Are insects the unlikely saviours of 3D?

Latest 3D nature doc hints at a technology emerging from its cocoon
Can the 3D world emerge from the cocoon of gimmickry?

Watching a giant 3D millipede stampede towards you is certainly a powerful experience. We're watching a preview of the Micro Monsters 3D series, and it's an illustration of 3D's power - but also of its limitations.

Micro Monsters 3D is the latest in a series of 3D nature documentaries produced by Sky and Atlantic through their Colossus Productions collaboration. It will be voiced by legendary broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, and it's a subject that works fantastically in 3D.

There are several reasons for this, most obviously that insects blown up to this size are always likely to elicit a response. You're sure to feel something, whether that's fascination at seeing the full, alien detail of the invertebrate world, or (for the phobics) a shudder at encountering some very creepy crawlies.

But there's also a technical reason for making insects the stars of the show. Getting that wonderful 3D experience means getting up close to your subjects - and that's much easier when they're small and relatively oblivious to humans than it is with larger animals who might see the cameraman as a threat, or even dinner.

Knight of the 3D realm

As David Attenborough himself told us a couple of years ago: "It is impossible to use a long telephoto lens [with 3D], the reason being that 3D cameras mimic the human eye and have two cameras close together with the same kind of separation as our own.

Meerkats - not camera shy

Meerkats - not camera shy

"If you're looking at something on the other side of this theatre, you would see no difference. The way that you would get a stereo image is to separate the two components further.

"But when you do that […] they have different backgrounds so it won't go together. So with the state-of-the-art at the moment it's not possible to use long lenses. And that is a very considerable problem when it comes to natural history programming."

For the time being, then, 3D documentaries will be about insects and other animals that don't object to having a cameraman and a large camera about a foot from them.

Sir David Attenborough - a big proponent of 3D

Sir David Attenborough - a big proponent of 3D

Of course, there's always the prospect of adding 3D in post-production, but there are plenty of very expensive feature films that attest to just how unsatisfactory the results of that can be.

Despite its growing maturity, 3D remains deeply divisive. It's has brought huge innovation, yet it's still lumbered with the "gimmick" tag that it has borne since its anaglyphic days.

However, nobody can deny that it has come on astonishingly; that's particularly true in live scenarios as directors learn the new skills involved in framing scenes with depth, but also in the movie and documentary world where better cameras are bringing big jumps in quality. The arrival of higher resolution cameras and TVs is having a huge impact on 3D image quality.

The leaf-cutting edge of tech

For the filming of Micro Monsters, Colossus worked in harness with Jonathan Watts who apparently broke new ground with technology to film up-close and in high resolution 3D. The company used a 5K RED camera - capable of filming at a resolution of 5,120 x 2,700.

"What we've never been able to do is get close in on insects and actually have depth of field, without which the image is just squashed up on screen," explained Atlantic founder Anthony Geffen.

"Now we can get this incredible focal range which many not seem important but, when you're watching 3D movies, it's what makes them magical."

As a television luminary and a broadcaster that has worked though the arrival of colour and high def, Attenborough's opinion on 3D is also significant.

Sir David Attenborough's Micro Monsters 3D is coming to Sky soon

Sir David Attenborough has seen the introduction of colour and HD, and thinks 3D is the next step

He said: "The wonderful thing about 3D in macro work is that you suddenly see even the most familiar things in this new way.

"It's like science fiction. You see an extraordinary animal that's huge on screen with amazing jaws and it's a blowfly!"

It will probably still be some time before 3D truly emerges from a cocoon of gimmickry into a beautiful butterfly in the minds of the general public, but documentaries can only hasten the evolution of TV.

Micro Monsters 3D will premiers on Sky 3D and Sky 1 HD on Saturday June 15.

Patrick Goss

Patrick Goss is the ex-Editor in Chief of TechRadar. Patrick was a passionate and experienced journalist, and he has been lucky enough to work on some of the finest online properties on the planet, building audiences everywhere and establishing himself at the forefront of digital content.  After a long stint as the boss at TechRadar, Patrick has now moved on to a role with Apple, where he is the Managing Editor for the App Store in the UK.