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?

 

Blackburnian warblers are small forest songbirds. They measure from 11 to 13 cm (4.3 to 5.1 in) long, with a 20 to 22 cm (7.9 to 8.7 in) wingspan, and weigh 8 to 13 g (0.28 to 0.46 oz). This warbler is photographed by The Messenger crew in emulated night flight at the University of Western Ontario’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR) (left) and in the Boreal Forest (right).

Blackburnian warblers measure from 11 to 13 cm (4.3 to 5.1 in) long, with a 20 to 22 cm (7.9 to 8.7 in) wingspan, and weigh 8 to 13 g (0.28 to 0.46 oz). These warblers (left) were photographed by The Messenger crew in emulated night flight at Western University’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR) and in the Boreal Forest (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.”

AFAR’s hypobaric climatic wind tunnel for bird flight is capable of simulating conditions up to 7 km altitude with high quality, low turbulence airflow at speeds of up to 65 km/h.

AFAR’s hypobaric climatic wind tunnel for bird flight is capable of simulating conditions up to 7 km altitude with high quality, low turbulence airflow at speeds of up to 65 km/h.

 

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.

 

The working section is surrounded by a solid steel plenum that allows us to adjust air pressure, temperature, and humidity to simulate the conditions birds would experience in the wild.

The working section is surrounded by a solid steel plenum that allows us to adjust air pressure, temperature, and humidity to simulate the conditions birds would experience in the wild.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Camera Assistant Lori Longstaff and cinematographer Daniel Grant filming with Phantom camera inside the wind tunnel at AFAR

Camera Assistant Lori Longstaff and cinematographer Daniel Grant filming with Phantom camera inside the wind tunnel at AFAR.

 

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.”

graycatbird

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.”

 

The Messenger camera is set inside the wind tunnel, while outside, technician Marty Carriero prepares to record the files from the Phantom Camera.

The Messenger camera is set inside the wind tunnel, while outside, technician Marty Carriero prepares to record the files from the Phantom Camera.

 

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

 

 

 

 

Choose The Messenger Impact Campaign on Giving Tuesday!

You have the power to make a difference for birds and people on Giving Tuesday  Dec. 1.  By choosing Bird Studies Canada  and The Messenger Impact Campaign you will increase awareness about the serious declines of songbirds, and inspire others to take action for the environment and bird conservation.

Birds are environmental indicators and The Messenger offers the opportunity for dialogue and action on the issues raised by the film.  Screenings of The Messenger are now happening all around the world, and everywhere we go people are moved by the film and inspired to take action – for birds, for our eco-system, and for human kind.

 In Canada we are at a critical stage. We are ready to launch a nation wide screening tour, and need your support to make it happen.  Will you help us raise the funds we need to run a successful impact campaign and spread the important message of The Messenger?  Your contribution today  ensures more Canadians from coast to coast can experience the film. Your support also helps to generate the tools and resources we’ll need to empower people to take action for birds. 

Your actions are a vital component of change, and it’s through collective effort that we’ll make the biggest difference.

You can make a secure charitable donation on Bird Studies Canada’s Giving Tuesday webpage.  Please include ‘The Messenger” in the comment box.

If you live in the US or another country, we appreciate contributions to the International Outreach Campaign via Indiegogo crowdfunding.

We were very lucky to film this Golden-winged warbler in Central America. Golden-winged Warblers have declined sharply and now have one of the smallest populations of any bird not on the endangered species list. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates an overall decline of 76 percent.
CostaRica_GoldWingedWarbler

The Messenger Action Alert: Help Protect Birds from Window Collisions.

Ontario:  An urgent message from Michael Mesure and FLAP Canada.  You Can Make a Difference for Songbirds!  

Millions of birds, including species at risk, migrate to and breed in the Northern Ontario Boreal Forest. These birds help fight climate change by protecting this landscape. They do so by consuming insects, pollinating plants and distributing seeds.

