Release Date(s)2017 (March 28, 2017)
Studio(s)BBC/ZDF/Tencent/France Télévisions (BBC Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
When the BBC’s original Planet Earth was broadcast in 2006, it was a landmark television event (see our Blu-ray review here). Of course, host David Attenborough and the BBC’s Natural History Unit had been making nature documentaries for many years, but this was the first time such a series had been filmed and presented in high-definition. In its 11 episodes, a global audience was shown countless wonders, some that had likely never been seen by humans before. The success of the series made a sequel inevitable and improvements in camera technology meant that sequel would once again be an event.
Planet Earth II was filmed entirely in 4K resolution (2160p), using smaller and remote cameras, with aerial drones and state-of-the-art image stabilization. But while it was recently broadcast in 4K, both in the U.K. and the U.S., the audience able to see it that way is still relatively limited. The good news is, Planet Earth II has become the first television series to be released on the 4K Ultra HD format… and what a brilliant release it is! The series includes 6 episodes, each narrated by Attenborough, that focus on a unique environment and the wildlife that live within it: Islands, Mountains, Jungles, Deserts, Grasslands, and Cities. Each runs about 50 minutes. The 4K video is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and includes a combination of regular footage, time-lapse photography, and macrophotography. I don’t know what the production frame rate was (possibly it was variable), but the series has been mastered in 24fps to allow for the widest viewing compatibility and the result has been color graded for High Dynamic Range.
Let me pick nits first: While this is certainly a reference 4K experience, it’s not quite perfect. Multiple 4K cameras were obviously employed to capture this footage and there’s a little bit of quality difference in the footage that probably results from simple improvements in camera technology during the production. For example, some of the aerial shots of the Himalayas reveal a faint haloing on hard-contrast edges – an issue of older 4K sensors that newer ones no longer exhibit. There’s also a little bit of faint judder visible when the camera pans occasionally, a tiny bit of compression artifacting in the most finely detailed but chaotic footage, and the blackest areas of the image aren’t quite as black as you see on other 4K releases. But don’t get worked up about any of it. As I said, it’s picking nits. If you’re grading this video on a quality scale of 1-100, it deserves a 96 or 97. So let’s talk about what’s great… which is damn near everything.
This 4K imagery is so stunning that you can hardly believe some of it is real. The colors are simply spectacular. It appears that most of this footage was shot in 10-bit color, so there’s almost no banding whatsoever. Watching the first episode, Islands, there are shots of an overcast volcanic island landscape that– well, I never knew there were so many subtle shadings of blue, green, and gray. And the HDR is completely natural; it simply widens the color palette to better capture the reality of the imagery. The result is color so extraordinary that you run out of words for it, literally millions of different hues in the same frame at once. Detail and texturing are damn near perfect. While every episode is visually compelling, there are five or six moments in each that just drop your jaw. In Mountains, you see shimmering gardens of ice forming in time-lapse and mountain rodents that depart the frame so quickly you can see a cloud of individual hairs left behind in the air as they go. In Jungles, you’re treated to dueling hummingbirds of seemingly every color, each with shimmering feathers so reflective they seem almost electroluminescent. Deserts offers footage of forming thunderstorms, with crisp tendrils of lightning that flash in brilliant HDR. One episode features an absurd stare-down between a cricket and a nearly transparent “glass frog,” whose tadpoles avoid danger from a hungry wasp by wriggling out of their eggs and dropping into the water below, all in stunning color and detail. There are super-swarms of locust covering hundreds of square kilometers, wisps of wind-blown sand over textured dunes, lions soaking in a downpour, swirling clouds of starlings that look like formations in a lava lamp, snow leopards fighting, macrophotography of insects and plants in the rain with giant liquid raindrops exploding like fireworks, all of it translucent and reflective. In the Cities episode, you see shinny glass and steel skylines, gleaming in the sun and glowing neon by night. Several times an episode, you find yourself thinking, “That’s outrageous!” It’s brilliant.
The audio is available in a very good English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, with optional English subtitles (no other languages are included here, which suggests there will be other releases internationally). It’s not a flashy mix, but it’s completely natural, working to fully immerse you in a sonic environment that befits the onscreen imagery. The mix is soft, subtle, nuanced, and highly atmospheric. Attenborough’s narration is presented in clear and inviting tones, and a nice bit of music washes over you at appropriate times, at least some of it composed by Hans Zimmer.
The BBC’s 4K Ultra HD release included three discs – a pair of actual 4K discs and a Blu-ray. The contents break down thusly:
- Disc One (4K) – Islands (53:04), Mountains (51:32), Jungles (52:12)
- Disc Two (4K) – Deserts (51:10), Grasslands (51:21), Cities (51:29)
- Disc Three (BD) – Planet Earth II Dairies (54:08)
The only bonus feature is a behind-the-scenes documentary on the BD, also narrated by Attenborough, which reveals the extensive production effort and some of the tricks used to make this series. The Blu-ray also starts with previews for other BBC productions, including the filmed musical London Road, The Hunt, and others. Strangly, unlike most other 4K releases these days, there’s no 1080p BD version of the series included in the package too, nor is there a Digital HD option. Both of those are available separately.
One of the great tragedies of modern technological civilization is that we’ve lost touch with our connection to the natural world. Finally, technology has allowed us to rediscover it, perhaps just in the nick of time. You’d have to be a pretty hardened person to experience this kind of beauty and not be affected by it. I began yesterday intent on sampling just an episode or two, but kept on watching. Then I changed discs and continued watching some more. Shortly after midnight, I’d finished the entire series. Planet Earth II is a visual wonder and it’s utterly compelling – a must-have for every serious fan of 4K. It streets next Tuesday (3/28) and has my highest recommendation. Gather your whole family for the experience and be amazed.
- Bill Hunt