'Planet Earth': 'Breathtaking' New Series

Could any TV program sound more boring than an 11-hour nature documentary? Lions. Tigers. Bears. Oh my. But "Planet Earth," the Discovery Channel's breathtaking new wildlife series that globetrots from caves to jungles to deserts to polar ice caps, never feels like homework. It feels more like an action movie that just happens to be on TV, and just happens to feature snow leopards instead of superheroes. Filmed over five years with high-definition cameras, "Planet Earth," which begins airing on March 25, is a reverse trompe l'oeil. It looks so crisp and real that you can't believe it's not fake.

The Discovery Channel partnered with the BBC to produce "Planet Earth," spending more than $1 million per episode—a fortune in the nature-doc universe. But every penny is on screen. "Every frame had to be a Rembrandt," says executive producer Alastair Fothergill. To paint on screen like grand masters, Fothergill's intrepid team used innovations like the heligimble—a motion-stabilized camera mounted on the belly of a helicopter—to record wild dogs on a hunt, from start to suppertime. Looming overhead, we watch as dogs strategically peel off from the pack to encircle their prey. In another brutally mesmerizing sequence, infrared cameras document a behavior never before captured on film: a pride of lions taking down an elephant in the dead of night.

"Planet Earth" isn't just 11 hours of animals eating each other. Fothergill's cameramen even manage to make thrilling TV out of watching grass grow. Other moments have a quiet majesty, such as rare footage of a Himalayan snow leopard. The animal, says Fothergill, "is the holy grail of wildlife filmmaking." His team whiffed on a pair of eight-week expeditions to find and film the cat, then got a tip that a female was lurking in the remote hills of Pakistan. There was just one problem: rumor had it that Osama bin Laden was lurking there, too. The crew waited a full year for the U.S. Marines to clear out, then went in and, Fothergill says, "got very lucky." Bin Laden. Marines. Snow leopards. Oh my!