Not long ago I reviewed the Jacques Perrin-directed French documentary Winged Migration so was very happy when new came that Microcosmos, another wildlife documentary that Perrin produced, was also being released on Blu-ray. The brainchild of biologist-turned-filmmakers Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, Microcosmos was conceived twelve years before filming commenced (with two years spent developing the equipment), and the shoot took a further three years.
A word of warning: this review contains an image of a spider so arachnophobes may want to prepare themselves!
Revolving around life in, and under, a French meadow, this documentary shows that there is more to a field than meets the eye with births, deaths, wanton destruction and sex all taking place beneath the grassy canopy. Love them or hate them, there is something special about gastropods, arachnids and insects as they have been around for far longer than humans and much of their life is lived in relative obscurity. Due to their size, filming is difficult as you firstly have to get to their level without disturbing them and then have a lens capable of capturing them going about their daily lives, most of which are quite short.
Just as Jacques Perrin and his team manipulated truth to properly film the migratory patterns of birds, Nuridsany and Pérennou shot everything on location but moved some of the wildlife into a studio (in the meadow) so they could properly light the action which went on almost uninterrupted. Some of the images have become quite well known and I'd seen them prior to watching this documentary - the snails making love and the beetle pushing it's dungball onto a shoot and then figuring out how to free its prized object - will be familiar to many even if, like me, they don't know why.
Nuridsany and Pérennou wrote a narrative around the hours of footage and storyboarded a screenplay so the actions all take place in one day, with a sunrise at the beginning of the film and nightfall signalling its end. Within the film there is a story of toil and love, suffering and survival. When a grouse arrives and begins eating ants, you almost feel sorry for them, the rain shower demonstrates how destructive something so 'ordinary' can be and you see how insects live, with a ladybird eating mites, a venus flytrap closing on an unfortunate fly and, in a fascinating scene, a spider quickly wrapping up and sucking dry a locust.
Microcosmos will have wide appeal and you don't have to be a nature film connoisseur to enjoy this - some will love it just for the incredible photography whereas other will be amazed by the sheer emotion of the piece. There was originally going to be a commentary track but, after much deliberation amongst the team, the narration is kept to a bare minimum with Bruno Coulais' score driving the narrative. For this release, the opening and closing lines are spoken by Kristen Scott-Thomas - the bulk of the film is images supported by music and that's all you need as the story tells itself.
The three featurettes are presented in standard definition but are long and comprehensive, with two of them clocking in at over 40 minutes each. They are all in French with English subtitles but are easy to follow. The interview with the two directors could have been extremely boring but they talk enthusiastically and at length about the project that was clearly a labour of love. They explain how it was shot and developed with this forming part of The Story of 5 Cesars documentary which looks at the five areas which won the French equivalent of the Oscars: Score, Editing, Producer, Cinematography and Sound. Each section has an interview with the responsible parties who are all enthusiastic speakers, providing fascinating insights into the various stages of production.
I wasn't convinced by the opening shot of the credits against clouds as the picture was a little noisy but the noise is confined to the few wide shots, with the close up work absolutely stunning in its clarity. The colours are amazing and there are a variety of techniques employed from jump cuts to time-lapse.
It is a phenomenal undertaking and this remastered picture does the project full justice, putting the film up there with the best reference quality Blu-ray Discs available.
There is no HD surround track which is a pity but this isn't the sort of film that demands surround sound. To have had a DTS-HD Master Audio option would have been fantastic but the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks are very good, giving a superb soundstage and putting you at the centre of a swarm of insects. There are only a couple of occasions when the surrounds are troubled and so the LPCM Stereo is probably the track of choice with the uncompressed sound clearer and perfectly complementing the images.
Not all of the sounds were recorded live so the various sound designers and engineers have done a sterling job in creating realistic noises which seem to be really coming from the creatures.
Fifteen years in the making, Microcosmos is a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable documentary that anyone with an interest in nature films will love and is the sort of film with crossover appeal, it's up there with the best of the BBC nature programmes. The film is highly visual and the Blu-ray presents those stunning images extremely well so if anyone with the option should go for the BD which comes highly recommended.