Here at The Thread our native tendency toward cynicism is being reinforced by the environmental catastrophe the world seems to be heading toward. There are many disheartening and a few inspiring documentaries out there, but overall the consensus seems to be dire – even if we were to start changing course now, it may be too little too late….
Our obsession with the fate of the natural world is actually rooted not in cynicism, but in wonder… We’ve always been awestruck by the amazing and insightful documentaries that showcase nature in all its glorious magnificence.
So with this week’s release of A Beautiful Planet — taken from the viewpoint of the International Space Station — we pause to celebrate Earth from above and below.
Toni Myers (Hubble, Blue Planet) directs this stunning portrait of Earth from outer space, providing a unique perspective our planet and the galaxy from the International Space Station. The film was made in conjunction with NASA, where cameras were placed inside the spacecraft taking the astronauts up to the ISS and then on board.
Shooting spanned multiple expeditions, with NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Terry Virts, Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Scott Kelly volunteering as filmmakers during their time on station, after training by Myers and director of photography James Neihouse.
Jennifer Lawrence narrates as she guides us through this film celebrating the beauty of our planet while it’s still there.
Filmmakers Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou Fillike documented life in the undergrowth by using microphotography to show the world of insects as never seen before.
The film is shot without dialogue. It opens with an aerial view of a meadow and then drops wildly down amongst the herbs and soil where the stage is set. The filmmakers spent three years recreating this single day. Utilizing astounding close ups, they give the viewer a bug’s eye view where water drops are the size of planets, and grass blades become alien skyscrapers. At this level, the bugs themselves take on an unearthly appearance, as if they were the grotesque giants, not us.
Among the things depicted are a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly and the gentle lovemaking of snails… it’s quite a slow process. In the cycle of life and death, a spider makes a gruesome meal of two grasshoppers, and a determined dung beetle futilely attempts to roll a large prize up a steep slope.
This film captured out imagination when it was released and we watched it several times. Ever since we tread more carefully in the meadows.
Ron Fricke directed this film, which takes its title from a Sufi word that translates roughly as ‘breath of life’ or” blessing’. The film is a tour-de-force in 70mm: a cinematic guided meditation shot in 24 countries on six continents over a 14-month period that unites religious ritual, the phenomena of nature, and man’s destructive powers into a web of moving images.
Fricke’s camera ranges, in meditative slow motion or bewildering time-lapse, over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Ryoan-Ji temple in Kyoto, Lake Natron in Tanzania, burning oil fields in Kuwait, the smoldering precipice of an active volcano, a busy subway terminal, tribal celebrations of the Masai in Kenya, chanting monks in the Dip Tse Chok Ling monastery…and on and on, through locales across the globe.
If we were going to send a film to another planet to portray life on Earth, for sheer range and impact this might be the one … from its magnificent images and soundscapes to its depiction of cultures from around the globe.
David Attenborough, who is celebrating his 90th birthday on May 8th, has spent 50 years documenting nature, a mission which has made him the most travelled person in human history, excepting only the astronauts.
Attenborough narrates this 11-part BBC miniseries that was four years in production, with over 2000 days in the field and 71 cameramen filming across 204 locations in 62 countries, this is the ultimate portrait of our planet. It’s a truly amazing experience that combines rare action, unimaginable scale, impossible locations, and intimate moments with our planet’s best-loved, wildest, and most elusive creatures.
From the highest mountains to the deepest rivers, this series takes you on a remarkable journey through the challenging seasons and the daily struggle for survival in Earth’s most extreme habitats.
We’ve watched this series multiple times and always discover something new.
David Lickely directs and Morgan Freeman narrates this nature documentary that takes a more specific focus – on orangutans and elephants. It is an inspired story of love, dedication and the remarkable bond between humans and animals.
The film runs at a short 45min and highlights the work of two unique women — elephant authority Daphne M. Sheldrick and famed primatologist Biruté Mary Galdikas — who have both dedicated their lives to the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned, endangered animals.
Both women work tirelessly alongside native teams to prepare their animals for reentry into the wild; all the while doing everything they can to duplicate the presence of the animal’s natural parents and habitats.
While the film could have focused a little more on the women and what led them down this path, it does a beautiful job of highlighting the bonds between man and beast.
Another visually stunning piece of work, this one directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud. This documentary follows several species of migratory birds over a four-year period. These birds travel thousands of miles toward the equator in the autumn, and make the return journey to their higher latitude summer homes in the spring, always taking the same route, using the natural compasses of the universe, the stars, to find their way.
The entire time you are watching, you will be asking, “how did they capture this on film?” One answer is: with teams totaling more than 450 people, 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers, using all manners of aircraft to fly alongside, above, below and in front of their subjects.
There is of course another answer. According to , Variety’s correspondent in Paris, Lisa Nesselson, 225 feet of film were exposed for every foot that got into the movie. And some birds were raised to be the stars of the film; they were exposed to the sounds of airplanes and movie cameras while still in the shell, and greeted upon their arrival in the world by crew members.
That raises some questions – isn’t what these filmmakers did is at odds with the ethos of the women in Born to be Wild?
But the birds aren’t harmed, and so in the end, to us, the result seems worth it. The more people get to see nature this intimately and vividly, the more likely they are to do something about the looming crisis.