Saturday, October 16, 2010

Disneynature Oceans & The Crimson Wing: fishes and feathers in Blu-ray

In the world of nature documentaries, wildlife filmmakers had for many years resigned themselves to the fact that their professional lives would be bound to very tight budgets with distribution limited to television and nature film festivals. Not that this would condemn them to inferior product, but the opportunity to express their passion to a large audience utilizing the power of the large screen experience, for the most part, eluded them.

In 2008, Walt Disney Studios formed its Disneynature division for the purpose of bringing nature films back to a mainstream audience in a big way. Disney has a past history in nature documentaries - cute stories of lovable bears or foxes that were both entertaining and fashioned within the mold of Disney family fare. With Disneynature, the studio has returned with several sweeping theatrical productions that are also taking advantage of today's advanced home entertainment technology in the form of high definition Blu-ray and Internet connectivity.

Set for release on October 19th in Blu-ray/DVD combo packs, Disneynature's Oceans and The Crimson Wing are two remarkable films with stunning visuals but different approaches in storylines to motivate audiences to appreciate nature. One engulfs you with the breadth of biodiversity, while the other focuses on a precarious annual journey of survival.

Oceans, a follow up to Earth, Disneynature's first global-oriented release, takes a sweeping look at life in the sea. From majestic humpback whales to quirky, pugnacious mantis shrimp; to humongous, thunderous storm waves; to Isla Guadalupe's great white sharks (some familiar toothy faces from my years filming there), the film ladles one impressive scene atop another to paint a picture of spectacular variety in shape, color size, and temperament. Pierce Brosnan provides a narration that is not too wordy, avoiding competing for attention with the images on the screen.

While many nature film-goers may have seen similar underwater scenes in other films, the sheer variety all brought together in Oceans is overwhelming. As a nature filmmaker, I knew a lot about what went into the making of this film, produced by French-based Galatee Films: high definition video, 35mm film, elaborate underwater lighting rigs, camera cranes arms working from small boats, even remote controlled model helicopters mounted with cameras - enough technical wizardry to make any major action film envious. And yet, knowing this, I still found myself thinking over and over, How did they get that shot?

The Blu-ray transfer of the film is excellent and nothing is modified from the original wide-screen theatrical format - so even on a large flat screen, the video is letterboxed to match the theatrical original. The Blu-ray disc also provides an interesting variation on the "director's comments" found with many DVDs by offering Filmmaker Annotations which provides behind-the-scenes footage and backstory while the video is running.

With such a mosaic of dramatic aquatic images, the film's one weakness is the lack of a more cohesive storyline. The film is literally and figuratively all over the map, from big to small, from one side of the globe to another, there were brief scenes that, while probably taking many days if not weeks to shoot, seemed to be mere placeholders. So the "story" of Oceans is that of spectacular eye candy. It is a marvelous achievement visually and home viewers, particularly those unfamiliar with the ocean's biodiversity, will be as impressed as theater-goers were.

While having advance knowledge of what to expect with Oceans, I was totally unfamiliar with The Crimson Wing. It is the story of Africa's flamingos and their annual migration to the lakes in northern Tanzania to breed and raise their babies. Flamingos? Those goofy-looking pink birds? This couldn't hold my attention as a feature film.

I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was stunned.

Produced by Natural Light Films and Kudo Pictures, The Crimson Wing is a remarkable example of nature filmmaking. Capturing the birds in flight or congregating in the hundreds of thousands, the filmmakers transform the image of a silly plastic ornament on a Florida lawn into a graceful creature determined to flourish in an insufferably hot and hostile environment.

The Crimson Wing focuses on Lake Natron, where flamingos arrive following brief rains that breathe life into the shallow lake in the form of red algae - remarkably, the source of the birds distinctive color. As the summer heat increases, salts separate from the evaporating waters and literally form a salt island where the birds go to build nests; mounds of salty mud. The babies that hatch must then withstand an arduous trek to the lake shore marshes where they will feed, grow and ultimately take flight as the flocks disperse across Africa, only to return again the next year, the cycle repeating itself.

While there are plenty of Disneyesque scenes of cute baby flamingos stumbling through their first steps or nestling with their mothers, the film doesn't pull its punches in showing the precarious nature of their lives. Stalking predators like giant storks or a hungry mongoose are shown taking their fill - a reminder of the cold brutality of survival. Not avoiding this hard reality of nature only adds to the mystery and miracle of the migration, and the filmmakers succeed in maintaining a balance in tone: beauty in the face of severity.

While containing stunning visuals, The Crimson Wing also benefits from a more cohesive and personal story, one that is propelled by chronological events. The close interaction between mother and chicks helps to maintain focus as these flamingos go through their own "Circle of Life" - to borrow from another Disney film. Again, the Blu-ray transfer is excellent and so you have an entertaining combination of state-of-the-art visuals with a compelling story. This is what one would hope all nature films could attain.

In addition to the video of the original theatrical release and the Filmmaker Annotation feature previously mentioned, both Oceans and The Crimson Wing offer interactive menu features that, when the Blu-ray player is linked to the Internet, provide additional nature and conservation information that is updated via the online connection. Part of the strategy to promote adoption of the Blu-ray standard is the incorporation of the Internet - in essence, your Blu-ray player becomes a computer - and I expect we will see more and more creative uses of this interactive capability in the future.

Disneynature's Oceans and The Crimson Wing are worthy reasons for adopting Blu-ray as the next home video format. Enlightening viewers to the beauty, importance, and fragility of nature is a worthwhile mission for technology. As a conservationist, I am hoping that technology will provide solutions to help protect the planet. It can also help by simply showing us what we can not afford to lose.

Available on Blu-ray/DVD on October 19, 2010.

No comments: