What do you do after you spend five years filming a nature documentary that wins a pair of Oscars for cinematography and music?
If you’re Alastair Fothergill and you’re working for BBC and the Discovery Channel, you dive right back into the deep end of the nature pool and spend five more years crafting an 11-episode sequel.
It took 40 camera teams all five of those years to shoot at 200 different locations scattered across “Planet Earth,” and those locations weren’t just randomly chosen. The emphasis for this series is on the superlative. Among other things, we witness the largest animal migration on the planet (caribou), watch the largest land carnivore (polar bear) do his thing, see the oldest organism on the planet (bristle cone pines), visit the largest natural cave in the world (Borneo) with its three millionbats, check out the least explored of all our jungles (Congo), witness the greatest seasonal change on our planet (Antarctica), experience the coldest conditions (Artic), explore the largest unbroken stream of rainforest in the world (Amazon), and see time-lapse photography of the most extreme and quick-turnover recycling (decaying matter in the Amazon rainforest) in the world.
Whether the cameras are following the animals or panning great vistas, the emphasis for this series is on the extreme. And that includes extreme beauty.
“Planet Earth” was directed, filmed, and set to music by the same folks that gave us “The Blue Planet,” which won Academy Awards for cinematography and music. This sequel also won those two categories, as well as statues for sound editing and (the big one) Outstanding Nonfiction Series.
If you’ve seen “The Blue Planet,” you already know the style of filming. It’s just the locations and subject matter that are different. Once again, David Attenborough narrates as we journey across the planet to witness things that few people see–many of them photographed for the first time. This series makes explorers of us all! So much so, that you can’t help but wish that Lewis and Clark had a HD video camera with them as they made their journey from Pittsburgh to the Pacific, or that Darwin had one with him on the Beagle as he explored Earth’s southern hemisphere. “Planet Earth” may entertain and inform us now, but you can’t help but think what an important record this is for future generations.
And it looks fantastic in Blu-ray.
Then again, if you watched this show in HD when it was broadcast, you already know that–just as you know Fothergill’s style by now. Like Ken Burns, he has his go-to bag of camera tricks. Fothergill is particularly fond of sped-up time lapse photography to show rapid change in a place, and we see seasons rotating, and sedentary or slow-growing organisms engaged in what would appear to be frenetic movement. There are also a large number of panoramic shots–many of them aerial–with the camera panning across a grand landscape in even grander style, supported, once more, by George Fenton’s original music. But there are also extreme close-ups here, and plenty of them, as well as infra-red night photography and visuals that show what animals perceive with their heat sensors.
In many respects, “Planet Earth” shows just how far nature photography has come. It’s the best I’ve seen, and the cameras go places no one has gone before. Yet, in some ways “Planet Earth” reminds us that nature documentaries haven’t really changed all that much. The first of Disney’s “True-Life Adventures” series, “Beaver Valley,” was filmed way back in 1950, but it set a precedent for teaching us about animals by telling a story and by treating the animals as if they were human. And since zoologist Marlin Perkins began teaching back in 1963 when “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” brought nature into America’s living rooms, nature films have been concerned with ecology and conservation. So in a way, nature filming hasn’t changed at all. There are still kill-or-be-killed dramas, still reminders that the animals’ habitats are threatened by the collectively gigantic human footprint we leave on the planet, and still attempts to bring us so close to the animals that we begin to feel their warmth and equal right to exist.
Like Disney’s early series, which was organized partly on the basis of different terrains and habitats, “Planet Earth” takes us “From Pole to Pole” in one episode, then focuses on “Mountains,” “Fresh Water,” “Caves,” “Desserts,” “Ice Worlds,” “Great Plains,” “Jungles,” “Shallow Seas,” “Seasonal Forests,” and “Ocean Deep.” Many viewers will have favorite episodes, but for me, there are favorite moments–sequences that are so awesome and delightful that you think to yourself, I can’t believe they filmed this . . . and that I’m SEEING it.
I had never observed a baby sailfish swimming in the open sea before this, and it’s something I will always remember. I had never witnessed crossbills so up-close that I could see how they used their tongues and beaks to pry seeds from pine cones. I knew an octopus could camouflage itself, but I never knew that it could change the topography of its body to mimic the ocean floor. And I never realized that “Alien”-like spores existed in the rainforest before I saw time-lapse photography of a spore from a parasitic Cordyceps fungus attacking an insect and sprouting right out of the creature’s brain. Yikes!
Protective parents and those who are squeamish should know that Fothergill’s philosophy seems to be to show the predator’s chase and eventual meal, but not the graphic kill. Lions are shown gang-attacking a small elephant, for example, but the cameras allow the chase to go into the bushes without following. And the next shot is of the pride of lionesses feasting, while we’re told that a single kill can feed the whole group a number of days. It’ll be enough to disturb sensitive, pet-loving children, but parents can see scenes like that coming (this is, after all, a leisurely paced BBC film) and send children off until the hunt is over. To Fothergill’s credit, there are as many shots of failed hunts as there are successful ones. The most poignant, actually, is the case of a poor polar bear who was forced to swim for 60 miles because his world melted. Tired, exhausted, and not having eaten for a month, he lands on a rocky place inhabited by walruses. He tries for a baby, but the adults circle up, as we’ve seen other species do in this series. So out of desperation he attacks a small walrus, and fails. As he curls up in the sand, wounded, just a few feet away from the colony of walruses that ironically could have nourished him, you can’t help but feel for the predator this time around.
The 1080p picture looks great, especially presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio that fills the entire screen. Colors are bright and vivid, blacks are strong, and the level of detail is phenomenal. You notice the HD picture the most in scenes where various birds of paradise mate, or in extreme close-ups. The roughest moments, meanwhile, come during the night shots and of some time-lapse shots of jungle seedlings trying to sprout. In such cases, there’s noticeable graininess. Overall, though, it’s a very good HD picture.
The audio is a mystery that isn’t listed on the box or any publicity materials and is identified on my player only as a “multi-channel” audio. I suspect it’s English Dolby Digital 5.1 DTS Surround, but can’t say for certain. It doesn’t have the same stunning presence as an uncompressed DTS HD or PCM audio, but the bass is certainly resonant, the treble bright without sounding flat or tinny, and the balance decent.
Unless BBC Video has conducted interviews with focus groups who told them there was no interest, I’m mystified why people committed to wildlife and wildlife preservation wouldn’t include disc five from the DVD set-the disc with all the bonus features. They were broadcast in HD, so they obviously were filmed in HD. So why isn’t “Planet Earth: The Future,” a 150-minute making-of documentary, included? And why no 100+ minutes of behind-the-scenes clips of on-site footage? Admittedly, they were the sort of thing that turned preachy in spots and probably infuriated everyone on the planet who thinks, as Bush does, that global warming is “fuzzy science.” But if the filmmakers thought enough to include it in the series, why not include it here? As it is, there are NO bonus features.
Now, would I personally have watched them? Yes, but only once. While I have to admit that I’ll watch these 11 episodes over and over. You all know your own preferences. If the bonus features are important to you, you might have to wait, or else choose between standard and High Definition.
“Planet Earth” is that rare sequel that equaled, and maybe even surpassed the original. It looks great on Blu-ray, but it will leave HD fans hoping that “The Blue Planet” will be released on Blu-ray and HD DVD soon. Watching this series in HD just whets your appetite for more.