Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Planet Earth: Special Edition Blu-ray Review

Creators of the series Blue Planet shot a new film showing the earth be what it has not been seen before. The incredible beauty of landscapes and the most protected and lesser known corners of our planet. Four years of hard work and unprecedented for a documentary budget will create a unique scale of the film.  A revolutionary hyper-fast shooting modes and picture detail, made it possible to show the splendor of our nature in all its details.  Experience the ultimate portrait of our world like never before as BBC Earth releases Planet Earth: Special Edition and Planet Earth: Limited Collector’s Edition to DVD and Blu-ray.  Harnessing new advances in high definition  technology, the blockbuster series looks more beautiful than ever.  Both the 6-disc DVD and Blu-ray box sets showcase over three hours of fresh bonus materials including a sneak peak at Alastair Fothergill’s next project Frozen Planet, the all-new specially made program “Great Moments of Planet Earth” and several other new features.  Additionally, the Planet Earth: Special Edition Blu-ray contains the original behind-the-scenes featurettes and bonus series, Planet Earth – The Future.

Film (5 out of 5 stars) 

As a proud owner of the previous HD-DVD release of this series, I already knew how good it was and how beautiful the images were, so when I heard there was a special edition coming, I jumped at the chance to review it.  If you are wondering what’s the difference between the previous release and this special edition like I was, then let me break it down for you.  I had heard that the BBC was going to go back to redo the encode which is referenced on the Blu-ray itself with the assertion that its’ now “even better [and] newly encoded to take advantage of recent innovations in Blu-ray technology.”  When I heard that, I expected a huge improvement but sometimes things aren’t always what they seem.  I’ll talk more about the picture and audio quality later though.
What hasn’t changed is the quality content that makes up this series.  Five years in the making and filmed all over the world, it was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC (almost $32 million at the time), and also the first to be filmed in high definition.  It won four Emmy Awards, including Best Non-fiction Series and Best Cinematography, and a Peabody Award – all of which it deserved.  These eleven episodes are fifty minutes each with an additional ten segment that shows the making of the episodes and what was involved in getting those amazing shots.  The lengths that the crew went through to obtain this footage is just as interesting as the episodes themselves.  Here is the list of episodes as originally described that make up Planet Earth: Special Edition:
  • Episode 1: “From Pole to Pole” –  Planet Earth’s premiere episode, “Pole to Pole,” ties the series together with a fresh understanding of how life in every nook and cranny of the globe is connected — from the highest mountains and darkest caves; shallowest water and deepest oceans; ice-covered lands and great plains; untamed jungles and giant forests; to freshwater and the harshest deserts. The sun-ward tilt of Earth’s orbit dictates all our lives, creating the seasons that trigger one of the greatest spectacles in the world — the mass migration of animals. It’s a unique view of the majesty of our planet and the amazing creatures that live here.  Despite the rapid increase in population on the planet there are still places where no one had gone before. In this series, you’ll see the last pristine wilderness areas.
  • Episode 2: “Mountains” - This episode tours the mightiest of mountain ranges and introduces a few of its extreme animal mountaineers — the mountain lion, snow leopard and puma, all rarely filmed creatures. CGI time-lapse footage brings the mysterious geological history of mountains to life, while flying alongside bar-headed geese provides a spectacular view of the Himalayas.
  • Episode 3: “Fresh Water” – Just 3 percent of the planet’s water is fresh and it is our most precious resource. Rivers and lakes have shaped the earth, carving out the world’s most impressive gorges, valleys and waterfalls. Unique behavior takes place in the presence of this life force, such as dueling otters and crocodiles and diving macaques.
  • Episode 4: “Caves” - Caves are Earth’s final frontier, and this episode will go where few have been before. Caves are one of the only habitats not directly driven by sunlight, but this doesn’t mean there’s no wildlife living in their confines. Descend into darkness to witness the unseen behaviors of bizarre creatures like cave angel fish that attach themselves to walls and swiftlets that build nests from saliva.
