First off, I’d like to admit that I’m hardly a connoisseur when it comes to nature documentaries. If anything, I’m your classic dabbler. I might briefly stop on National Geographic or Discovery Channel every now and then while channel surfing, but the same thing always happens: I get bored watching lions chasing antelope after two minutes and move on. Plus, let’s face it, the last thing you want to do while watching TV is learn about something. The only nature doc that’s ever really held my interest from beginning to end is BBC’s groundbreaking Planet Earth series, but something as visually and technically masterful as that is rare and not easily repeated (it was 4 years in the making for crying out loud). Knowing that Yellowstone: Battle For Life was also a BBC production, I was hopeful given their reputation, but skeptical that they could match the scope and majesty of Planet Earth. However, after watching Yellowstone in its entirety, I can tell you this: when it comes to filming nature, the BBC is in a league of its own.
As its title implies, the series documents a year in the life of Yellowstone, our nation’s first national park. Divided into three 50-minute episodes/seasons (Winter, Summer, Autumn), Yellowstone follows the lives of various indigenous animals on their journeys of survival in this unique and often unforgiving environment.
A fear of mine before watching this was that the local of the documentary was not exotic enough to be interesting. “A National Park in the middle of the good ol’ US-of-A? They can’t possibly show me anything I haven’t already seen,” I probably said. But, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I guarantee that Yellowstone has the capacity to awe and inspire, even if you’ve hiked every trail and go camping there five days a week. Its renditions of landscapes and wildlife are so utterly breathtaking and so expertly composed that you can’t help but feel a new-found appreciation for the natural world. In fact, that’s what makes the series so emotionally enthralling: its unique presentation of a beautiful wilderness that we seem to forget is right in our backyard.
And I don’t know where the BBC finds them, but their wildlife cinematographers are definitively unmatched. Some of the shots these guys get are just insane. There’s really no other word for it. We’re talking about two Bears fighting each other while literally rolling down a mountainside to their death, a dead butterfly’s wings slowly scorched by an approaching forest fire, and a wolf fighting another wolf while mating with a female wolf at the same time. It’s mind boggling when you stop and think about how these filmmakers were able to capture such rare and incredible moments in the wild. It really needs to be seen to be believed.
My only real problem with Yellowstone is its omission of the Spring season. Summer, Winter, and Autumn are each given their own episode, but for some reason they decided not to devote a full 50 minutes to Spring, merely glossing over it for the last few minutes of the Winter episode. I’m not sure why they did this and it’s by no means a deal-breaker, but the series would have felt a little more complete in my eyes had they produced an episode for all four seasons.
You haven’t seen the great American outdoors until you’ve seen it in 1080i. It’s literally like being in a cabin and looking out through a window at the boundless Yellowstone plateau. The image is crisp, there is no visible noise or grain whatsoever and the colors are rich and deep. When you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that they were able to produce such pristine footage considering the perilous conditions in which they were filming. Visually, it’s without a doubt on par with the Planet Earth series, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better looking nature doc than this.
Yellowstone makes great use of sweeping orchestral scores that superbly highlight the quiet beauty of scenic moments, while thunderously emphasizing the immediacy of the more heart-pounding, life-or-death moments. With the DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio, your neighbors will probably think you have the entire Philharmonic orchestra over for band practice. It’s exactly the kind of music you’d expect from an epic nature documentary and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The sound effects and ambient noises that are captured are also quite impressive given the great distances between the animals and the actual camera crew, plus the narration by Peter Firth is both crisp and soothing, though it’s easy to miss what he says if you don’t have an ear for the British accent.
Here’s where the review takes a sour turn. Yellowstone, unfortunately, is a little light in the case when it comes to extras. Actually, it’s a lot light. The only special feature to speak of is “People of Yellowstone,” a mini-documentary set featuring short bios on three experts who worked on the series. That’s it. No commentary. No deleted scenes. Not even a half-assed photo gallery.
Broken into three 10-minute segments, “People of Yellowstone” not only comprises the entirety of Yellowstone‘s regrettably minuscule extras, but it’s also not very interesting. Rather than focusing on how these people contributed to the unique look and feel of the series, we are instead shown their daily lives outside of it, which, sorry to say, are a little mundane. For example, the first segment interviews a sound operator who likes to swim in rivers for fun and another is about a photographer who removes snow from the roofs of houses. That’s all well and good, but what the heck does it have to do with Yellowstone?? Not only that, but they aren’t even filmed in HD!
I was really hoping to see some kind of featurette documenting the camera crew’s struggle to get all the amazing footage seen throughout the series and it’s a real shame that nothing like that was included. It’s a treacherous, thankless job and it would’ve been interesting to see some behind-the-scenes footage of that process.
I’m not a big fan of nature documentaries, but Yellowstone offers such a beautiful and unique perspective on the natural world that the imagery alone is enough to convert non-believers like myself. There are some shots that are so fantastic, so gorgeous, so otherworldly that they nearly brought me to tears. OK, maybe not tears, but there are definitely moments that will give you goosebumps, I promise you. If you were to any degree impressed by the Planet Earth or Blue Planet series, or even if you just want to learn more about one of the most interesting environments on earth, I highly recommended checking out Yellowstone: Battle for Life. You won’t regret it.
Here’s some videos provided by the studio. Enjoy!