Werner Herzog's Encounters In the Natural World

If you've been following my coverage of Werner Herzog's films on blu, you've seen me me bring up Revolver's Encounters In the Natural World set a few times now.  So, no more beating around the bush, here it is!  And a couple relevant DVDs for comparison, and a "bonus" DVD review, which will make sense when we get to it.  Three of the films in this set have already been covered on other pages, so you can click through to their respective pages for complete coverage of The White Diamond and La Soufrière & The Flying Doctors of East Africa, which I've just updated.  Real quick though, I'll just briefly summarize that White Diamond is interlaced, and looks almost exactly the same as the German BD, but it has a unique 'making of' doc.  And the two short films are standard def upscales, though they at least eliminate the interlacing problems from the DVD box set, making them at least minor upgrades.  Happily, however, the other two films in the set are not similarly compromised.

Update 1/24/20: Added the US Image blu-ray of Encounters.  Turns out it's not as close to the UK BD as I would've guessed...

Update 6/23/22: The Wild Blue Yonder finally hits HD as part of Shout Factory's new Herzog: The Collection, Volume 2 blu-ray set, but it's not a 100% net positive.
So let's begin with 2005's Grizzly Man, probably the best known of the films in this collection, if not one of Herzog's more famous works period.  That's largely because it takes an intimate look at the heavily publicized and grisly (you can accuse me of making a pun, but I wonder if Herzog wasn't making it first) death of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell.  He spent well over a decade documenting his time camping in Alaska to live with grizzly bears until one of them ultimately killed and ate him.  If you're even remotely familiar with Herzog, you don't need me to tell you that he treks out to the same Alaskan wilderness to examine the locations and interview those who knew him.  But we're able to go so much deeper thanks to the hundreds of hours of recovered footage Treadwell had shot of himself out there, capturing everything from dangerously unique nature footage to shockingly personal emotional breakdowns and rants.  He even managed to record his violent, final moments, which we don't hear directly, but the descriptions are graphic enough.
I first saw this when it was brand new and purchased the DVD day one on its release date.  But feeling like "now that I know what happened," I never actually revisited that DVD until it was time to write this article.  And I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by how well it held up and reinforced by initial impressions of the film.  Grizzly Man is so much more than its lurid details.  All the interviewees' perspectives paint such a vivid picture, many of whom I'd completely forgotten but who add so much heart to the story.  And Herzog certainly doesn't disappoint in regards to flexing his talents to match robust musical performances with exotic footage.  As a true crime-type documentary, this is one of the best, and as a "natural encounter" film, it's pretty stunning, too.
Lions Gate released this film on DVD in the US in 2005, and put out nearly identical discs in nearly every territory, throughout the next year.  In 2009, Revolver brought it to blu-ray in the UK, both as a solo disc and packaged in this 'Natural World' boxed set.  It's pretty much the only blu-ray release of this film anywhere in the world, although Lions Gate has reissued it in the UK in 2015.  But yeah, as of this writing, it's British BDs or nothin' if you want this film in HD.  So I guess I should state now that Revolver's discs are region free.
2005 US Lions Gate DVD top; 2009 UK Revolver BD bottom.
Both discs are presented in 1.78:1, and seem to have been struck from the same master, but you might notice the framing isn't 100% identical.  The DVD seems to be slightly stretched vertically, which means the blu restores tiny slivers of additional picture along the top and bottom when it fixes that.  As is common with documentaries, this film is comprised of footage from various sources, with varying levels of picture quality.  But the original footage Herzog shot for this film, the highest quality stuff, was apparently shot on 16mm and blown up to 35.  So 2009 is pretty old for a blu-ray, one could probably go back to the negatives today and create a more impressive scan (for 16mm, I don't see a lot of grain here!), but this is clearly the one master the filmmakers released that everybody has to work with.  So colors and everything are otherwise the same across the US and UK releases, with just the naturally increased resolution of a higher res BD disc to add a little extra clarity to the SD compressed DVD.  In brief, you'll mostly just notice that the blu looks a little bit sharper on your TV.