  • Episode 5: “Deserts” - Deserts are united by their lack of rain, yet they are the most varied of our planet’s ecosystems. Go where freshwater is really precious and meet animals that have learned to survive with small amounts of it, such as the wild Bactrian camel of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert that eats snow instead of drinking water or Chile’s guanacos that lick dew from cactus spines. Experience spectacular aerial and time-lapse footage, featuring an explosion of life and shifting sand dunes.
  • Episode 6: “Ice Worlds” - Both poles of the planet covered by ice.  This is the most extensive and most severe deserts in the world. Extreme climatic conditions make the life of local inhabitants of this struggle for survival.  This episode guides viewers on a journey to the polar extremes of our planet.  Freshwater is frozen and out of reach, and coupled with numbing temperatures, this makes life hard in frozen climes from the top to the bottom of the world.  CGI time-lapse and elapsed-time filming techniques show Arctic ice coming and going over the centuries, and emperor penguins settling in to breed in Antarctica.
  • Episode 7: “Great Plains “ - Vast treeless plains, vast expanses of the silence … But the feeling of emptiness – an illusion.  The plains of our planet nourish the most numerous aggregations of animals on Earth.  A quarter of the earth’s surface is covered with grass, and the world’s plains are home to massive herds of animals. This episode traverses the grasslands of Mongolia and the flooding plains of Papua New Guinea, and finds great gatherings of creatures, such as East Africa’s wildebeest and clusters of rare grazers like Mongolian gazelles.
  • Episode 8: “Jungles” - Beautiful floating aerial shots introduce the world’s most spectacular forest vistas and high-definition cameras enable unprecedented views of the species that live on the dark jungle floor, in this episode. Enter a world of mood and menace, and witness intense competition on a macro and micro scale as jaguars track prey and fungi infiltrate insect hosts.  Rain-forests occupy only 3% of the land surface, but they contain more than half the species of the planet.
  • Episode 9: “Shallow Seas” - Follow a humpback whale mother and her calf on their epic journey to the most prolific feeding grounds that fringe the coasts. The shallow seas that lie above the continental shelf are the richest in the ocean. It is here that you find the coral reefs and, in colder waters, the fishing grounds. Massive shoals of fish act like magnets for predators. Spectacular storm footage, above and below the water, reveals extraordinary events in this tropical paradise.
  • Episode 10: “Forests” - This episode tells the story of seasonal forests and plant survival. Forests cover vast expanses from Siberia to Tasmania and still remain largely unexplored. Infrared and low-light cameras peek into the lives of elusive woodland inhabitants, such as snub-nosed monkeys, Amur leopards and Siberian tigers.
  • Episode 11: “The Depths of the Oceans” – The ocean is by far the largest habitat on our planet and it remains almost entirely unexplored. This episode scans the ocean’s vast surface and trolls its depths, revealing daytime hunters and night feeders, from dolphins to manta rays, and life among hot vents and underwater massifs, following the energy source between oceanic white tips, myctopids, tuna, whale sharks and petrels.

Video (4 out of 5 stars) 

When the original Planet Earth series was released, it was presented in 1080p resolution but for some unknown reason, this newly encoded transfer is in 1080i (1.78:1).  Now I know a lot of people will balk at the apparent drop in quality but let me explain why that happened first.  In the UK, Planet Earth was mastered at 1080i/50Hz at 25 fps which is a format that’s incompatible with US standards so instead it was slowed down to 24 fps, which allowed the original release to be presented in 1080p resolution.  In an attempt to return to the source quality as close as possible, a new encode was done at 1080i/60Hz which is compatible with US standards but the end result is that it’s now in 1080i resolution.
I can predict your next question…which one looks better?  Looking at both my HD-DVD release and this new Special Edition, I’d have to say it’s pretty close.  Both offer stunning color that you have to see to believe and the contrast and the black levels are fantastic.  Textures are also impressive and back in the day when the original was released I would have declared it reference quality.  Since that time period however, we’ve all seen the advances made since then so now I can no longer say that even though this still looks very nice.  That’s not to say that there isn’t any problems here because there are some minor issues.  There’s some digital noise present as well as some banding issues that appear intermittently through the series.  This is still a great looking series but after looking at some other recent releases from the BBC, it just doesn’t hold up as well.

