Discovery's New View of Nature

Planet Earth series exploits latest hd camera technology

One of the most ambitious—and expensive—high-definition series on TV will make its debut on the Discovery Channel this weekend.

The 11-episode series, Planet Earth, which offers a new, detailed look at the natural world, airs Sunday, March 25 at 8 p.m. ET on both Discovery HD Theater in 1080-line-interlace (1080i) HD and the standard-definition Discovery Channel flagship network. After the initial episode, “Pole to Pole,” the series will run on both networks on consecutive Sundays through April 22.

Planet Earth, which was produced for Discovery by the BBC and features Sigourney Weaver as a narrator (David Attenborough narrates the British version), took more than five years to create. The cost: $1 million-$2 million per episode to shoot. Producers made lengthy, grueling journeys to remote corners of the world and employed the latest HD camera technology to capture animals and landscapes from unique viewpoints.

“There have been very few series that have the ambition and scale of Planet Earth,” says BBC producer Huw Cordey. “The whole plan at the start was to make sure we filmed in unfamiliar places and presented behavior that few people have seen, or presented behavior that was familiar but in different ways.”

Most of the footage for Planet Earth was shot with Panasonic VariCams recording on DVCPRO HD tapes or Sony HDC-750 cameras recording to HDCAM. The BBC converted variable-frame-rate material to its HD standard of 1080i at 50 frames per second (fps) for post-production. For the American audience, that material has been transcoded to 1080i/60 fps.

Cordey, who has been making nature documentaries for 15 years, says one major technical development for Planet Earth was the use of ultra-high-frame-rate cameras, which capture thousands of frames per second (a practice known as “overcranking”). Such cameras, which have also come into vogue for major sports broadcasts, allow for slow-motion replays of natural events with unprecedented detail.

In “Pole to Pole,” a Photron camera shooting at 1,000 fps (some 40 times the BBC's normal frame rate of 25 fps) snagged a dramatic shot of a great white shark leaping out of the water with a fur seal in its mouth. In other episodes, such cameras were used to capture shots of crocodiles hunting wildebeests and flying frogs gliding through the air.

Other new production techniques for Planet Earth included creating “pole-cams” with waterproof housings for unique underwater shots. And the ample use of new gyro-stabilized aerial camera systems from Cineflex, provided by Helinet of Los Angeles, allowed high-quality HD pictures to be captured from the air.

When combined with a Canon HJ40x long lens, the Cineflex camera system let producers get aerial shots from up to a quarter mile away, says Cordey. That made for sweeping views of wildlife on the move—a giant herd of caribou migrating across northern Canada, for example—that simply weren't possible before.

“One of the special things about Planet Earth is the sequences we were able to film from the air,” says Cordey. “Previously, you would never see an aerial sequence of animals behaving. You would have to be too close to do so, because the mounts were not stable enough to use wide lenses, and the sounds of the engine and the helicopter blades would terrorize the animals.

“With the Cineflex camera,” he adds, “we can shoot from a quarter of a mile away, and film the animal's behavior and never get in the way of their activity.”