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Circle of Life

9 Mar, 2007 By: John Latchem

This stunning image of a shark piercing through the water to snag a seal in its jaws is one of many in "Planet Earth" that take advantage of the program's use of high-speed, high-definition cameras.

“Planet Earth” is not your ordinary nature documentary series. Shot in high-definition, the BBC series stands apart from traditional nature films through its sheer ambition and scope.

Having explored the Earth's oceans in the acclaimed “The Blue Planet,” producers set off with an unprecedented $25 million budget to catalog corners of the globe rarely seen by human eyes.

Each of the program's 11 episodes covers a different habitat, from mountains to oceans to lands of ice.

“Our aim was to reignite people's interest in the natural world,” said Huw Cordey, who produced three of the episodes — “Caves,” “Deserts” and “Jungles.” “We filmed animal behaviors people hadn't seen before.”

Planet Earth: The Complete Collection, out April 24 (prebook March 20), becomes BBC Video's first high-def home video release, with versions available on DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc, distributed by Warner Home Video.

“Natural history is the ideal genre to encourage people to buy into high-definition,” Cordey said. “The fantastic landscapes really look great. You get sucked in. It's being-there TV.”

More than 40 cameramen spent five years spread across 200 locations to capture some of the most unique natural images ever recorded. Field teams spent months at a time seeking the perfect shot, utilizing variable-speed cameras that in many cases were designed to film automobile crash tests.

A highlight for Cordey was filming in Lechuguilla Cave, part of New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The isolated cave is marked by beautiful chambers of delicate crystals and pools of clear water.

“It's mind-blowing, like something from another planet,” Cordey said. “And, yet, hardly anyone knows about them.”

The ecosystem is so fragile that the area is restricted, and it took Cordey and his team two years of negotiation just to get permission to film in them.

The filmmakers spent more than eight hours descending into the caverns, and shot for 10 days. Much of the footage will be edited for use in the Carlsbad visitor center, Cordey said.

The show also took advantage of new methods of aerial photography, using HD cameras mounted on helicopters.

“There were some animal behaviors we could shoot from the air for the first time,” Cordey said. “If you try to film from a helicopter, you have to get pretty close, and the animals don't stay around. We had a gyro-stabilizer that enabled us to be up to one kilometer from the action.

“There are a lot of long pullouts, and the animals disappear into the background. It helps you understand the challenges animals face in trying to survive. That's quite compelling.”

As an example of the benefits to using this type of photography, Cordey points to a scene looking down on a pack of hunting dogs in Africa flanking their prey.

“It was a revelation for one of the scientists who was working with us,” Cordey said. “He had been trying to study them from the ground for years without much luck.”

“Planet Earth” doesn't shy away from depicting the harsh realities of life in the wild, showcasing the brutal clashes that can occur between animals struggling to survive, be it snakes eating bats, or a polar bear attacking a walrus.

“In one scene, we show some elephants being attacked by a group of lions,” Cordey said. “In another, a group of chimpanzees capture a baby from another group, then kill it and eat it. We haven't sanitized life in these habitats. These scenes are not there to shock people, but to show a point. It can be quite disturbing, but it is sensitively cut.”

An edited version of the series debuts on the Discovery Channel March 25, with Sigorney Weaver as narrator.

Discovery will run a marathon of the series on Earth Day, April 22.

The home video version includes the original British edition, with 90 minutes of footage not seen on Discovery, and the original narration by naturalist icon Sir David Attenborough.

The four-disc high-def sets are $99.98 each. The $79.98 five-DVD set also includes about 10 minutes of making-of footage with each episode, plus the three-part follow-up “Planet Earth: The Future.”

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