When high definition first became available to the masses, a majority of programming available, both in store demos and on home cable, were travelogues and landscapes. And why not? The wonders of nature are truly breathtaking, and the ability to capture wide vistas in incredible detail, and with vivid colors is a perfect showcase for high definition. I'm sure that for many of us, it was one of those images that got us interested in the format in the first place.
A long time has passed since those days, when an HD color tube cost as much as a plasma does now, and a plasma cost far more than most people could afford. HD technology has received a far-reaching acceptance, with cable companies and satellite providers vying to one-up each other in HD content, and two competing HD disc formats. But one place where HD has received a very warm welcome is in the world of filmmaking. Granted, many filmmakers, some as popular as Steven Spielberg, contend that HD is not as good as film. And it's true that film can still provide a better image than HD, but not everyone has the resources of Steven Spielberg. For many filmmakers, HD is the perfect mix of economy and image quality. Simply put, it's the best picture for the buck. The price of shooting on film is far costlier than HD, and the image quality of HD is good enough to be projected in theaters.
Discovery Channel saw the inherent benefits of HD when they commissioned a series of documentaries about various countries of the world. Dubbed "Discovery Atlas," each entry would explore the culture, history, and geography of its chosen country. This particular episode focuses on Australia, one of the most contradictory, dangerous, and beautiful countries in the world. Russell Crowe, star of such films as Gladiator and Master and Commander, provides the narration.
While Discovery Atlas: Italy Revealed used people's stories to explore Italy, Discovery Atlas Australia Revealed uses the country to tell people's stories. The difference is vital. While the Italian documentary was middling, the Australian one is thoroughly engrossing. The documentary starts with an overview of the country via montage, while Crowe explains what the Australian spirit is all about. This thesis allows the documentary to wander from wonder to wonder, from a record-breaking wolf fence, to the Great Barrier Reef, to an entire village built underground.
Crowe gives an engrossing and well-told narration that keeps the documentary moving. Australia has such varied environments, people, and cultural quirks that the documentary flits from one subject to another like a hummingbird finding itself in the middle of an entire field of honeysuckle. The show jumps from aboriginal culture to sheep-shearing contests to the Australian Navy. And all the while, the documentary highlights all the of the species of animals that live on the land and in the ocean.
There are many staggering numbers on display throughout the program, and Australia probably has some of the most unique environments on earth, which pave the way for animals not found anywhere else, from mammals to reptiles to insects and fish. It also lead to several interesting cultural innovations that are not duplicated anywhere else in the world. This documentary runs roughly one hour and forty minutes, but with the amount of fascinating material on hand, it could have been three hours and I wouldn't have been bored. Personally, despite never having been there, I love everything I've seen of Australia and cannot wait to go there myself. Until I do, this is the next best thing.
The HD DVD:
Image Entertainment presents Discovery Atlas: Italy Revealed in a MPEG-4 1080i transfer, in its original aspect ratio of 1.77:1. As mentioned above, these documentaries were shot in high definition, and this is their natural habitat, so to speak. On cable, these documentaries look good. On HD DVD, they look revelatory. From the Australian Outback to the Great Barrier Reef, this is the premiere way to see such natural wonders. The level of detail is simply amazing. You can see every tuft of fur on a koala, or small nicks on a sheep as it gets sheared. Director Chris Thorburn has an infatuation with camera tricks (especially dolly zooms, I counted at least four), and these are the only times where the image falters. Specifically, there are some slow motion shots taken at a beach that exhibit clear digital noise and some slight pixelation. However, these shots are short and rarely occur, and the rest looks phenomenal.
Due to the nature of these documentaries, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix provided is wasted. The majority of the sound comes from Russell Crowe's narration, which is naturally confined to the front speakers. The rears are generally used for the music, and it's so low that they might as well have just made it a 2.0 mix. However, Crowe's voice always comes through clearly and warmly, which is the most important thing.
While brief, all of the supplements are in high definition.
Behind The Scenes: A three-minute interview with director Chris Thorburn where he discusses how he came to the project and how it developed.
Character Vignettes: Essentially a three-minute promo video for the documentary, this montage shows no new footage.
HD Technology: A promotional video Discovery made to highlight the use of HD in their Atlas series. This featurette contains interviews with all of the series' directors, and has the most information. It appears on all of the Atlas HD DVDs.
Slideshow: A collection of stills.
Australia is a land full of wonders, and Discovery Atlas: Australia Revealed catalogues many of them in an engrossing and enjoyable documentary. Despite a few small image issues, the disc as a whole looks fantastic, with some truly breathtaking sequences. Between the quality of the show and the image, this HD DVD comes Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.