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How wildlife filmmakers warp time

Slow motion and time lapse bring the natural world onto our timescale.

Capturing Planet Earth is a three-part video series from Vox Observatory about the evolution of the BBC’s wildlife films. Click here to see part one.

Slow motion is ubiquitous in our culture today. It sells dog food, decorates music videos, and makes skateboarders look like superheroes. It’s also become a staple of wildlife films.

Warping time — either by slowing down action that happens faster than our eyes can appreciate or by using time lapse to speed up slow-moving processes — can reveal the mechanics behind all manner of natural phenomena.

Ultra slow motion shows how a chameleon uses its tongue.
BBC

But for decades, the limitations of film prevented nature documentarians from using these techniques extensively. Early high-speed cameras were built for controlled laboratory settings. “In the old days these cameras were actually designed for filming things like crashes. They were basically scientific tools to see what happens under impact on cars crashing into walls or buildings collapsing,” said Mike Gunton, executive producer of the BBC’s Planet Earth II.

As camera technology evolved, a new world of opportunities opened up for wildlife filmmakers to play with time. Learn more in the video at the top of this post, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for the next episode of this miniseries.

Planet Earth II airs on BBC America Saturdays through March 25.