Audio-wise, Revolver goes a little further.  Lions Gate's DVD has a strong Dolby stereo mix.  Revolver gives us the choice of that stereo track, now in lossless LPCM, or a new 5.1 mix in DTS-HD.  On the other hand, the DVD offered optional English and Spanish subtitles, while the blu has none.
But the pendulum swings back to Revolver's side again in the special features.  Lions Gate basically featured one big extra: a 50+ minute documentary about the recording of the soundtrack.  It's pretty great, filmed in-studio at the time of recording, letting us witness the performances and hear from all the players.  And we get to see Herzog's very hands-on way of working with the musicians.  Besides that, there's just the trailer and a bunch of bonus trailers.  Unfortunately, Revolver was a bit lazy and forgot the trailer, but thankfully they carried over the big doc.  The only problem with the doc is that it's entirely about the soundtrack, so it leaves you a bit thirsty with regards to the rest of the movie.  And Revolver addresses this with an additional feature not on the DVD (or Lions Gate's 2015 blu), a piece by Mark Kermode, where he gives us a little history on Herzog and then interviews the man himself.  Famously, this is the interview where Herzog gets shot and wounded(!) by someone with an air rifle mid-interview.  I'd seen a low quality video of this online years ago, but it's nice to get a proper copy of it here.  And as I said, it finally gives you at least a little insight into the other, non-soundtrack, aspects of the movie.
So okay, story time now.  One of the musicians for Grizzly Man was guitarist Henry Kaiser, and apparently during the very sessions we see in the documentary, Herzog spotted some footage on Kaiser's laptop.  Kaiser was sent to the South Pole on an artist's grant to perform and record a CD down there, and while he was there, he went diving underneath the icebergs.  He filmed it, and when Herzog saw the strange and utterly unique images Kaiser had captured, Herzog decided to do two things.  The first was to ask Kaiser if he could use this footage in a new film; and that film became 2005's The Wild Blue Yonder, a rather eccentric - even by Herzog standards - science fiction film starring Brad Dourif.
The Wild Blue Yonder is almost a documentary film, blurring the lines between docs and narrative fiction in a different but thematically similar method to the way Lessons Of Darkness did.  It's comprised of four elements: Kaiser's underwater footage, a bunch of rarely seen NASA footage shot in the 80s, new non-fiction interviews Herzog conducted with NASA scientists, and the element that transforms the film into fiction: a monologue by Dourif in the role of a space alien who's landed, and failed to rebuild his civilization, here on Earth.  It's very strange but fascinating as all of these documentary elements are forged into this alien's narrative.  It ultimately plays far more like a piece of cinematic poetry than a Star Wars romp, so mainstream audiences be warned.  If the phrase "art film" makes your head ache, this is exactly what you hate, and I feel for the poor Blockbuster customers around the world with no idea who this Werner Herzog guy was and just saw a DVD cover showing a space ship and the star of Critters 4 on their new release wall.  But for my fellow aficionados, oh what a treat this is!
2006 US Subversive DVD top; 2022 Shout Factory BD bottom.

Originally, there was no high def option for this one, just US and UK DVDs.  The US disc from Subversive had better extras, so that's what I've got.  But now that Shout Factory has released it on blu in their Herzog: The Collection, Volume 2 set, I've got that, too. The film is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and looks alright, if a bit muddy, by which I mean soft and a bit low on contrast.  Even in HD, although now it's certainly less muddy.  But it still looks like Herzog was shooting with digital cameras of its day. The biggest issue, as you'll plainly observe above and which affects each "area" of the film (underwater, NASA old, NASA new and Dourif) equally, is that it has a nasty interlacing problem.  So even in just fixing that, the Shout update is a huge upgrade.  Of course, that's not all it does.
2006 US Subversive DVD top; 2022 Shout Factory BD bottom.
Here are some more comparisons, so we can also see some of the footage Herzog incorporated into the film, not just the stuff he shot himself.  The film grain that's soft and murky on the DVD of the NASA footage is a lot clearer on the blu, and that undersea footage is much sharper now.  That footage is where you probably appreciate the boost the best (apart, again, from that interlacing which ran through the whole movie on the DVD).  This movie was always going to have a bit of a dark, low-fi look, but it does a much better job of reaching its potential now.

