‘Atlas HD’ Spectacle on Track

Apr 4, 2005  •  Post A Comment

After postponing the launch date by more than a year, Discovery Communications has put its ambitious high-definition endeavor “Atlas HD” back on track, with the first shows set to air in early 2006.

Last fall to allow time improve the storytelling, Discovery delayed plans to air its $65 million HD spectacle cataloging 30 countries around the world from late 2004 to early 2006. Discovery is now up and running with a slate of “Atlas” specials to premiere on Discovery Channel and Discovery HD Theater starting in each quarter of 2006.

“Atlas HD” was conceived by Discovery founder John Hendricks as a visual encyclopedia of the world. But the early cuts were too encyclopedic and lacked the storytelling depth the network wanted.

“We wanted to push the visual and storytelling of `Atlas’ further,” said Phil Fairclough, senior VP of production for Discovery Channel. “In a funny way, the term `Atlas’ created a feeling of something a little more conventional than we all felt this could be. We took a look at what we were getting back-much of which was spectacular-but we felt we had the opportunity with special effects and graphics and storytelling to make this unique and something no one had really done before.”

That’s why Discovery tabled the production of “India” last fall. The network began shooting in China instead earlier this year and will continue throughout 2005. The show will air in the first quarter of 2006. It will be followed by Brazil, Australia and Italy next year, with a new country planned for each quarter over the next seven to eight years.

“The goal of `Atlas’ is if you watched any of these shows, you should be able to end the two hours and say, `I get it. I understand China as if I had been there and traveled around it,”‘ Mr. Fairclough said.

To capture that new focus, Mr. Fairclough described how “China” will begin. “We will open with a time lapse across two billion years and imagine you are looking down at China and you are seeing the computer graphics and the shape of China, the topographical map of China throughout time. You will literally see China being physically formed before your eyes.”

From there, the episode will dive into the stories and people of the country. Billionaire property developer Vincent Lo will appear as an example of the changing face of China. Discovery will also feature gymnasts training for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “It will get deep into some of the characters, old and new,” Mr. Fairclough said.

The network will shoot 80 to 100 hours of source material over 14 months in each country, and the cost for each “Atlas” episode is a little more than $2 million. That’s substantially more dollars and hours than Discovery spends on most of its epic two-hour productions, such as “James Cameron’s Expedition: Bismarck.”

As such, Discovery intends for “Atlas HD” to be its definitive HD production. “This is the kind of thing Discovery will make its name with and establish its pre-eminence within HD,” said Clint Stinchcomb, general manager for Discovery HD Theater.

Other areas to be explored in future shows are France, Egypt, the Holy Land and India.