Like it or not I’m going to start this 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray review of Planet Earth II off by admitting I’m not generally a fan of documentaries. Unless the subject matter really interests me I tend to find them boring and rather uninteresting. I’m sorry. I’m just wired ignorantly like that. However, if you’re and A//V enthusiast like us all here there’s no denying the special place Planet Earth holds in all our Blu-ray hearts. Back in 2006 it was one of the first television series to grace the format with its HD beauty. It showcased the possibilities of how grand HD video looked in the home front and basically gave Blu-ray (and HD-DVD at the time) a reason to exist. Now fast forward ten years and we have a new home format competing for our living rooms, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. Coincidentally we have a new season of Planet Earth to properly display too. So in essence there’s really no better way to celebrate the first television series on the new 4K home format than by bringing BBC’s Planet Earth II onto the scene once again.
If you think like I do, then you’re probably wondering what is left to show that they didn’t ten years ago in the original Planet Earth. Is Planet Earth II just a cash grab to try and get suckers to rebuy much of the same content now on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray? Rest assured I’ll tackle that first thought in a second, but I want to silence the latter question with a resounding hell no. This is not a cash grab by BBC, but rather a continuation of filming that as recent as ten years ago was considered impossible to capture. So let’s first start off this review by recapping the success of the 2006 series and segueing into this new 4K series. Sound good?
It’s now a decade after the groundbreaking, Emmy Award-winning natural history series Planet Earth Blu-ray was released. We already covered up above as to what made that so special to us Blu-ray fans. The fact of the matter is Planet Earth is still the number one selling non-theatrical home video release to date with over five million copies sold worldwide. Now here we are a decade later. Planet Earth II is billed to go further, get closer, and capture behavior and places that would have been impossible 10 years ago. Planet Earth II consists in over three years in the making, filmed in 40 different countries on 117 filming trips and spread across a total of 2089 shooting days. And because it’s shot and presented in native 4K resolution I guess you can say it offers a whole new view of our planet.
So I guess it goes without saying that Planet Earth II showcases 4K resolution with High Dynamic Range (HDR) and a wider color spectrum, offering brighter, deeper, and more lifelike colors, plus 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio for a home viewing experience like never before. This much is guaranteed, but at the end of the day those are just marketing words I’m cramming into your eyes. How do you know what I type is true? Well I did some research on the matter. If you bear with me, I’d love to go over and cover my findings on the subject in the paragraph below.
Planet Earth II was filmed entirely in native 4K resolution (2160p) making this the real deal. It was captured using smaller and remote cameras with the aid of aerial drones and what’s being billed as state-of-the-art image stabilization. Filming of the new series started back in 2013. Furthermore I read Planet Earth II was shot in Hybrid Log-Gamma, the BBC and Japanese national broadcaster NHK’s version of HDR. It was later re-encoded into HDR10 the HDR format suitable for our Ultra HD Blu-ray physical media. Now just think about how big these media files must have been? Most movies filmed in 4K resolution are shrunken down to 2K Digital Intermediates to more easily edit and handle the associated captured files. The same can’t be said for Planet Earth II. As stated before this is the real deal ladies and gentlemen.
With this all being said it can officially be redeclared here that Planet Earth II is the first television series to be released on the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format this past March 28th. This new series includes 6 episodes, each narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenborough with musical contributions by composer Hans Zimmer. Each 50-minute episode focuses on a unique environment and the wildlife that live within it: Islands, Mountains, Jungles, Deserts, Grasslands and Cities. Those are actually the names of the six episodes here too. Best of all the 4K video is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. That means it wastes no screen real estate on your 4K Ultra HD television set. The 4K video consists of a combination of regular footage, time-lapse photography and macrophotography and is presented in a frame rate of 24fps according to my Sony UBP-X800 4K player. Some of it even looks Matrix-like.
Now your results and mileage may vary with Planet Earth II and I guess it really depends upon how much you love nature documentaries like this. That’s why you don’t see a perfect 5-doggie series score from me up above. However, that’s just my personal take on the matter. Don’t get me wrong I love watching and showing off the 4K eye candy here, but outside of that I’m really not sure how much replay value I’ll get out of this 4K Ultra HD set. One of the usual scenarios when dealing with a documentary like this is how they show all the remarkable ways animals manage to overcome the challenges of surviving in the wildest places on Earth. It really is incredible, but for the animal lover in me it can be downright depressing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get my 4K rocks off by watching newly hatched iguanas get strangled and killed by an army of racer snakes over and over like a Saturday Night Live skit. It was incredible footage to behold, but beyond that I never want to see those images ever again. You picking up what I’m dropping here? I hope so. Maybe they could release “gentler” non-killing version of this series with Planet Earth III in 10 years. Thoughts?