Subversive's disc comes with a fairly basic but clean Dolby stereo track and no subtitle options.  Shout bumps that stereo track up to DTS-HD and adds optional English subtitles.
But I mentioned good extras, and this is where Subversive shines.  First of all, we get another documentary about the recording of the soundtrack, which is shorter than the Grizzly Man one, but otherwise plays almost like a direct sequel.  But here, they definitely don't leave you saying that's great about the music, but what about the rest of the film?  We also get an audio commentary by Herzog and Dourif; and Herzog commentaries are always pretty great.  And that's embellished further with two sizeable on-camera interviews with Herzog and Dourif.  There's also the film's trailer, plus five bonus trailers.  The insert is actually a nice, fold-out poster for the film, and this DVD even came in a slipcover.  So yeah, Subversive didn't skimp.

Shout did, though.  There are no extras on their blu, for this or any of the films included in their latest Collection.  So buy that for the films, but hang onto the DVD for the special features.
But now, back to story time, because there's more to this saga, which directly ties Wild Blue to the other films in this set (which makes it all the more shame Revolver left it out of their box).  Because Wild Blue was made quickly, managing to come out in 2005, the same year as Grizzly Man.  But Herzog still wasn't over his interest in this crazy underwater footage.  So the following year, he and Kaiser (for whom this is his sole production credit) went back to the South Pole to explore for 2007's Encounters At the End of the World.  Kaiser dives and discovers more otherworldly imagery beneath the ice, but Herzog also takes the opportunity to examine the entire settlement, talking to the eccentric people who've decided to stay down there and take in all the other sites.
So yes, this one's a "pure" documentary, and probably the more generally satisfying experience for it.  Everybody there seems to be a delightful character, from the dedicated scientists to the guy who drives the trucks.  And yes, the underwater chunk of the film can feel a bit redundant if you've just watched Wild Blue, but in a vacuum it's still breathtaking and fascinating.  But thankfully, Herzog has found just as interesting a world on top of the ice as beneath it.  Besides a tiny community of charming eccentrics, Herzog delves into beautiful ice caves, finds the anti-March Of the Penguins story of a single penguin who goes mad and determines to march hundreds of miles to his certain death, and oh yes, he winds up staring down another active and deadly volcano.  La Soufrière, Into the Inferno... this is becoming a suicidal habit for him.
Anyway, this film is one of Herzog's more broadly distributed films, thanks to some backing from the Discovery channel.  Image released pretty packed special editions on both DVD and blu-ray in 2008 here in America, and there have been similar releases in other parts of the world.  Revolver, of course, took care of the film in the UK, releasing it both as a solo disc and as part of this box in 2009.  And their release stands out as it features even more, exclusive special features.
2008 US Image DVD top; 2008 US Image BD mid;
2009 UK Revolver BD bottom.
I wrote a bit, recently, about how people often seem to be under the misapprehension that action films are the most important to see in HD, because of all the explosions and kinetic energy blasting out of the screen.  But I'd argue that a film like this is really the most important candidate.  Because explosions, car chases, airplane stunts etc are typically a mass of motion blur and detail you'll never be able to make out regardless of the resolution.  But here, where the film is slowly panning and exploring all new, complex vistas, thriving with strange, alien life and colors, reaps all of the benefits of HD and holds it up on display for you like a visit to the Louvre.  And this film was primarily shot with digital HD cameras.  In fact, we're told these were the very first ones, provided by Sony, which shot directly to blu-ray discs and were constantly malfunctioning in the extreme conditions.  So yeah, in a way, it's still not the most impressive HD.  That shot above in the tent really shows the flaws, like edge enhancement and digital flaws which were presumably, unfortunately, native to the camera.