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

When it comes to the audio however, there is no debate as the previous release was only given a lossy Dolby Digital track.  The good news is that this new Special Edition comes with a lossy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix which sounds a lot better.  The primary use of this mix is David Attenborough’s narration of course, and it comes through strong and clear.  While the American release features Sigourney Weaver (which I’m sure sounds fine), I prefer to have the original narration by David Attenborough since he obviously has an affinity for this subject and because it just feels and sounds right.  This new sound mix sounds great, with it’s clear narration delivered by the front channels, while the rear speakers offer some nice ambiance with the various animal, insect, and nature sounds all around you.  This is still primarily a front channel experience but this new mix is definitely an improvement over the previous one.

Special Features (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Now we come to the main difference and primary reason for you to buy this version over the previous one – extras.  And I don’t mean a couple of extras but over seven hours worth of bonus features!
  • Audio Commentaries – Now sporting five new commentaries including:  ”Pole to Pole,” with episode producer Mark Linfield, “Mountains,”  with producer Vanessa Berlowitz, “Caves,” with producer Huw Cordey, “Great Plains,” with producer Jonny Keeling, and last but not least, producer Mark Brownlow offers a commentary for “Shallow Seas.”  Most of these commentaries offer some interesting insights into the making of each episode and there’s some nice anecdotes as well.  Except for one track, there isn’t a lot of dead air to be found, so there’s a lot of ground covered.
  • Music Only Viewing Option – Each episode includes a Dolby Digital stereo track of the isolated score by George Fenton.  If you are fan of the music, you will be sure to love this!
  • Planet Earth Diaries – After each episode, we see a 8-10 minute behind the scenes look at how the episode was made.  This extra offers an extra commentary for each one of these “diaries.”  The producers of each episode return to narrate their respective episode diaries.
  • Great Planet Earth Moments – A retrospective look back at the Planet Earth series that includes both the highlights and the low points of making the series.  Including comments and interviews from just about everyone involved in the production of the show, this almost hour long look back is very comprehensive and a nice way to see the best of the show in a condensed manner.  If you want to play the show to people that haven’t seen it and you don’t have a lot of time, then this should suffice.
  • The Future – Featuring close to three one-hour episodes, (“Saving Species,” “Into the Wilderness,” and “Living Together”), “The Future” is a depressing glimpse into the future  which shows us how the beauty and wonder of these environments that we’ve been watching are at risk because of pollution, overpopulation, socioeconomic consequences, the results from geopolitical inaction, and other environmental challenges.  With many species on the edge of extinction, the Planet Earth team present a clear eyed view of the future.  They travel to many regions that will face these challenges and talking to local conservationists about the issues and possible solutions.
  • Three Bonus Documentaries and a Sneak Peek:
    • Snow Leopard: Beyond the Myth – Almost an hour long, this documentary gives a look at the elusive snow leopard and its struggle to survive.
    • Secrets of the Maya Underworld – Another almost hour long look into the past, and this time it takes place in the Yucatan, where explorers have made some discoveries in the Maya underworld that change our perceptions of these ancient people.
    • Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert – An engrossing look at some nomadic elephants and their struggle to find food and water and survive in an increasingly hostile world.
    • Frozen Planet Sneak Peek – A thirteen minute preview of the upcoming seven part documentary called Frozen Planet which is a new series co-produced by the BBC and the Discovery Channel.  I’m looking forward to it already!

    Final Thoughts (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

    There’s a reason this series won just about every award possible and if you haven’t seen it yet, then this is the perfect time to rectify that!  While the video quality change is negligible, both the audio and the new special features make this worth upgrading to this new Special Edition.  If you don’t own the previous version already, then this is a must own title for you. This is highly recommended!
    Order your copy today!

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