After the huge success of the BBC’s Planet Earth (2006), it made sense to craft a follow-up series, even thought that’s not atypical for host David Attenborough, a longtime veteran of nature documentaries where the host is placed in close proximity to subjects ranging from mammals, cold blooded creatures, and life in the Antarctic.
Inevitably when one bounces across the globe to visually capture the themes and subjects of planned episodes, there’s bound to be repetition, and Life, broadcast in 2009 after heavy advance media ballyhoo, had its fair share of previously seen footage from predecessor Planet Earth.
Some critics and viewers have cried foul over the practice, but it’s hardly new when a broadcaster (or producer for that matter) is sitting on a massive archive of truly unique footage. Should it be repurposed, or remain exclusive to the original series, and some side-deals involving stock footage for adverts?
Attenborough’s use of penguins, for example, has popped up beyond his outstanding Life of Birds (1998); some of that series' footage was originally integrated into the stellar 1993 Antarctic series Life in the Freezer. Then there’s the revisitation of the Amazonian Bower bird, which was seen in the Birds series, but was re-filmed in Life because the team was determined to capture more details of its mating ritual, including the actual act of bird whoopee (which they did, making it a filmed first).
That all quashes recent arguments of viewers being a little miffed at seeing familiar footage in the new series; the re-use of select material to re-establish or embolden a point is normal when it comes to nature docs.
Compared to Planet Earth, the pacing of Life does feel a little faster, but with the exception of the first episode – an intro filler piece about life, death, food, and love that’s essentially teaser material for the rest of subsequent themed HD episodes – mammals, birds, bugs and plants are grouped into segments that are part informative and visualy splendiferous.
Those expecting the same standard of dynamic, striking images as Planet Earth won’t be disappointed, and whether on DVD or Blu-ray, this is another set that will test the quality and scope of one’s home theatre and HD setup. It all works as an affable, intriguing nature series, but the cinematic quality of many shots make this new series equally outstanding in the eye candy department.
Good examples involve stop-motion cinematography under the Antarctic ice shelf (capturing otherwise slow-crawling starfish and sundry bottom feeders); and a panning and canted camera moving under a midnight starry sky in a forest clearing.
The best material, however, is found in the episode devoted solely to plants, with amazing uninterrupted shots of plants growing on-camera while the camera rig tracks and pans. They involve a bit of After Effects trickery, but there are no CGI gimmicks in this exceptionally conceived sequence.
The animals are by far the biggest stars, and each episode has its own stellar sequence of love, life, and brutal death (mostly hinted at rather than exploited in graphic detail). The best include komodo dragons stalking a doomed buffalo until it becomes carrion (one of twelve select dining sessions during the creature’s yearly diet); a killer whale bonking a seal with its maw, as well as grabbing young prey in a small lagoon; and primates, with their often humanistic social and problem-solving behaviour.
One World, Two Markets
When Planet Earth was initially released on DVD, it was exclusively hosted and narrated by Attenborough, after which the American producers offered an alternatie version featuring Sigourney Weaver’s voice.
For Life, another a co-venture with Britain’s BBC and America’s Discovery Channel, there was a firm decision to create a split run that reflected the show’s apparently distinct markets: the U.S., and the rest of the world.
Life, both on DVD and BR, comes in what’s branded as the Attenborough and Oprah Winfrey versions, but there are key differences in the way the shows were edited, scored, narrated, and presented on home video.
Why remove Attenborough’s presence from the U.S. market when his prior BBC nature docs have enjoyed widespread airing on PBS and specialty channels over the years? It’s hard to say, except that the decision is probably centered around two points: Discovery’s involvement perhaps ensured the series could be refashioned to suit fans and doc enthusiasts less crazy about a quirky, elder Britisher whose accent they might not comprehend (a Scottish cameraman in one the making-of featurettes is subtitled in the Oprah set); and that a broader American reach would sell more units that might better fund the BBC’s next HD nature series.
