Netflix's 'Life on Our Planet's series: thoughts?

First, it’s a total showcase for the incredible level of CGI realism one can achieve now (with lots of megabucks and the full power of ILM’s production).

There is a lot of seamless blending of real footage and virtual. Simply stunning.

But as a naturalist, and perhaps knowing what you know so far, how well do you think this kind of production goes in telling Life’s rich story?

And what about bloopers or perhaps questionable portrayals – did any errors sneak through? Perhaps, embellishments or oversights?

My thoughts? Frankly, I’m sitting here on the couch just trying to think of a good excuse to stop myself from binging through this one!

Your thoughts?

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I haven’t seen any of it yet other than the bits in the trailer. My first thought from that was that it seemed like a clone of Prehistoric Planet on Apple TV+. That show really strived (strives, I guess – there have been two seasons and maybe there will be more) to keep up with our latest understanding of prehistoric life, making heavy use of experts in the field as consultants. It’s narrated by David Attenborough, so it plays like episodes of Planet Earth that just happen to feature prehistoric animals. It’s a really fantastic show.

I hope Life on Our Planet is similar, and not over-sensationalized. I’m sure I’ll watch it soon and find out.

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I’m about halfway through and I don’t think I would say that. I like how it blocks out the breakthroughs in evolution and really gives you a visual scope of the extinction events.

The dinosaurs (and other extinct species) are such a challenge to portray. Yeah, there’s research on appearance details and behaviour – but a lot of that is still highly contested and fragmented speculation. And of course that means everyone has a different image of ‘how it should look’. But, it’s all about best guesses too. They did a great job at presenting something that seems to fit that well.

I look forward to your review!

It bothers me that people are getting so used to CGI. Even before its prevalence, there were already criticisms of nature documentaries creating an unrealistic idea of what nature is like – as in, if you took an actual 45-minute walk through nature, you would not see all the action that the documentary packs into 45 minutes (because your nature walk hasn’t been to the cutting floor at the studio). Wouldn’t CGI only exacerbate this problem? If people go out into a nature preserve expecting the excitement of a CGI-augmented documentary, they may end up concluding that that preserve really isn’t that significant for nature, since “nothing happened” there.

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this series uses CGI for extinct species. The sequences of extant taxa show real footage

Virtually all documentaries, regardless of subject matter, are “unrealistic” in this sense – a documentary is ultimately a narrative, not unedited footage, and for this purpose time gets compressed, selections are made about what to show and what to omit, etc.

There is a film genre known as slow TV that is specifically dedicated to real-time videos (generally nature, I think, but sometimes other subjects also). Arguably live cams set up at nesting sites or similar locations would also fall into this category. But these videos serve a completely different function than documentaries.

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I’ve seen the first episode now. I have mixed feelings about it. On the plus side, the CGI animals and real-world animals both look great, and I do enjoy imagining viewing nature from ages ago. Morgan Freeman’s voice is always a pleasure to hear, and he narrates beautifully.

On the minus side, to my tastes it had too much footage of big animals fighting other big animals, and too much footage of big animals roaring at each other. Also, the script had too much hyperbole for my taste, sometimes in self-contradictory ways. For example, it would say that “every species is perfectly adapted” and then a sentence or two later say that “only the fittest will move on”. (If they are all “perfectly adapted”, how can one be more fit than another?) Another example: they showed a leaf covered with butterfly eggs and said something like “each egg looks exactly the same”, though you could easily see variation in the size and color of the eggs. Then they said that the DNA of each egg was “completely unique”. Overall I’d say their descriptions of how evolution works were oversimplified and exaggerated enough to be quite misleading.

I like it enough to keep watching, but it seems several steps behind Prehistoric Planet in terms of presentation of scientific information.

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I find it slightly surprising people are praising the CGI. I really find it inferior to Prehistoric Planet. I cannot make myself believe the animals on Life on Our Planet are real, even though I really found Prehistoric Planet’s believable. Not to mention all the pointless roaring and growling animals don’t actually make all the time.

The show is good for an introduction to the history of life on Earth. But this “MAMMALS NOW RULE THE EARTH” bs is something that should have been left in the Victorian Era.