Before we move onto the reason you are all here, the A/V disc vitals, I wanted to drop upon you the following knowledge the BBC press room passed onto me. It’s no doubt that Planet Earth II broke filming boundaries, but did you know it contains 17 filming firsts? Well now you do! And let me be the first to pass along to y’all what they all are. They are as follows.
- Marine iguanas and racer snakes – For the first time, the Planet Earth II team filmed marine iguanas and their frantic dash for safety across their hatching beaches while being pursued by huge numbers of racer snakes.
- Birds of paradise – The bright and beautiful colors of birds of paradise in West Papua have been filmed before, but recently scientists realized that they had been looking at the displays in the wrong way. For the first time the crew filmed the display of the tiny Wilson’s bird of paradise, not from the ground but looking down on him from above, up in a tree – the same way a female would see him.
- Araguaia dolphin – This new species of dolphin was discovered in the Amazon River in 2014, over 930 miles from the ocean and found nowhere else on Earth; almost nothing is known about them. The production team tracked them through the flooded forest to get the first glimpse of these dolphins in the wild. Using stabilized cameras mounted on boats and drones, the crew filmed them from both the water and the air.
- Bat hunting scorpions on the ground – Dubbed “the hardest bat in the world,” the desert long-eared bat takes on the death stalker scorpion, one of the most poisonous scorpions on Earth. Thanks to some immunity to their stings, the long-eared bat comes out on top. Collaborating with scientists in Bristol and Israel, this is the first time this behavior has been filmed.
- Glowing fungi – These are the brightest fungi in the world, and while previously a mystery, scientists have now discovered the fungi may glow in order to trick beetles that use bioluminescence to attract mates. For the first time, new low-light cameras allowed the team to film the amorous beetles attracted to the glowing mushrooms.
- Snow leopards – The crew embarked on three trips in successive years to film snow leopards in Ladakh. In total the crew was on location for 16 weeks, and the camera traps were in the field for 15 months deployed along trails and scenting rocks used by the leopards. In Planet Earth II they’re shown brushing right up against the camera! This is the first time four snow leopards have been filmed at one time as they mate, hunt, and fight, making it the most complete film of snow leopard behavior.
- Zavodovski penguin commute – In what was probably the most intrepid shoot of the entire series, the “Islands” team set off on a seven-day journey by sailboat across the planet’s roughest ocean to get to the remote island of Zavodovski in the middle of the Antarctic sea. Very few people have ever visited this island and no one has ever managed to capture the amazing endeavor of the chinstrap penguins. Every day they have to face fierce stormy seas that batter them against the rocky cliffs as they try to get on and off the island to go out on their vital daily fishing trips.
- Bee-eaters catching insects flushed out by elephants – Carmine bee-eaters in Botswana follow elephants and other large animals that walk through the grass hoping to catch any flying insects they stir up into the air as they push through the vegetation. The team noticed that the birds were following their vehicle as it stirred insects, similar to how they would with elephants. So they sat a cameraman on the front corner of the jeep, strapped on a harness that supported a stabilized camera rig and filmed incredible shots tracking with the birds as they hunted in the air.
- Bobcats hunting in the Rockies in winter – Cameraman John Shier spent five weeks in the freezing conditions in the Rockies during winter, waiting to capture elusive bobcat hunting behavior. This is the first time ever these cats have been filmed hunting ducks and squirrels.
- Railroad worms hunting millipedes – Railroad worms are actually bioluminescent beetles that use two different lights on their bodies – greenish yellow ones to deter predators and a red glowing head to use as a “night vision” hunting light.
- Catfish hunting pigeons – This is a relatively recently described behavior where, much like killer whales hunting seals by rushing up onto beaches, these catfish wait in ambush at the edge of a river for pigeons to come and bathe. When the birds gather at the water’s edge, the fish thrust themselves at the pigeons, grab them in their mouths, and then drag them underwater.
- Goshawks predating on sand grouse – The “Deserts” team set off to the South African desert to film sand grouse visiting water holes to collect water for their young. But what they stumbled across was far more dramatic: a pair of resident goshawks that had learned to wait around the waterholes and grab the grouse as they land. The goshawks know that, even though the grouse are aware that these predators are there, they can’t afford not to drink in the extreme desert heat. Never filmed before, this a compelling story of the grouse risking death to bring back water to quench their chick’s thirst.
