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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Science > Construction > Building Big (Documentary)

Building Big (Documentary Science Mini-Series)


Picture: C+     Sound: B-     Extras: C     Episodes: B



Documentary mini-series can be a great deal of fun to watch and the PBS/WGBH series Building Big (2000-2002) is one of those.  Hosted nicely by David Macaulay, the series has been broken into five parts:


Bridges is an excellent installment that begins with bridges made of stone, followed by all the innovative and groundbreaking designs of the last 100+ years, including sad, disturbing, spectacular failure of one that could not handle high winds.  The full color film footage has to be seen to be believed. 


Domes may be the oddest of the five installments, but a very relevant one.  There is a great piece on The Houston Astrodome, and then the history of domed structures goes forward.  Included are those in Italy, what Arab countries did to make the structures their own, then how they became landmark features of architecture in The United States.


Skyscrapers happens to be inclusive of the events of 9/11/01 and shows the remarkable history of such structures.  It not only goes into all the various technologies that made them happen and innovations that made them taller, but how building them constantly became an expression of corporate power and pride.  This is a great installment.


Dams might not immediately be thought of either, but they are land, life, nature and history changing.  Naturally built dams by beavers are skipped for the man-made type, including the amazing tale of the building of The Hoover Dam (also the subject of a documentary reviewed elsewhere on this site), as well as new approaches to making them that are more environmentally friendly.


Tunnels start with the simplest of them, then focuses on others, including two landmark tunnels in Britain:  The Thames and The Chunnel, the latter of which connects England and France.  The techniques and surprises in making such structures are as interesting as the ambition and results, in what may be the most taken-for-granted of them all.



For all the independent video productions that try to glorify construction as hip and are often aimed at a children’s audience that would otherwise play videogames and watch action films, this program is much more exciting and educational.  Ultimately, this is much more progressive, intelligent and frankly will have more replayability.  The explanation of all the technology is detailed, to the point and accessible to just about any viewer who has an attention span.


The letterboxed 1.78 X 1 image is nicely shot and produced, but is very unfortunately not anamorphic, the only thing this set made a mistake on.  With all the new footage, illustrations, animation and classic film footage, this would have been a prime candidate for that treatment.  It still looks, good, clean and clear, despite detail limits that may not be the case form the original source material.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo has nice Pro Logic surrounds throughout and has a better than usual mix for such a documentary program.  Extras include a weblink, a DVD-ROM feature that lets you print out a 40-page activity guide and each show ends with a project for children with members of WGBH’s children’s classic Zoom!


Building Big is a great science set and a pleasant surprise, making it one of the best DVD sets of its kind to date.  And once again, this is the excellence of public television.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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