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I’d say the CGI is the second-best I personally have seen for this kind of show. But then again, there aren’t very many of “this kind of show”. I agree that Prehistoric Planet’s animals are much better and more believable, in both appearance and behavior.

I think I’m going to give up on this show after three episodes. The wording of the narration is driving me nuts (Morgan Freeman’s voice remains excellent). The Guardian had a pretty scathing review that I find myself generally agreeing with: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2023/oct/25/netflix-life-on-our-planet-review-morgan-freeman-repeats-the-same-cliches-again-and-again

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I agree with that review too. It’s terrible how the automatic and complicated processes of evolution and ecology are reduced to some sort of warfare with “ruling classes” being defined as the groups that include the largest species.

Oh, and I should add how bad the plants look. Flowers visible in the Triassic? You can’t recreate the very ancient flora without resorting to special effects. Interestingly, Walking with Dinosaurs in 1999 found the most superb filming locations possible to mimic the Mesozoic, something which no documentary since has bothered to achieve.

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I’m interested in what simulations you were using for comparing the level of quality.

Personally, my fave was NOT a dinosaur but something much more ancient.

What is the assumed function of such documentaries? (judging by the opinions above, probably not to document, depict - or educate about - the real world/life in an accurate/realistic way)
Does it feature ads? Do they benefit somehow from attracting a large audience?

In general the tetrapods seemed to move less naturally than in PP. I was more constantly aware that they were not-quite-right CG, though still very good.

What kind of documentary do you mean? CGI imaginings of the prehistoric world? The standard nature documentary? Or “slow TV”?

The usual purpose of nature documentaries is to allow people to audio-visually experience and learn about a particular segment of nature (birds, sea life, nature at night, the wildlife of a particular place or habitat, etc.). They are not “realistic” in the sense that they are composed with the aim of creating a narrative, but they contain real information and footage, depict real behaviors etc., and thus they are accurate (factual) in that sense.

Possibly a secondary purpose of nature documentaries is that people enjoy listening to David Attenborough.

For other topics – for example, history documentaries which might include reenactments of historical scenes, part of the appeal is that the audio-visual material brings the past to life and allows us to envision what it might have been like in ways that words on a page in a history book cannot. I imagine this is the idea behind the “Life on our Planet” series.

The purpose of real-time, unedited and presumably non-narrative footage (slow TV) is less clear to me. It may be novelty, or supposed “authenticity”, or maybe even just the chance to slow down and take a break from drama and the idea that something always has to be happening.

I was referring specifically to the Netflix series of the opening post. (I don’t know much about Netflix, whether/how they monetize their programs etc. And haven’t watched “natural history” documentaries for one or two decades… :sweat_smile:)

Well, there’s the intended purpose of such a series (bringing the prehistoric world to life visually) and the question of whether it succeeds in achieving it.

I gather from the tenor of the comments here that there is considerable interest in the idea, but that the “Life on Our Planet” series, unlike the similar “Prehistoric Planet” series, has failed to convince at least a portion of its target audience. So an implementation problem more than a conceptual one.

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They should have hired Richard, not David. More fitting.

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where? Do we have iNat obs there ?

The Triassic was filmed in the arid regions of New Caledonia. Lots of Araucariaceae trees, which are related to the trees that were common at the time. Rather low density of flowering plants, which were not around at the time. The shots they have seem to have no identifiable angiosperms.

The Jurassic was filmed in wetter parts of New Caledonia, with similar Araucariaceae. Also in California in redwood forests, as Sequoia was already around, alongside abundant ferns. The dark canopy restricts angiosperms. Unique beaches on New Caledonia were used for coastal regions, where Araucaria trees come right to sure unspoiled by flowering plants.

The Cretaceous was once again filmed in New Caledonia, this time angiosperms were allowed in shot. New Zealand was also used for the South Polar region, as fossils show similar plants in both places. Chile (Conguillio National Park) was used because volcanic ash stopped grass from growing, though that was not ideal as the plants are very Gondwanan and that episode took place in North America.

It’s not perfect though. While they used modern plants that resembled their extinct relatives, the scenes are missing extinct groups like the Bennettitales and Caytoniales, and also groups like the Ginkgoales, which were very common at the time but barely exist now.

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