- Lions hunting giraffe – The Planet Earth II team joined forces with camera operator Lianne Steenkamp, who has been following the same pride of desert lions in Namibia for the past few years. Combining specially shot material with some incredible footage captured over the years allowed the crew to showcase the most dramatic giraffe and lion hunt ever filmed in the “Deserts” episode.
- Locusts – For one month the team headed out to the arid regions of Madagascar to try to find and film a locust swarm. After some initial success the crew’s luck completely ran out. Up until the last few days it looked like they would come back empty handed, but finally the team caught up with a swarm of biblical proportions. New technology such as MoVi’s and drones allowed the crew to get right into the heart of the swarm, as well as film it from the air.
- Leopards hunting pigs in Mumbai – Mumbai has the highest concentration of leopards in the world. This is the most complete sequence of urban leopard behavior to date, and the first time anyone has filmed a successful hunt. The team used a military grade thermal camera to spy on the leopards.
- Hyperlapse – Within the “Cities” episode the crew used hyperlapse technique to immerse the audience in the urban environment. Rob Whitworth is the most accomplished hyperlapse cameraman of our day. He collaborated with the “Cities” team to create jaw-dropping seamless journeys through some of the most iconic cities of the world.
- Peregrines hunting in New York – New York City has the highest concentration of nesting peregrines in the world. This is the first time that the wild behavior of these urban birds has been filmed, capturing aerials of the fastest bird in the world dropping from a height at speeds of up to 200 mph.
The below video score and related critique of things here are based solely upon my viewing of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation of BBC’s Planet Earth II. Let’s not kid ourselves here. We can nitpick little imperfections here under or microscope and/or talk about how much we hate seeing these innocent animals die so clearly on screen, but there’s no denying the stunning 4K presentation that only Planet Earth II can deliver. Therefore, for that reason and so many more not worth listing here Planet Earth II is one of the finest looking 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray presentations out there right next to my beloved Lucy.
- Encoding: HEVC / H.265
- Resolution: 4K (2160p) – Rendered from a 4K DI
- Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
- Frame Rate: 24fps
- Disc Size: BD-66
- Clarity/Detail: My goodness. Where do I even start here? Sharp detail is impeccable throughout from the counting of individual feathers on a bird to the capture of the closest shot convincingly possible of seeing one ferocious animal after another impossibly up close. There’s nowhere to hide and thankfully nothing is hidden from us in the sharpest of closeups that take you to the brink of danger, but only you can still rest easy viewing it in your living room. The animal being hunted on screen is a different story. What impresses me most here is the extreme levels of clarity when tracking birds flying for example. In the “Cities” episode we track eagles looking to capture other flying birds below for food and the elaborate way the camera follows this eagle and his relentless chase is amazing. We never lose a beat nor any level of granularity in detail along the way. From an individual hair of a Pygmy sloth’s layers of fur to the scales on a snake I’d rather not see that up close you’ll never find greater eye candy in the 4K sharpness department than the current UHD release of Planet Earth II. It’s so clear it should be illegal. Ha ha. I could go on and on and list every insane moment of infinite detail in every single episode, but I think you get the point. If razor sharp demo reference quality is something you crave on the 4K UHD format, then look no further than here.
- Depth: Where oh where do we start here too? Since the hyper realism of everything is so sharply on display as discussed up above it should also come as no surprise when I chat about how three dimensional everything looks here. I mean take again the tracking of the eagle example up above for instance. Sure we track the eagle with the utmost of clarity making sure it’s never lost, but it’s the backgrounds behind it all that are equally amazing. You know that never ending depth to it all. Now it’s not all about the animals against their exotic environments here either. Oh no! This one is dubbed Planet Earth for a reason. There’s mountains, bodies of water, volcanoes, and so much more to gush over. Now with just those examples alone visualize how stunning and vast those landscapes would appear in the clearest 4K presentation known to man and you’ll have a pretty good idea how much this one rocks in the depth of field department. I could go on and on… (get it?)
- Black Levels: The black levels is where this HDR infused presentation really shines for me. I mean for example take the “Islands” episodes and the volcanic lava or the “Cities” episode and those nighttime skylines in contrast with the neon glow of lights, etc. I have so many examples that highlight here how literally nothing gets lost in the darkness of it all. The black levels remain deep, inky and dreamy consistently throughout worthy of being called one of the best 4K Blu-ray presentations there is.
- Color Reproduction: Since we’re already talking about HDR now equally impressive is the way it expands the contrast ratio and color reproduction capabilities here. Sharpness and clarity is one thing, but the effective rendering of the colors of objects whether inanimate or animate are amazing throughout here. There’s vibrancy of course, but more important an utmost sense of realism throughout that make this one look and feel (thanks to the three dimensional qualities) so incredible onscreen. Calibrate your sets against this one folks because this presentation is so shockingly lifelike you’ll want to reach out and touch those cheetahs.