Of course, if Americans can understand British actors (The Wolfman was filled with them, you know), it sort of moots the point, but the splinter group of specialty doc channels means a lot of people like nature, and who better to broaden a series’ penetration than Oprah, with her familiar voice, her known persona and media ventures that will heavily publicize a product. Her Book Club helped sell countless copies of fiction and non-fiction books, and maybe her involvement would also get more people hooked on nature docs as well, if not more BBC fodder.
Oprah’s narration is, quite frankly, fine, because her text was adapted from the existing Attenborough prose; it’s a blend of direct quotes and some condensing of facts that keep the themes within each episode coherent. The film editors basically took core sequences – like cheetahs taking down an ostrich – and figured out the best way to present them within a shorter running time of 43 mins.
Whereas several sequences may have lost some shots and bits of text here and there, they were sometimes re-ordered to suit that brisk running time, and with all the tweaking, George Fenton’s original score couldn’t remain intact.
Brought in were veteran documentary composers Fred Karns and Richard Fiocca, and while the theme music is a little reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s Millenium (1992) theme (or several Cirque de Soleil shows), the music underscore for each episode is excellent. The two stay true to the orchestral tone of Fenton’s scores, but add their own clever combinations of idioms and instrumentation.
Flying fish are scored in a fusion style of Les Baxter exotica and Disney nature docs, whereas a shark sequence contains witty vestiges of “Mack the Knife.” Equally punchy is the music supporting the mass of anchovies and sardines (sounds like a dining episode, doesn’t it?), and woodwinds hint at the fragility of rare Ethiopian wolves whose numbers hover around a paltry 500.
The sound effects in the Oprah versions are identical, and it’s hard to say whether the one has a more robust surround sound mix than the other version. As edited docs for a commercial channel, the Oprah version is fine, but what’s baffling is why there wasn’t an effort to create longer edits for the home video realm.
The Oprah edition contains a deleted scenes archive that has Winfrey reading corresponding narration to the footage removed from the U.S. edits; if Winfrey recorded full narration tracks for longer edits, why not use them for the video edition? Some of the deleted material – like a segment on wheat – is particularly important to the plants episode.
The only real flaw to the retention of the shorter U.S. broadcast edits are the fadeouts and fade-ins that mandated often hasty closing narration; between ads, they feel natural, but on video, it makes transitions between locations and animal subjects disjointed, and that’s wholly contrary to the Attenborough versions that were edited for linear flows (and less ad breaks).
Staying under 43 mins. was pretty strict, which is why Winfrey’s closing narration in each episode plays over recap footage plus overlaid end credits; it’s an efficient use of time, but the credits take away from the series design as an elaborate audio-visual poem on nature.
In addition to the differing narrations and edits, the extras are quite different between the two releases. Both contain the original making-of featurettes (“Life on Location”) with Attenborough’s voice, but in the Oprah release they’re in a separate Special Features archive rather than placed directly after each episode.
Unique to the Oprah set is an edited version of the separate making-of featurettes with Winfrey’s narration, complete with the series’ main titles sequence. Once again, she reads a condensation of Attenborough’s text, and in place of the shorn footage are corresponding film clips. It’s another odd structural modification: footage of the camera men and women talking about tackling tough shots and bonding with the animals is left untouched, but the rest of the Attenborough material has either been reduced or replaced with film clips that kind of run too long, repeating chunks of familiar facts.
One extra that should be present on both sets but is unique to the Oprah release, is an isolated music and effects track. Music-only would’ve been the ideal, but the alternate track does allow one to play the footage as stunning multimedia wall paper (albeit with those sudden fades).
Had the deleted footage been integrated into the Oprah edits, this set would be just a few notches below Attenborough’s, but the fades alone make the original BBC edits the one to add to one’s nature and HD collection. BBC Warner has made both versions available on DVD and BR in Canada and the U.S., so there’s no worry about one being restricted to a specific market. The current BR 2-pack includes the Attenborough Planet Earth + Oprah Life, but one suspects WHV Canada may consider 2-pack releases of the Attenborough versions around Christmas to please Attenborough fans.
Follow-up series: Human Planet (2011).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan