A polar bear stares out of the screen of "The Polar Bear Story"… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
The extraordinary advances in film technology over the past few decades have given us elves and hobbits, dinosaurs and Na'vi, thrust us into Quidditch matches and the streets of Dickens' London. But nothing that has been done with hand-helds or a green screen can hold a digital candle to the extraordinary rise of nature cinematography.
For the past decade, nature documentaries have been capturing life in a raindrop and death in a butterfly's wing, reminding us that fact usually trumps fiction, that beauty and meaning surround us and that high-definition television really was a great idea.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in "Frozen Planet in Concert," which had its world premiere at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday night.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Frozen Planet in Concert": In the July 9 Calendar section, a review of "Frozen Planet in Concert" at the Hollywood Bowl said that "Blue Planet in Concert" toured only in the United Kingdom. In fact, it toured in the United States and was performed in Los Angeles in 2003. —
Not too long ago, the idea of showing footage from a TV nature documentary at a venue like the Bowl, whether backed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic or not, would have sounded like a science-class field trip or something endured for extra credit.
Instead, it was a dizzying immersion into a glorious twist-up of nature, cinematography and music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Stripped of narration, save Fenton's brief introductions, scenes from "Frozen Planet," which aired on Discovery Channel this year, filled the Bowl's big screens, held aloft, it seemed, as much by Fenton's music as steel and wire.
Without the distraction of running commentary, fascinating though it might be, the audience was free to experience the film as pure visual and audio art, to hear how the airy arc of melody swooped with as much wild grandeur as the swirling ice of the Arctic. The curious plaint of a clarinet perfectly matched the nod of a young polar bear's head, the playful pluck of strings synchronized to his attempt to navigate a bit of ice. A swell of horns limned the back of a sounding whale or needled the tense race between wolf and bison.
Beyond the dazzling pleasure of the experience itself, "Frozen Planet in Concert" unstrung not just the nature documentary but its medium as well, showcasing each separate piece of the whole and offering a completely different way of "watching" television.
It wasn't so much the size of the screen as it was the venue. Try as the film industry might to convince us that certain stories cannot be told properly outside the cineplex, we all know that's not true. There is nothing quite like the shared experience, and all the tweets in the world can't compete with being part of a big open-air audience that laughs and sighs and catches its collective breath. Distracting, perhaps, for a critic, but nourishing for a fellow viewer.
"Frozen Planet" is the last of a trio of astonishing television productions that include "Blue Planet" and "Planet Earth" and have set a standard in both the scope and detail of nature documentaries. Fenton, who scored the series, has given concert performances of all three, although "Blue Planet in Concert" toured only in the United Kingdom. It is worth seeing all of the series in any of its incarnations, but "Frozen Planet" may be the most breathtaking and revelatory, filled with unparalleled imagery from the ends of the Earth as well as many wonderful scenes of penguins.
Seriously, has there ever been an animal as camera- and soundtrack friendly as the penguin?
To the audible wonderment and hilarity of the many children at the Bowl on Friday night (more than a few clutching plush versions wisely made available at the gift shops), "Frozen Planet" was chock-full of every variety of penguin, mainly because, as Fenton dryly remarked, the naturalists and filmmakers visiting Antarctica "had nothing for companions but penguins and appalling weather."
Adélie penguins, Gentoo penguins and, of course, emperor penguins waddled, surfed, and belly-flopped, their sleek missile shapes and color scheme mirrored by their own predators, killer whales who also made several grimly gorgeous appearances.
It really is a world like no other, with shifting snow fields and ice castles shot through with sapphire and emerald, a place where light shatters and fluted walls crumble conjuring shining mountains from the bottom of the sea. As "Frozen Planet the Concert" proves, nature film has become poetry in motion, buoyed and transported not so much by words as music.