I purchased an HDTV a couple of years ago to watch the Bears play the Colts in the Super Bowl. However, the first program I actually enjoyed watching on the new set was a series called Sunrise Earth. Originally on the Discovery HD Channel (now HD Theater), Sunrise Earth is a pretty simple concept: show the sun rise somewhere in the world.
The light right before sunrise is called “the magic hour” by cinematographers because there is a golden color that fades out in the broad light of day. The first show I caught was the sunrise over Machu Picchu in South America. Nestled in between mountains, the ancient stone city looked like a movie set of Shangri-La. Slowly, the scene shifted and I could see the lichens growing on the rocks of the buildings and the low grass on the paths where alpacas roamed unmolested (after a few moments, unobtrusive white text in the lower left corner of the screen corrected me: they were llamas, not alpacas).
As wonderful as the visuals are, the sound is unlike anything else on television. On radio we called it “natural sound”: collecting samples of the ambient environment to give listeners a feeling of place. One of my favorite shows was one featuring a Mayan pyramid rising out of the jungles of central America. I flipped it on at lunchtime (I have a DVR, so I don’t have to get my sunrise fix at dawn) and suddenly there was this low growling tone. I froze; sandwich halfway to my mouth. My first thought was dinosaur. It turned out to be howler monkeys in the jungle.
Sunrise Earth is not a flashy show. There is no music, no narration. For an hour, all you hear is the distant roar of a waterfall or the twittering of birds. I am amazed by the silences. The shots tend to be static – no zooms, no pans – and they can run over a minute long without cutting away. The conceit of the show is the delivery medium: high definition. It allows the viewer to look – I mean, really look at the details captured in the images and listen to the ambient environment of a place. It’s like a spread in National Geographic magazine come to life.