The (almost) Impossible Task of Filming Songbirds in Flight
One of the most daunting tasks for any film director is the process of visualizing the film. How will the images be created on a practical and technical level? While the “idea” for a documentary film featuring songbirds is exciting, these little creatures live high in the treetops, are not residents of one place, and most migrate at night, high in the sky, out of plain sight. This nocturnal passage of birds is invisible to the naked eye, so how could we possibly film it? These were the questions that kept me awake at night.
Each year, twice a year, songbirds embark on an epic migratory journey. They have been doing this for thousands of years, but in today’s modern world these tiny creatures face enormous obstacles along the way. The problems birds face is central to The Messenger documentary, so it was essential to find a way to create imagery that would tell this story.
Many of you will remember the outstanding Oscar nominated film Winged Migration. This 2001 documentary film directed by Jacques Perrin showcases the immense journeys routinely made by birds. If Perrin could do it, why couldn’t we? But how exactly did they capture those amazing images of birds in the sky? A Google search yielded astounding answers. Firstly, the process took four years because the filmmakers actually started with eggs. They hand raised birds of several species including storks and pelicans from birth. The newborn birds imprinted on staff members and their machines. Yes, these birds were born to believe that the production team were their parents! As soon as the birds were able, they were trained to fly along with the film crews. If you can find it, I highly recommend watching a behind the scenes documentary titled “Le Peuple Migrateur – Le Making Of”.
Seventy percent of Winged Migration is aerial footage. This footage is shot by 14 different cinematographers using Ultralight Motorized (ULM) aircraft balloons, motorized parachutes, hot air balloons, trucks, motor boats, robots, and a French Navy warship. This production required an army of 450 people, including 17 pilots, legions of ornithologists, animal advisors, and guides, plus the film production personnel. Production took place in 40 countries over seven continents and lasted four years. Easy right?
Winged Migration featured large birds including Snow geese, Sandhill cranes, Canadian geese, Eurasian cranes, and White storks. By comparison, songbirds – the birds featured in The Messenger –are small birds. A tiny Goldfinch weighs just 14 grams (.5 ounces), while a male Canada goose can weigh up to 8.9 kilo’s (315 ounces)! What was possible with these large birds seemed impossible with filming songbirds. Additionally, we, SongbirdSOS Productions Inc. and our co-producers Films à Cinq, are small companies. (Confession – I work out of a home office). Winged migration was a very different kind of movie. We certainly didn’t have the budget or an army of 450 enablers – but we did have imagination, and in one of my many worried sleepless nights, the eureka light bulb went off. Enter AFAR!
Just two hours from Toronto, at Western University, is The Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR). Dr. Christopher Guglielmo (Chris), Associate Professor of Biology describes how this amazing facility came to be:
“We had a dream … and 10 of us got together and wrote an application to the Canada Foundation for Innovation that described the need for a place in Canada [that] would be devoted to the study of birds.”
Today AFAR is a globally unique research facility for studying avian physiology and behavior. Research done here helps us understand how birds meet the demands of long distance migration, how birds respond to environmental stressors such as habitat change and disease and climate change, and how avian reproduction is affected by changing environmental conditions. The facility offers a unique combination of experimental and analytical equipment that allows scientists to conduct research that could not be done anywhere else. And it contains the world’s first wind tunnel for birds that is capable of simulating altitude conditions.
Lucky for us Chris agreed to meet with us and listen to our crazy proposition: to film tiny songbirds in emulated nocturnal migration in the AFAR wind tunnel. At our initial meeting, we agreed to do a test shoot. Fast-forward a few months and with the support of The Canadian Film Centre and The National Film Board of Canada’s Documentary Development Program cameras were rolling. The filming was super intense and very challenging as we didn’t now if what we were trying to do could be done at all, but thankfully the results were very promising indeed. We agreed to work together and the lengthy pre-production process of preparing to film tiny songbirds in flight began for real.
Birds are wild creatures, so Chris had to obtain a permit from Environment Canada for every bird we filmed. In the spring, each bird had to be captured then safely housed in an aviary. AFAR has the most stringent guidelines to ensure the birds were healthy and well adjusted to their new surroundings. Over the next few weeks their staff worked habituating the birds to fly in the tunnel and by late spring we were ready to roll.
With a small crew, a Phantom camera, and a series of very fast prime lenses, we set up for two days of filming. The photography was excruciatingly demanding from a cinematic perspective. Cinematographer Daniel Grant and focus puller Lori Longstaff faced the challenge of a lifetime. As Daniel explains,
“We wanted to use the Phantom High Speed camera, which is a camera that allows you to record frame rates up to 1000 frames per second – meaning 1 second recorded will be stretched out to about 40 seconds of slow motion.”
The images of songbirds in flight in The Messenger documentary are on average 5-10 seconds long, yet what you see on the screen is only a quarter or half a second long in real time. This is much like the slow motion instant replays you might see in Olympic television coverage – but for birds. That said, there were many obstacles to overcome.
“One of the major difficulties,” as Daniel recalls, “was that it is nighttime flying conditions that are being replicated for the birds in the tunnel, so the wind tunnel is kept very dark, and any light is likely to confuse the birds. But in order to record at high frame rates, you need quite a bit of light. We used matte black tape over the inside of the tunnel to limit reflections, and used LED lights mounted above the birds to try to keep the light out of their path as much as possible, so as to not disturb them. Because we were using the least amount of light we could… only a very small area (less then 1 inch) could be in focus. On top of that, at the time, the Phantom camera could only record about 2 seconds at a time. After every burst we needed about a 2-minute reset time. So getting all the elements right – framing, focus, and recording the right moment – was very difficult to say the least, and required the coordination of everyone involved.”
Nonetheless, the results are spectacular. Dr. Christopher Guglielmo describes the experience as a positive one,
“When you look at the kind of footage The Messenger shot, it’s unique. I’ve never seen anything like it and I think it is going to have a big impact on the way people look at birds, the way people think about science and the link between the research and the other things we want for these birds, for their conservation, and for the environment. I think it was a good experience all around for the filmmakers and for the scientists.”
You can watch The Messenger documentary crew filming in action at AFAR in our amazing short “behind the scenes” documentary.
As a final note, we do have one thing in common with Winged Migration — a talented French wildlife cinematographer, Laurent Charbonnier. The Messenger documentary features many birds that live all over the world, and when filming songbirds in Europe, we were very fortunate to work with Laurent, who was also one of the 14 cinematographers on Winged Migration.
You can read more about the secrets of filming songbirds from another member of our talented creative team wildlife/DOP Joshua See, who took his camera into the city streets, fields and forests of North America and Costa Rica for The Messenger.- Su Rynard
Read an edited version of this story by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
THE MESSENGER documentary is an artful investigation into the causes of songbird mass depletion and the compassionate people who are working to turn the tide. The film takes viewers on a visually stunning journey revealing how the problems facing birds also pose daunting implications for our planet and ourselves.
The Messenger is now screening in theatres across the USA and Canada. To find out where you can see The Messenger click here.
“The Messenger – Behind the Scenes” Produced by Joanne Jackson, Directed by Andrew Moir, Post Production Nina Beveridge, Paul Hart, Andrew Moir, Su Rynard © 2016 SongbirdSOS Productions