LIST POSITION: #2
TITLE: Planet Earth
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Alastair Fothergill
Cast: David Attenborough
RATING: Not Rated
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WHY IT’S ON THE LIST
Planet Earth was nothing short of a phenomenon when it was released. Broadcast in over 130 countries, I can seldom recall a nature documentary that so captured the imagination of people the world over. Ambitious in scope both technically and financially, the series was the most expensive nature documentary ever produced by the BBC, who shared the costs with American partner The Discovery Channel and Japanese partner NHK. In production for four years from planning to broadcast, 71 cameramen and women filmed in 204 locations in 62 countries on all seven continents. This was intended to be the best portrait of the diversity of life on our planet, and it succeeded beautifully.
Based around eleven theme episodes that cover different geological or topographical landmarks and the life that lives within them, animals both common and endangered are treated with exuberance. Some creatures like Snow Leopards are extremely rare in the wild and are shown here for the first time ever on television. In fact, this was the first time that Bactrian Camels were filmed eating snow in the Gobi desert, a piranha attack was shown from the perspective of being in the water during the frenzy, or such access was given to the stunning Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico. Similarly, one of the highlights of the entire series is witnessing a pride of lions hunting elephants in the black of night in the episode entitled “Great Plains”. This sequence, able to be filmed for the first time thanks to infrared cameras, is truly the epitome of the series’ groundbreaking moments.
David Attenborough narrated the series for BBC and his voice and cadence are perfectly paired to the proceedings at hand. One could presume that it takes little skill to read a script into a microphone and talk about animals and stuff. But when you hear Sigourney Weaver’s version for the Discovery Channel, James Earl Jones for the reedited by Disney feature film version Earth, or Oprah Winfrey on Planet Earth’s sequel series Life, one can quickly understand that it takes a special ability to be a perfect as Attenborough is. Beneath his voice is a diverse and rousing score from George Fenton, who won a Soundtrack Composer of the Year award at the 2007 Classical BRIT Awards. Obviously, the audio spectrum would not be complete without the numerous natural sounds recorded in a myriad of locations around the world. The episode “Jungles” highlights this well, as it paints an aural picture of the jungle from morning to night. On the blu-ray, the 5.1 channel surround track is quite good, though not uncompressed. Compared to a Hollywood film it may seem disappointing, but side by side with any nature documentary that came before it, it is great.
If there is one reason and one reason only why Planet Earth demands a place in your collection of blu-rays, it is the way the 1080p high definition visuals will make you sit wide-eyed and slack-jawed as they play across your HD screen. Time-lapse photography, specialty lenses, and cameras for every extreme condition that this planet has to offer were all employed to capture some of the most fantastic natural imagery in existence. When production began, high end HD cameras were still relatively new and there were many questions about how they would hold up to the many uses necessary in the field. But ultimately video beats out film when it comes to price, weight and size of recording media, and so they went ahead with using HD cameras from both Sony and Panasonic. Most remarkable are the aerial shots on display, and that is really thanks to 40x zoom lenses gyroscopically mounted to helicopters using the Cineflex system. This made it feasible to fly over an area far enough from the animal life that they wouldn’t be disturbed, but the cameras could still get a close shot.
Utilizing the latest technologies, Planet Earth drew most of its attention for the stunning visuals that are a constant presence as you watch it. But the way the stories are told cannot be denied, and special credit should go to the producers and editors who worked tirelessly to present those images in a highly enjoyable way. What is wonderful about Planet Earth is the amount you can learn from watching it; few discs in your collection are probably making you smarter as you view them. Any person around the world at any age will find something to latch onto here, and that kind of production is a true rarity. As an owner of Planet Earth on blu-ray you are not only getting a chance to show off how great your home theater is, you are getting to experience the world’s greatest treasures up close and personal.
WHY DIDN’T IT RANK HIGHER?
There are practically no special features. While the DVD included the bonus episodes entitled Planet Earth: The Future, they have been omitted from the blu-ray release. I have seen “The Future” and it is pretty lame when you are expecting more of the same from this series. It features a lot of talking heads discussing our planet and not much else, so it’s no big loss in my opinion. But the fact that it is missing may raise the ire of some. Also as mentioned, the audio is compressed, so some purists may lament the limitations of the early days of blu-ray when Planet Earth was originally released. And heavens forbid you accidentally buy a Sigourney Weaver narrated DVD edition.
THE BEST SUPPLEMENT
While they are either included in the episodes or shown as a separate supplement depending on how you watch it, the Planet Earth: Diaries are a fantastic addition. Taking a look at one significant aspect of each episode, they show the intense labor that went into capturing the sights and sounds that make Planet Earth so stunning. Whether it is being accosted by a Polar Bear who trapped a team in a cabin or waiting three years to film Snow Leopards, the stories are always personal and fascinating. Anyone who thinks they could be a nature documentarian would think twice after getting a better picture of the patience and skill it truly takes to live out in the field for mere moments of usable footage.
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