But it's still a true boost to HD when it counts.  The underwater footage is all the more intense and organic on blu-ray, delivering the exact experience of the viewer being sucked in and journeying through an alternative universe that the filmmakers were certainly going for.  Unfortunately, I suppose, there'd be little benefit to a fresher 4k transfer, as we're presumably pushing the limits of the native footage already; but it's certainly preferable to the noticeably softer DVD.  You can really see the difference, for example, in the numbers on the cardboard box in the second set of shots.  The UK BD corrects the aspect ratio a bit, too, as the Image discs leave in a little dead space in the overscan (which I left in the first comparison shot, so you can see for yourselves), slimming the 1.78:1 ratio of the BD to 1.77.  The difference is mostly accounted for by the DVD being slightly squished horizontally, though you can see the Image BD, which isn't squished, still has a little dead space of its own.

The major difference between the two blus, though, is that Image's is interlaced - yuck!  You can see it a bit in the second set of shots, but many frames are far worse.  There's also a very slight color difference... notice in the first set of shots that the snow looks a pinch greener on the Revolver disc.  I might prefer Image's colors, but the interlacing totally invalidates it as an option.  I'd probably choose Image's DVD, even, over their blu.  Now, I've seen some listings for Revolver's blu suggest that it's also interlaced, but I'm happy to report that's not true; it's progressive.  Many of the extras are interlaced, but not the film itself.

The DVD and Revolver blu both offer both stereo and 5.1 mixes, but the blu bumps the 5.1 up to lossless DTS-HD (their stereo is still PCM).  Image's blu actually has three tracks, the lossless 5.1, the lossy 2.0 and another lossy 5.1.  Strange, but okay.  Image, like Lions Gate, did throw in English and Spanish subtitle options (on the DVD and blu), though, which Revolver again neglects.
So now onto the extras.  Like I said, Revolver has more, but Image - on both their DVD and blu - already had quite a lot.  They provide another excellent Herzog commentary, this time accompanied by Kaiser and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger.  We also get Kaiser's original deep sea that he originally showed Herzog during the scoring of Grizzly Man, which yes, we do see parts of in Wild Blue Yonder.  Here, it's all compiled as a roughly half-hour short film, scored and edited by Kaiser.  And we get a similar but shorter compilation of images he captured above ground at the South Pole in his earlier trips, too.  In fact, apart from the trailer and one extended interview with Herzog and the diving team, all the other extras are essentially the collected works of Henry Kaiser.  We get an entertaining short where he plays his music "around the world," and then witnesses an exorcism of some local construction equipment by the scientists.  And we get some extra footage he shot of some seals, where the lines between content made for public consumption and self-indulgent home movies begins to blur.

But that's where Image ends.  Revolver has everything listed above, even the trailer, but also some more stuff.  Unfortunately, it's basically all more of Kaiser's "home movie" stuff.  There's a twenty minute video where he talks about each one of his guitars and shows us him playing each one in different parts of the South Pole (I suspect this is the video he created to satisfy his initial grant), and two more short films' worth of the underwater diving footage, which by this point just feels like "more of the same."  Finally, there's a very silly mockumentary Kaiser made about a seal-loving environmentalist gone mad with the other scientists on location, which consists of 90% landscape shots and 10% jokey narrative.  Look, I'll always choose more over less; it's better to have the option to watch content you may or may not be interested in than no opportunity at all.  But if you have the US blu-ray, I promise that you don't need to run out and import the UK to replace it just for these additional extras.
Revolver's box is a very pleasing, thick box with a lid that lifts up to reveal the three blu-rays each in their own amaray case.  Revolver has released all three of the features separately, with mostly identical discs.  But there's one key exception.  The White Diamond blu only has the two short films (Flying Doctors and La Soufrière) on the same disc in the box set.  The solo release is The White Diamond by itself.  Both versions also include the same 'making of' doc for The White Diamond ...and yes, I've looked into it, both are interlaced.  But the shorts are unique to the box set.  I'd recommend it, even if you'd still prefer to track down the Australian blu of White Diamond (apparently it's not interlaced) from Shock because the set isn't particularly expensive, and the other discs are worth the price on their own.  Plus you'd still need the Revolver Diamond for the 'making of' doc.  So you might as well get yourself the shorts and attractive packaging as a bonus.

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