David Attenborough's Netflix Series Reveals 'Secret' Colors in Nature

New camera technology shows the world as animals see it.

David Attenborough in Costa Rica
David Attenborough filming in Costa Rica.

"Life in Color with David Attenborough"

Animals use flashy colors for a variety of reasons: win mates, scare off rivals, hide from predators. But it's not always easy for human eyes to see how these colors work.

That's why the team behind a recent Netflix nature series relied on new camera technology to show the world as animals see it.

"Life in Color with David Attenborough" features the famed nature documentarian traveling from the rainforests of Costa Rica to the snowy Scottish Highlands to the jungles of West Gabon to explore the critical role colors play in animal interactions and survival.

The three-part series premieres on the network on April 22 to coincide with Earth Day.

Treehugger spoke to Sharmila Choudhury, the series producer, about the many animals they followed, the technology they used, and of course, working with Attenborough.

Treehugger: When you were brainstorming for this series, were you surprised to realize how many amazing stories there were in nature that revolved around color?

Sharmila Choudhury: It is extraordinary that we are surrounded by color in nature, and yet, we take these colors for granted. Have you ever wondered why zebras have black and white stripes, why a tiger has orange fur, or why flamingos are pink? For us, the colors in the natural world are simply a source of beauty, but for animals, their colors are often a tool for survival. 

When we started to look more closely for stories that revolve around color, we were astonished to discover that for nearly every animal, its colors have a purpose – whether to attract a mate, to fight off a rival, or to hide from danger.

butterfly with UV camera
butterfly with UV camera.

"Life in Color with David Attenborough"

Innovative camera technology is the key to the series. It revealed butterfly and fish colors that humans normally couldn’t see. How did you adapt and develop this technology and how important was it to filming?

When we set out to make this series, we were aware that this was one of those projects that would push the boundaries. Many animals see color differently to the way we do.  Many birds, insects, and fish can see colors in the ultraviolet range, while some animals can detect polarised light and signal to each other with patterns that we can’t see. 

The challenge we faced was showing the audience colors that are invisible to the human eye.  To do so, we had to solicit the help of scientists to develop specialist ultraviolet and polarisation cameras that allowed us to film these secret colors. These cameras have given us a glimpse into a world long hidden from our eyes and allowed us to tell stories that have not been told before.

mandrill in Gabon
mandrill in Gabon.

"Life in Color with David Attenborough"

It’s always so fulfilling to watch such impressive nature photography. What did it take to get such great footage of say the tiny poison dart frog stand-offs or the mandrills in the forest of Gabon? How much of it is patience?

Wildlife filming requires patience because animals will only behave naturally if they don’t feel threatened or disturbed. Mandrill baboons are large and fearsome creatures, but they are also very shy. In order to film them deep in the tropical rainforests of Gabon, the crew had to approach them with caution.

At first, the baboons were very shy, vanishing as soon as they caught sight of the team. After about a week, the crew could watch them from a distance and gradually ease closer and closer by a few steps every day.  Their patience paid off. After about three weeks, they had gained the trust of the mandrills and were able to get close enough to film these shy, yet majestic creatures.

magnificent bird of paradise
Magnificent bird of paradise.

"Life in Color with David Attenborough"

My favorite part in the first episode was watching the magnificent bird of paradise clear the ground “stage” before his dance, particularly of anything green so his colors would show up better. What were the highlights for you and your team?

The birds of paradise are an extraordinary family of birds that have taken color displays to an extreme. There are over 30 different species and they live in the remote jungles of New Guinea. The Magnificent bird of paradise had not been filmed properly before, and for years we had only seen his performance from ground level. But the female, in fact, watches the display from above, looking down on the male.

So in order to see what she sees, we had to position our cameras accordingly. We positioned small remote-controlled cameras above the male’s display perch and these revealed an astonishing view of his splendid plumage and colors, that we had not seen before. From directly above, his breast shield is a brilliant green, topped by a golden-yellow halo above his head. It is a truly breathtaking sight.

There’s so much research that goes into this before anyone gets behind a camera. Who helped with the science part? What were the most interesting things you learned?

Science played a crucial role in this series and underpinned most of the stories that we filmed. As a result, we had to seek the help of many scientific experts that work on animal coloration and animal vision. One such scientist was Prof. Justin Marshall from Queensland University in Australia, who was the scientific consultant for the series. Justin carries out his research on the Great Barrier Reef and was the person who discovered that yellow damselfish use ultraviolet colors to tell each other apart and that mantis shrimp can see polarised light. He also helped us to develop some of the specialist cameras we needed to film these creatures.

How many locations did the team visit? Which were the most challenging? The most surprising?

To film this series, the crew traveled to around 20 different locations around the world, including the Atacama Desert in Chile, the forests of central India, the jungles of Gabon and New Guinea, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  One of the most challenging places to film were the mudflats of Northern Australia. Temperatures reach over 40 degrees Celsius in the sun, and there is nowhere to shelter out in the open mudflats. In order to get down to eye-level to film the small fiddler crabs, the cameraman, Mark Lamble, had to bury himself and the camera in the mud and stay there waiting motionless for the crabs to emerge from their burrows. It was a grueling shoot for both the cameraman and the equipment!

David Attenborough with a hummingbird
Attenborough with a hummingbird in Costa Rica.

"Life in Color with David Attenborough"

How involved is David Attenborough in the whole process? After all these years doing nature documentaries is he still sometimes astonished by what he sees?

When we first approached David Attenborough about this series, we discovered that he has had a life-long passion for color. He tried to make a series about the subject at the beginning of his career in the 1950s, but at the time, there was only black and white television, so he had to settle on a series about Animal Patterns. He was excited about this project and involved right from the beginning.

He has a great depth of knowledge about the subject and agreed that it might help the audience understand the more complicated science and technology if he explained it on camera. So he accompanied us to film in various locations in Costa Rica, the Scottish Highlands, and in England. His passion for the subject and skills at making complex subject matters easily accessible were certainly instrumental in making this series so engaging.