Our built up urban environment is in their migratory path. Countless birds die in daytime collisions with windows. In Toronto alone, it is estimated that between one to ten million birds die from window collisions each year.

IMG_0640

A section of a progressive law in Ontario — the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) — that would help protect migratory birds from window collisions is at risk of being nullified. In 2013, an Ontario court upheld the EPA to protect birds from collisions with reflective windows. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) is proposing to withdraw its regulatory responsibility to protect birds under the EPA and replace it with voluntary action from owners and managers of commercial buildings.

FLAP Canada has worked tirelessly to protect birds from building collisions since 1993 and knows from experience that voluntarism does not motivate window retrofits on the part of property owners and managers.

The Messenger Documentary supports this important initiative. Please send in your comments to the MOECC (Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change) by December 4, 2015.

For the submission link & more info, visit:  http://www.flap.org/action_alert.php

— Special thanks for this blog post from Michael Mesure, Executive Director, Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) Canada

FLAP ON Facebook: http://tinyurl.com/742z47o, FLAP ON  Twitter: https://twitter.com/FLAPCanada

Kino Lorber releasing THE MESSENGER theatrically in the USA

Kino Lorber Acquires all U.S. Rights to The Messenger; Winner of Best Conservation Program at Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and an Audience Favorite at Hot Docs

Sets U.S. Theatrical Release for Friday, December 4, 2015

Su Rynard’s environmental documentary reveals the demise of the world’s songbird population; leaves audiences with a profound appreciation for the billions of birds with whom we share our communities and planet

“Never loses sight of the winged tunesters’ sheer beauty, or their emotional and symbolic pull as perceived intermediaries between the earthly and spiritual.”              The Hollywood Reporter

NEW YORK, NY – Tuesday, October 13, 2015 – Kino Lorber has acquired all U.S. rights to THE MESSENGER, a new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Su Rynard ( Kardia, Dream Machine)  The film chronicles the struggle of songbirds worldwide to survive in turbulent environmental conditions brought about by humans and argues that their demise will signify the crash of the global ecosystem, akin to the disappearance of honey bees and the melting of the glaciers. Beautiful slow motion photography illustrates the power and beauty of these delicate winged creatures that have been praised and eulogized across cultures and throughout time.

THE MESSENGER, which was produced by SongbirdSOS Productions Inc. and Films à Cinq/ARTE, was acquired at the Hot Docs International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere and was named one of the festival’s top 3 audience favorites. Last week it won the coveted prize for Best Conservation Program at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and today it won honorable mention at Cinema Ambiente Environmental Film Festival in Italy. This past weekend it had its U.S. West Coast Premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in association with the San Francisco Green Film Festival.

The film will open in New York at Cinema Village on December 4, 2015 and Los Angeles at Laemmle Monicas on December 11, 2015, followed by a release in over 30 markets nationwide, and with a subsequent DVD and digital release next year. The film will be released on Kino Lorber’s Alive Mind Cinema label.

Messenger-Poster-thumbnail

The deal was negotiated by Elizabeth Sheldon, Senior Vice President, on behalf of Kino Lorber, with the team at SongbirdSOS Productions Inc. “The Messenger made an indelible imprint upon me. While movies about the demise of the bees are ubiquitous, I thought that the birds needed to be championed too,” quipped Ms. Sheldon. Su Rynard comments, “Kino Lorber has done a masterful job bringing films about urgent issues to the public and we are excited to have this opportunity to work closely with this experienced team.”

For thousands of years, songbirds were regarded by mankind as messengers from the gods. Today, these creatures – woven inextricably into the fabric of our environment – are vanishing at an alarming rate. Under threat from climate change, pesticides and more, populations of hundreds of species have dipped dramatically. As scientists, activists and bird enthusiasts investigate this phenomenon, amazing secrets of the bird world come to light for the first time in this acclaimed and visually thrilling documentary. Find out what’s killing our songbirds, and what can be done about it. As in ancient times, songbirds may once again be carrying a message to humans – one that we ignore at our own peril.

For other confirmed US dates and locations,   click here. 

