The BBC Nature documentary crew presents their latest in an impressive string of releases with Yellowstone: Battle For Life. Much like their previous release, Wild Pacific, this title focuses on a particular corner of the Earth, only this time zooming in even closer, on Yellowstone National Park.
This short series is divided into three parts, pertaining to the most dramatic seasons in the park: Winter, Summer, and Autumn. The series also follows a more defined story narrative of the park through a full course around the sun, as we are given a glimpse into both the extreme environmental conditions present for the animals living there, as well as the many obstacles to their survival.
"Winter" is by far the most grueling of the episodes, as various pockets of wildlife battle it out – either against each other, or just the elements themselves – during the coldest winters in the continental U.S. With temperatures dipping down to -60 degrees F, and snowfall measured in feet instead of inches, available food becomes scarce and non-frozen water is in dangerously short supply. The dwindling bison population has perhaps the most difficult lot in life, but none of the animals get off easy in this challenging climate. Ironically, the heated waters from the natural geysers in the park offer both life and harm to the animals seeking relief from the harsh winter.
"Summer" bypasses Spring to jump straight to the most lush and tourist-heavy period for the park. Some of the wildlife who had migrated away for the winter have returned, and the bear populations have been out of hibernation long enough to once again be a dominant force in the park. As the most active ecological period for the region, animals are constantly jockeying for position within their pack or just the food chain in general. While a time of relative normalcy, many creatures are already planning for some of the more difficult months ahead.
"Autumn" is a dramatic season for the park, and its beauty during these months of low sun brilliance set against golden foliage is said to have inspired the need to preserve this region in the first place. It's also a short season, as the cold brunt of winter occupies almost half of the calendar year. Animals are beginning to either migrate further away or finalize their winter preparations.
But the story of the park and its inhabitants is really only half of what makes this series so enjoyable. The more dramatic half is the sheer visual of the whole thing, once again brought to life with meticulous detail thanks to the ace cinematographers at work. There are some of the most exquisite time-lapse vistas you could hope to see, macro shots of ice crystals slowing floating in the air are breathtaking, and the up-close-and-personal eye on the impressive ingenuity and power of the wildlife are captured in more depth than most people have had the opportunity to witness.
It's probably not possible to heap too much praise on the BBC Earth video crew. Once again they manage to offer almost unreal glimpses into our natural world, beautifully matching up dynamic close-ups of wild life with immaculately composed shots. It's a combination that begs for high definition, and the Blu-ray presentation here largely delivers the goods. Correcting most of the issues I noticed in Wild Pacific, the picture is presented in a very strong 1080i encode with gorgeous color depth and fine detail. Every now and then some slight artifacting can be detected, but chances are you'll be too engrossed in the presentation to notice.
The best news, however, is the upgrade in the audio department. Where past releases have bounced around in the audio offerings, they've generally disappointed when it comes to surround sound, uncompressed or otherwise. Yellowstone finally gets it right with a very nice DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 default. While it's not the sort of surround presentation that will tax or showcase your setup, it is a satisfying separation, highlighting moving cues from the excellent musical store down to more subtle ambient nature sounds. Kudos should really be given to composer Edmund Butt for what is, so far, the best of the musical scores for these releases. Things still preside largely in the front speakers (as would be expected in a narration-heavy feature), but there is finally a suitably subtle high-def soundtrack to match the quality of the images on screen.
Supplements for this release are enjoyable, if a bit filler. It's always interesting to see how these releases are put together, but these particular items focus more on people's involvement with the park, as opposed to the production itself.
"Jeff Henry: The Snowman" (SD, 10:03) follows one of the caretakers for Yellowstone, his job being to clear snow from buildings during the harsh winters, as their mass and weight can threaten to collapse roofs and cause structural damage to buildings. "Geyser Gazers" (SD, 10:48) features a group of volunteer enthusiasts who help monitor the many geysers around the park, helping to document their activities and predict their often erratic behaviour. "Mike Kasic: The Fishman" (SD, 10:25) highlights a member of the crew, who in addition to being a sound recordist is also a local enthusiast who enjoys endlessly swimming in the Yellowstone River and monitoring the cut-throat trout.
Yellowstone: Battle For Life is a highly enjoyable, as well as meticulously filmed and paced, documentary. Just when I was afraid the BBC Nature crew might begin to coast on the success of their brand (after having figured out what seems to be quite the winning formula) they surprise and delight with this gem. Not only is the subject richly mined to deliver more than just some pretty shots, but the arc of a real story is more pronounced. It's a masterfully crafted glimpse into a truly unique wilderness.