Planet Earth: Whither Blu-ray?

Planet Earth is the kind of thing that gets talked about in hushed tones for years after it lands: It’s the doc that made docs hot again and upended the playing field for natural history documentarians everywhere. The first TV series to be filmed in high-definition, Planet Earth made extensive use of Hollywood shooting techniques to get shots that nobody had successfully filmed before, shots like bubble-netting humpback whales in action and lions bringing down an elephant after dark.

The BBC team did this by hooking a lightweight Sony HD video camera with an extreme long-range zoom lens to a bubble slung under a helicopter. Because of the lens’s 40x magnification, it was possible to film camera-shy creatures (like the Russian Amur leopard, say) from far off, so that the noise of the helicopter wouldn’t disturb the animals while filming. The decision to shoot in the then-untested HD format was a bold move for a genre that isn’t really known for massive budgets and meaningful profits. The unprecedented £16 million budget required the BBC to produce the show with money from Japan’s NHK and the US-based Discovery Channel. In terms of critical and viewer response, the chance was worth taking.

Planet Earth

Though Planet Earth has oft been hailed as a revolutionary event, it is really only new and different in terms of the media quality and the shooting techniques. As far as basic construction goes, it’s all about the tried-and-true: The 11 episodes cover subjects like the shallow seas, rainforests and jungles, describing those areas’ lifecycles through skilful editing and narration by Sir David Attenborough, who is familiar to fans of the BBC Natural History Unit’s other shows — most notably the Life series. Attenborough’s long years as a broadcaster and naturalist, together with the expertise of the now-legendary BBC NHU, gives us a documentary that resonates not only with stunning beauty and clarity, but also with scholarly authority.

Where some shows’ distributors just transfer SD footage onto Blu-ray and hope for the best, others re-master the whole thing to bring the quality up to par with what Blu-ray can do. Okay, but Planet Earth shows what happens when you start off with BD-quality footage and take it from there, and it’s simply a whole new game. Even in 16:9 standard definition, good production values make Planet Earth look great. Epic cinematography and fabulous editing create a lyrical, poignant montage that’s enough to bring a lump to the gruffest of throats. Bump it up to 1080p and you’re going to simply bawl at the beauty of it all.

Dolby Digital Surround generally makes for pretty spectacular audio. But in this case, it doesn’t measure up to the video on either platform. The soundtrack makes little use of the satellite speakers, though the voice-overs are clear and crisp. But from the unremarkable music to the on-location sound effects, nothing really pops. This clearly an issue with the  sound production itself, since the HD version offers no noticeable improvement over the SD format. Either way, it’s disappointing.

Then, there are the extras. The standard-definition set includes supplemental goodies like the Planet Earth Diaries making-of featurettes and the three-part Planet Earth: The Future, narrated by Simon Poland. Very nice stuff.

However, in a marked reversal of the norm, the high-definition version lacks any of these extras, or any others whatsoever. This is apparently because the mini-docs and three-parter aren’t shot in the same high-definition resolution as the core media. Strangely, the Region B set comes with an extra disc with two episodes of related high-def content rather than the extras in the SD box, but the Region A release includes nothing. A better course of action would have been to include a fifth disc with all the SD bonus features, even if it breaks the all-HD character of the set. Instead, those who plonk down the cash for the spendy high-definition box just get less to watch.

In terms of navigation, it would be a mistake to expect the same dynamic menus as you’d find on the James Bond Blu-rays or most other BD releases. Here, the top and pop-up menus are no-nonsense and clear (which is good), but dull as paste (which is bad). The menus for Earth: The Biography are similarly bland, so this is likely a BBC hallmark rather than evidence of light effort spent on this specific release.

So, is it worth the upgrade to Blu-ray? As far as image quality and production values go, Planet Earth is an amazing piece of work. And whereas it looks better in high-def, it’s unclear whether the Blu-ray release is actually the better buy.

Look, if you’re the type who never pays attention to the extras, but who demands the highest-quality images possible, then you should consider the Blu-ray set. If you’re a film-buff who likes to watch making-of featurettes or who doesn’t want to spend big bucks on what is essentially a reduced release, then the DVD set is probably the better buy. And if you already own the DVD set, there’s no reason to bother upgrading.

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