About Alive Mind Cinema:

Specializing in documentaries in the areas of enlightened consciousness, secular spirituality and culture, Alive Mind Cinema seeks to provide audiences with intellectually provocative films that deliver the “aha” response of a transformative experience. Learn more at alivemindcinema.com.

About Kino Lorber: 

With a library of 1,000 titles, Kino Lorber Inc. has been a leader in independent art house distribution for over 30 years, releasing over 25 films per year theatrically under its Kino Lorber, Kino Classics, and Alive Mind Cinema banners, including five Academy Award® nominated films in the last seven years. In addition, the company brings over 70 titles each year to the home entertainment market with DVD and Blu-ray releases under its five house brands, distributes a growing number of third party labels, and is a direct digital distributor to all major platforms including iTunes, Netflix, HULU, Amazon, Vimeo, Fandor and others.

PHOTOS/POSTER FOR THE MESSENGER:
http://songbirdsos.com/press-room/press-kit/

PRESS CONTACT
Adam J. Segal
The 2050 Group – Publicity
(202) 422-4673 – Cell
(646) 202-1612 – New York Office
adam@the2050group.com
www.the2050group.com

THE MESSENGER WINS BEST CONSERVATION FILM AWARD AT JACKSON HOLE

On October 1, in Jackson, Wyoming, THE MESSENGER  was honored with a Best Conservation Program Award at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festivals’ Grand Teton Awards Gala.  The Best Conservation Program Award is “Awarded to the program that most effectively contributes to an awareness of timely and relevant conservation issues and/or solutions.”  Finalists included Racing Extinction, and I Bought A Rainforest.

JH Awards. ws. theatre.21710014898_af6d847641_z

THE MESSENGER is an artful investigation into the causes of songbird mass depletion and the compassionate people who are working to turn the tide, directed  by award-winning filmmaker Su Rynard.  The 90 minute film takes viewers on a visually stunning journey revealing how the issues facing birds also pose daunting implications for our planet and ourselves.

Producers Martin de la Fouchardiere and Diane Woods were at the ceremony to accept the award.

JH awards.2 shot.DW.MdelaF. better.21900115865_f8fd508f12_zDirected by: Su Rynard

Producers:  Joanne P. Jackson, Sally Blake, Martin de la Fouchardiere, Su Rynard and Diane Woods

Written by: Su Rynard and Sally Blake

Directors of Photography:  Daniel Grant and Amar Arhab

Picture Editor:  Eamonn O’Connor

Sound Design and Composer: Phil Strong

Additional Editing:  Sally Blake and Carole Larson

Additional photography:  Laurent Charbonnier, Christopher Romeike

and Joshua See

Sound Re-Engineering Mixer:   Daniel Pellerin

Line Producer: Diane Warme

Post Production was done at Urban Post in Toronto.

 

THE MESSENGER is an international treaty co-production between Canada and France, produced by SongbirdSOS Productions and Films à Cinq/ARTE.

US Distribution – Kino Lorber

International Sales Agent ZED

JacksonHoleWinner250x150

Jackson Hole press release here

About Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival:  Recognized as the premier event of its genre, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival is an unparalleled biennial industry gathering. Hosted biennially in Grand Teton National Park, over 650 international delegates participate in an exceptional slate of leading edge equipment presentations, seminars and state-of-the-art screenings.

The Festival’s international board members include: Animal Planet, BBC Natural History Unit, Discovery Channel, Disneynature, FujiFilm Optical Devices, Gorongosa Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute/Tangled Bank Studios, National Geographic Channel International, National Geographic WILD, National Geographic Society, National Parks Conservation Association, The Nature Conservancy, Nature/WNET, Off the Fence Productions, PBS, Sony Electronics, Terra Mater Factual Studios and UNIVERSUM/ORF, Vulcan Productions, WGBH, and World Wildlife Fund.

THE MESSENGER is currently screening at Film Festivals worldwide.

More info at www.theMessengerDoc.com

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