- Flesh Tones: The temperatures of skin tones across the globe throughout here in this 6-epsiode presentation appear both lifelike and natural. I have no qualms to nitpick over here.
- Noise/Artifacts: Here’s where you can probably drive yourself crazy trying to nitpick and find things wrong. Are there? Sure there are, but you really want to be the one who nitpicks the video presentation of Planet Earth II on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray? For example I saw a little banding in the blue sky within the “Cities” episode, but nothing that the untrained eye would ever notice and say this is disgusting I cannot watch this. It’s quite the contrary folks. This one looks amazing. Just shut up, don’t look for problems and enjoy it! You owe it to yourselves and deserve it for the small fortune you spent putting together all this 4K viewing equipment.
Like I mentioned up above in the video section, the below audio score and critical comments of such are based solely upon my viewing of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation of Planet Earth II. Where Planet Earth II may blow you away visually its audio presentation is really only status quo.
- Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- Subtitles: English SDH
- Dynamics: You’re probably thinking to yourself and wondering why this one doesn’t have one of those flashy Dolby Atmos or DTS:X surround presentations found on most modern day 4K Ultra HD titles. Well ponder on this for a moment if you would. How many microphones do you want to bring chasing cheetahs through the jungle? This isn’t an aggressive surround mix by any means, but rather an effective one given its mission statement as that of a documentary source. It’s very front heavy with the rears being utilized for atmosphere only, but it’s done so out of respect to the subject matter on display for all to see, gaze upon and study. There really is no flashy audio needed in my opinion. It would be cool, but probably out of place considering the source of it all. You could probably say things are a little more laid back here on the audio side of the shop compared to the flash and balls of the video presentation we discussed up above.
- Low Frequency Extension: The LFE channel really only engages the sound field here. It fills those subtle lows, but nothing at an Earth shattering capacity. It’s simply like a crutch to rest upon after surgery.
- Surround Sound Presentation: Things are very front heavy here with the score and narration taking over the front three channels. The rears are reserved for environmental and atmospheric/ambient moments only from examples such as birds chirping to trains speeding by you. It’s like the filmmakers chose to make this a much more subdued experience rather than give you the raw unfiltered experience of what it would have been like in the particular nature scenes playing out onscreen. Quite honestly I’m fine either way. While I love to feel immersed and you do at times here I’m A-OK with it being dialogue driven too.
- Dialogue Reproduction: David Attenborough’s narration never gets lost in the shuffle here. It’s clear, prioritized and understandable throughout. If you ask me and you are, you couldn’t ask for anything more in this department.
Bonus content in the Planet Earth II 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray set includes “Planet Earth Diaries,” a 54-minute look behind the scenes with each episode’s production team, revealing the astounding challenges they encountered and their incredible experiences while filming. For the DVD and Blu-ray sets, these are 10-minute bonus clips at the end of each episode and for the 4K UHD one here, this is all housed on a separate Blu-ray disc found under UHD disc #2 in the case. Unlike the majority of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray releases out that have been released thus far there are no Blu-ray discs in this set containing the series nor is there any Digital HD file. If you want those, you’ll have to buy those separately. So nevertheless down below is what you’ll find on each of the discs in this 3-disc set.
- Disc One (4K UHD) – Islands (53:04), Mountains (51:32), Jungles (52:12)
- Disc Two (4K UHD) – Deserts (51:10), Grasslands (51:21), Cities (51:29)
- Disc Three (1080p Blu-ray) – Planet Earth Diaries (54:08)
So there you have it. To the uninitiated there’s no finer way to experience this planet of ours in any finer resolution than Planet Earth II on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. However, even to ignorant people like me with no love for documentaries it’s hard to stay detached and unaffected by all the beauty that Planet Earth II showcases. Even I can appreciate it all and that’s saying a lot considering my attitude towards documentaries. Like I said up above your results and mileage may vary with this series, but there’s no denying the luscious, fine eye candy that Planet Earth II is on the 4K Ultra HD format. This set is going to sell a lot of 4K televisions. Best Buy should be pumping this out to every 4K capable set on the floor room. Ha ha. Thanks for reading folks! Enjoy this one!
DISCLAIMER: This 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray review was judged and graded using the following 4K certified Ultra HD Premium television set found here and player here. Make sure to check out all our 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray reviews archived here.
Travel The Globe in 4K Style
with Planet Earth II
on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray