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Bird's eye blockbuster
Author:Wang Kaihao  Source:China Daily Europe   

New TV documentary showing China's beauty from the air has won an unprecedented response from viewers

Chinese TV viewers typically say that Chinese nature documentaries are not as good as their Western counterparts. But a new China Central Television documentary series shot in high-definition has been getting an unprecedented response.

Four episodes of Aerial China were screened by CCTV's Documentary Channel during the Lunar New Year festival, and the rating for the documentary series on Douban.com, the country's top TV and film fan website, is 9.4 points out of 10, putting it at the top of the documentary ratings list.

Commenting on the ratings, Yu Le, 36, director of the series, says: "When people recommend a documentary, they always say something like 'It's a production by the BBC', but not this time."

Replicas of Daming Palace, a royal palace of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in Xi'an, Shaanxi province. Photos Provided to China Daily

Mountains and prairies in Yili Kazak autonomous prefecture in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

A volcano in Wudalianchi, Heilongjiang province. 

Speaking about how the documentary series was made, he says: "Even the most familiar things look different from a height.

"We wanted to show how beautiful this familiar country is, and this was possible thanks to our time up in the air."

The complete Season 1 of Aerial China was recently aired on the Documentary Channel, including two episodes with scenes shot around Lantern Festival (Feb 11 this year).

Each episode is 50 minutes, and covers one province-level administrative region's natural and cultural landscape.

The tropical islands in southern Hainan province; the historical relics in western Shaanxi province; the breathtaking lakes, mountains and prairies in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region; the ice and snow in northeastern Heilongjiang province; old villages in eastern Jiangxi province; and the hustle and bustle of Shanghai are among the things featured in the first season of the series.

"We are like tour guides ushering people to see these places with interesting stories, so we do not take a philosophical or pedagogical tone in the narration, which is sometimes done in similar works made overseas," Yu says.

Nevertheless, the preparation of the voice-overs needed a lot of interaction with scientists, historians and other scholars.

Liang Dong, the show's production manager, says the series is just the first step in a plan to cover all 34 province-level administrative regions in the country in the next five to six years.

Liang says that Aerial China's first season involved four filming crews organized by CCTV, with more than 300 personnel, 16 helicopters and 57 drones, flying over 150,000 kilometers.

Technology from the military was also used to ensure drone stability during filming.


Liang says that the documentary-makers were also helped by the fact that the military allowed the crews to film in many areas that were not previously accessible to the general public.

He adds that, thanks to the diversity of China's landscape and culture, he is confident about being able to make a big impact by the time the project is complete, citing the example of Aerial America (2010-16), a documentary made using an approach similar to Aerial China.

"In China, the differences between one province and another are even more obvious when seen from the air," Liang says.

"The audiences will never be bored."

The Aerial China project was launched in October 2015, and shooting began in March 2016.

Despite the accolades, both Yu and Liang feel that they could have done a better job if they had more time.

"If I had more time to cover the same places over different seasons, we would have been able to do an even better job," Yu says. "Solid preparation is needed. Some scenes cannot be imagined."

The crews gathered 220 hours of footage for the first season, he says.

Another problem the crews faced is China's fast pace of development.

"China is changing so fast. So some of our preliminary research was based on pictures taken in 2014. But when crews arrived in some places last year, the landscape had already changed," Yu says.

He says he received footage sent to him in Beijing from the locations every evening and had to decide whether to keep looking for better scenes the next day.

He did not go home for four months, except for a few days during the Spring Festival.

"I had to make sure that we had got the right shots," he says.

Speaking of the most difficult part of filming the series, Yu says involved filming wild animals.

"Many animals are extremely sensitive to noise, which was a problem with the drones," he says. "Nevertheless, the animals also gave us the biggest surprises."

In Shaanxi, the crew unexpectedly spotted takins, goat-antelopes that the local guide said had not been seen for 20 years.

And in Heilongjiang, when a drone was being used to get a close-up of a Siberian tiger, the animal jumped up in an attempt to grab the drone.

That scene is one of those that had a big impact, he says.

The original soundtrack of the documentary is also a highlight of the series.

However, Wang Bei, the musician who created the mesmerizing melody for the series had not seen any of the video clips before he composed it.

"All I was told by the director was to express love for this great land," he says.

Contact the writer at wangkaihao@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily European Weekly 03/10/2017 page20)


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