
The red carpet should belong to Sir David Attenborough.

The festival’s artistic director Roger Durling gushed, threw around the words “riveting” and “revolutionary,” putting the nature filmmaker in the category of Hitchcock and Scorsese.

Film festival crowds are pretty jaded. They hear a lot of famous people talking about a lot of things.

After seeing the 30-minute “Life on Air,” a BBC documentary celebrating Sir David’s 60-year career, this crowd was riveted. Charmed. Delighted.

The applause wasn’t polite. It was loud and long and interrupting all evening. This was something important.

Sir David wrote and presented BBC’s landmark, ground-breaking, earth-shattering “Life on Earth,” a 13-part series of the 1970s.

And “The Living Planet.” And “Trials of Life,” which shows footage of killer whales taking seals out to sea off Argentina’s Valdez Peninsula and toying with them, tossing them up in the air.

And other series on fossils, plants, birds, mammals. Next, it’s on to amphibians and reptiles, to be called “Life in Cold Blood.”

World-famous underwater photographer Mike deGruy led a conversation, honoring Sir David with the SBIFF’s first Attenborough Nature Filmmaker Award in front of a sold-out crowd at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

The tribute was the centerpiece of a partnership between the museum and the festival that screened “The Reel Ocean,” a collection of documentaries on sharks, squid, dolphins and the deep sea narrated by Sir David.

Santa Barbara county school children were treated to field trips to see the films during the week.

“Some of the most memorable moments of my life have been sitting next to David Attenborough,” said deGruy. “I’ve never heard stories like I’ve heard from this man.”

It took Sir David a bit to get to Santa Barbara.

He left England a month ago for South Africa to film termites. Then down to New Zealand to film phosphorescent fungus ants. Then on to Australia for giant earthworms. (Twelve feet long: gasps!)

The result: “Life in the Undergrowth,” due out in September, will feature the “grossly neglected” small creatures – not just insects, but slugs, millipedes, spiders and centipedes.

They established the planet’s first ecosystem 450 million years ago and are still the basis of all ecosystems.

“If by some catastrophe all backboned animals, including ourselves, were to disappear overnight, this old planet and this natural world would stagger on quite well,” said Sir David. “Some think it might do rather better.”

Catastrophe would ensue without these creatures: Plants wouldn’t live, birds and reptiles would have nothing to eat, carcasses of animals would be covered in dung, said Sir David. “Yet these tiny little things are within a few inches of our feet whenever we walk over the naked earth.”

Next, it’s on to amphibians and reptiles, to be called “Life in Cold Blood.”

Always when he wanted to do a program, there’d be a major advance in technology. Not possible before, since the late 1970’s he’s been able to fly anywhere in the world. So “Life on Earth” could be made.

Before new lenses and sensitive cameras, cameramen had to pour so much light on an insect, “you’re in danger of frying the poor creature,” said Sir David. “Certainly it won’t behave in a natural way!

“Now sensitive cameras can reconstruct these miniature forests, landscapes that were the first real coverings on earth 400 million years ago, with millipedes walking through as big as dinosaurs. We hope it will be revelation.”

In the past, there was a temptation in the cutting room to make an animal behave how the books say it should, he said.

With the latest computer technology, filmmakers can make anything do anything. The danger is that viewers may think the animal behavior is faked by a computer. So to maintain credibility, Sir David said filmmakers have to make it absolutely clear they’ve made a computer simulation.

Sir David’s recipe for making a world-class nature film?

“The secret,” he said, “is simply to write the whole damn thing before you start.

“First thing, get the money. The way you get the money is to write a sheet of paper with six paragraphs on it, full of superlatives, none of them expressing what the thing is actually going to about. ...Put 10 percent on what it’s going to cost. Then the BBC administrators take 10 percent off, very clever, so you’re where you started.”

Long-time friend and nature conservationist, actor John Cleese was the surprise presenter: “It’s nearly 18 months since I’ve presented you with an award, and I won’t let so much time pass again.”

Cleese said Sir David’s lack of vanity is what makes his films extraordinary.

With some presenters there’s "an element of showing off that creates a tiny, invisible barrier between them and the audience," he said.

“With David, you never get that. You always feel it’s wonderful stuff. And he knows you’re going to love it, and he loves conveying it to you.”

The other reason Cleese said Sir David’s programs are so special is, of course, the subject matter.

“Is there anything more important as our lives become progressively more artificial than to be reminded of where we come from and what was going on there?

“I don’t think you can make anything on television that’s more important to people’s values and lives than what Sir David has done.”

About global warming, there is no doubt it is happening fast, Sir David said. “The only question is are we warming very fast, extremely fast or lethally fast?”

He said that 50 years ago, it never occurred to anybody that the world was in danger.

“Now we know only too clearly, and suddenly natural history programs have become something else...

“The population of the world is becoming increasingly urbanized and increasingly out of touch with the natural world. If people don’t know what the natural world is, if they don’t understand the way it works, how can they be expected to make sacrifices which are certainly necessary if we are to preserve the natural world?”

SBIFF’s Durling was clearly thrilled by the evening. “Nobody embodies the 20th Century naturalist more than Sir David Attenborough...He is the quintessential nature of the greatest filmmakers working.”

Durling said he plans to have Sir David back every year to present the award in his name.

By Marison Mull
Photos courtesy of Santa Barbara International Film Festival/Ray Mickshaw


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