Earth: The Artistic Rendition of Reality

By Owen Armstrong

earth-alastair-fothergill-mark-linfield.jpgEarth, 2007

“It is the hallucination of detail that rules. Science has already habituated us to this microscopics, this excess of the real in its microscopic detail, this voyeurism of exactitude – a close-up of the invisible structures of the cell- to this notion of an exorable truth that can no longer be measured with reference to the play of appearances, and that can only be revealed by a sophisticated technical apparatus.” – Jean Baudrillard

With the imminent theatrical release of Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield’s Earth, a 90 minute version of the hugely popular BBC TV series Planet Earth, public interest has focused more than ever before on the compulsion to observe and document the natural world.

Primarily, Earth follows the survival and migration of humpback whales, polar bears and elephants over the course of a year, which finds an immediate and obvious narrative comparison in Luc Jaquet’s Oscar winning March of the Penguins – both, in part, sacrificing observational documentary rigour in favour of the appeal of humanised emotional pillars.

Earth has also updated its televisual counterpart by replacing the comfort and authority of David Attenborough’s narration with the ostentatious majesty of Patrick Stewart. The film subsequently assumes the tone of a phenomenal voyage rather than an exhibition of the vitality and natural beauty of Earth. Reprising his role as Natural History composer though is Planet Earth’s George Fenton, who’s dramatic and grand score imbues the film’s imagery with a sense of magnificence equalled only by the images themselves.

Showcasing the most advanced high definition photography to date, Earth represents the most recent in a growing trend of cinema that offers a super-stylised, hyper-real perspective of our planet.

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Though the informative aspect of ‘interest’ certainly percolates throughout the development of this strand of observational filmmaking, it has been the introduction of a range of cinematic techniques which have not only heavily poeticised the images captured, but also helped generate the spectacle associated with such productions.

Watching Earth, one does not question the ‘truth’ behind the often fantastical collection of images – no more than one questions the scale of narrative manipulation, but there is something distinct in these images that removes them from any relative reality. The reality offered here is one of total exacerbation, that is, more real than we can actually perceive, and this is a phenomenon increasingly particular to observational filmmaking.

Though the development of basic filming apparatus has certainly prompted a stylistic shift in how we are able to view the natural world, the fundamental curiosity and demand for such work is something that has resonated throughout over a century of film history – a fine example can be found in Percy Smith’s 1910 film The Birth of a Flower, in which time-lapse photography is used to capture the process of flowers blooming.

The films of Jean Painleve provide further examples of this compulsion to address the natural and scientific unknown, using many of contemporary cinema’s commonplace techniques – namely microscope, time-lapse and high-speed photography. The fastidious attention to detail in films such as The Seahorse (1934), The Love Life of the Octopus (1965) and Sea Urchins (1954) expresses Painleve’s own preoccupation with the relation between science and surrealism, which is an early indication of the hyper-reality presented in Earth – truth on the verge of fiction.

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Earth is not the first instance in which the BBC has converted one of its most successful creations into feature length format. The Blue Planet’s transformation into 2003’s Deep Blue – also directed by Fothergill - achieved both critical and box-office success and was heralded for its outstanding cinematography, though similarly to Earth, much of the footage used was a re-constitution of material from the original series. This was a continuation of a minor surge of productions that, predominantly throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, began addressing the cinematic potential of artistic observational filmmaking with the scale and depth now synonymous with films like Earth.

The common element between this proliferation of work - films like Ron Fricke’s Chronos and Baraka, and Luc Besson’s Atlantis - and that of Fothergill is that they perform a function beyond informational documentary filmmaking and, as well as not being limited by elaborate stylistic excess, still hold claim to their faithful treatments of actuality.

The opening credits to Jaques Perrin’s 2001 film Winged Migration reveal that no digital animation has been used to enhance the portrayal of bird migration across vast distances. It is as though Perrin is compelled to warn the viewer that the following images will require a heightened suspension of disbelief.

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True enough; the experience of watching bird flight from the point-of-view of one of the flock is a strange and vertiginous one, echoing the exacerbated truth we see in Earth’s 2000 frame-per-second footage of great white sharks leaping from the sea. Drawing a more literal similarity, and using the most powerful zoom lenses to date, Fothergill and Linfield offer us the perspective of seeing both the curvature of the Earth and bird migration in the thousands – not only a dizzying indication of the rate of technological advancement between the two films, but also a testing combination of elements to comprehend visually. Certainly, the introduction of the Cineflex aerial camera is the most obvious addition to the arsenal of filming techniques on display here, allowing for breathtaking views of the Earth and its inhabitants in transit.

Where Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou’s 1996 film Microcosmos had shown us the alien world of insects in superb detail, Earth now presents the other end of this technological spectrum. With the ability to film intimate shots from up to 1km away, the helicopter camera, known as the Heli-Gimbal, not only enables camera crews to film surfaces on which filming is logistically impossible, but also means that the subjects being filmed are left undisturbed and natural behaviour is not disrupted by film crews. In this sense the quality of camera technology on display strikes a fine balance between practical application and artistic enterprise.

There is another factor at work here too. In accentuating the familiar to an obsessive degree, it becomes clear that it is more than just the product of fascination. As Baudrillard refers to it, this “voyeurism of exactitude” seems to indicate the point at which observational curiosity begins to incorporate the attributes of fetishism. This is not only apparent in work specific to the natural world, but is also an extension of Dziga Vertov’s 1922 newsreel series Kino-Pravda – meaning ‘film truth’ – for which he believed the use of camera effects would enable filmmakers to document an enhanced truth. Vertov’s 1931 film Enthusiasm is perhaps a clearer example of this notion of fetishism, containing a stream of images detailing the mechanics of steel production. This technique of amplifying the viewer’s attention to the apparatus of filmmaking is something we are unavoidably aware of in Fothergill and Linfield’s film, which thrives on its capacity for technological amazement.

This is by no means detrimental to the aesthetic experience of watching Earth which, as well as exhibiting the exhaustive processes of its artistic construct, also retains its sense of genuine exhilaration, regardless of its unchallenging narrative shortcomings.

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Those familiar with Earth’s television incarnation may also recall the Planet Earth Diaries that concluded each episode. A further example of this de-mystification of the relationship between production and end product, these additional shorts detailed the various processes of how such incredible footage was captured and the techniques used to do so – a case in point of this compulsion to offer more than just the image, to over-indulge.

The epic scale and drama that sweeps through Earth’s operatic portrayal of life’s trials throughout seasonal change is also a logical progression from the feature length work of directors like Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke. Though focusing more specifically on the impact of technology on countries in the Northern hemisphere, Reggio’s 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi is an earlier exploration of civilisation’s disharmonious relationship with the natural world. Like fractal images through a microscope, Reggio’s uses time-lapse and slow-motion photography to accentuate the rhythms of life to the degree that they become other-worldly. Immediate parallels are visible throughout Earth wherein these techniques seem to serve a dual purpose; to weave together its three main survival stories, and also to offer broader narrative horizons, many of which are examined in far greater depth in the film’s television series format.

As well as addressing the fractured symbiosis of nature and humanity, the fundamental similarity between these films is in their increasingly elaborate portrayals of the remarkable. As with Painleve’s purposefully blurred distinctions between artistic curiosity and scientific wonder, Fothergill and Linfield show us the natural world in an extraordinary fashion. In this respect, Earth is the latest milestone in this strand of observational documentary filmmaking – a new cinema of spectacle.

Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and filmmaker. He lives in London.