Monday, April 23, 2007

Planet Amazing

By Tony Buchsbaum

In recent weeks, the Discovery Channel has been showing the epic BBC series Planet Earth. It’s been an astounding look at our planet’s last wildernesses in all their considerable glory. And I do mean considerable.

The 11 episodes are something to see, with footage of the sort that most documentarians can only dream about. Imagine visions of the deep ocean, where strangely-shaped creatures live in complete darkness, waiting and foraging for whatever scraps drift down into their neighborhood. Imagine a herd of caribou fleeing mosquitoes rather than wolves. Or a polar bear taking its first steps into daylight. Or tons of krill. Or a mother humpback whale helping its calf breathe. Or caves populated by thousands of bats and the millions of cockroaches that call their guano pile home. Or massive stalactites in the deepest caves of Carlsbad Caverns. Or a massive Great White Shark striking a seal, lifting itself fully out of the water in ultra-slow motion.

I can’t help but imagine being on the scene, actually capturing these images. Planet Earth is certainly about earth, but it’s also about the tenacity of the men and women who created it. Some of them camped out for weeks or months in the worst possible conditions, just to get a few feet of film. Frankly, their dedication and endurance are as humbling fruits of their labor.

As they worked, they employed the latest techniques and technology, everything from fully-rotating helicopter gimbals to hot air balloons, from deep-sea submersible cameras to cable systems that allow for never-before-seen views of the rainforest floor. But you’ll never notice it, and you’d never know about it if guys like me didn’t mention it. But the making of this documentary — in 200 locations over five years — is half the story.

While this series is about the visual wonder of earth, it is also about the relentless search for food — the circle of life. Every episode features creatures simply looking for their next meal. Penguins are cute, but they’re also quite appetizing for a hungry seal. Likewise, elephants are big lumberers, but when a pride of lions is giving chase, they’re faster than you ever thought they could be.

These eleven adventures (and that’s what they are) will show you non-human life on mountains and in fresh water, in deep and shallow seas, in and on ice, in deserts and jungles.

But there’s more. The Discovery Channel is showing a slightly truncated version of Planet Earth, trimmed to meet the habits and schedules of American viewers and networks. If you missed it, and even if you didn’t, the original series is available in a glorious 5-DVD set. This set includes longer versions of the episodes as well as plentiful extras: mini-features on some of the most challenging bits to film as well as a three-part documentary on the future of Planet Earth.

If you’d prefer to read and turn pages, the entire experience has been captured in a coffee-table book called Planet Earth: As You’ve Never Seen It Before. If the footage is beautiful, being able to study frames for as long as you wish is something else again. The book features hundreds of such images, as well as informative text by series producer Alastair Fothergill.

And while you’re turning those pages, make sure you’re listening to George Fenton’s spectacular score, which is available in a 2-CD set. It contains most of the main cues from the series. This is majestic music, as grand as the images they accompany. Fenton has created nothing less than a great romance, with soaring themes and memorable melody. Is the romance between life and its planet, or is it more about the dance between species, that endless circle of life? Either way, this is music that rejoices in our planet’s natural magic.

Planet Earth is our home, to be sure, but many parts of it are also, even in the 21st century, our great frontier. At the opening of the British version, narrator David Attenborough says that 100 years ago earth’s population was 1.5 billion and that today it’s six billion. The politics of that statement aren’t subtle. No one can escape — nor should we — the debate about global warming. If there’s even a tiny chance we can save the stunning beauty of our home, not to mention our own societies, by being a bit more green, then we owe it to ourselves and our children to do just that. If there’s a doubt in your mind about that, watch this series…and feel your priorities shift.

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