This summer we have had many unusually hot days, and with the heat comes the memory of another very hot summer day when we filmed with Dr. Lyle Friesen and Dinuka Gunaratne in Waterloo, Ontario.
Dr. Lyle Friesen (formerly with Environment Canada) has been studying Wood Thrush in the region of Waterloo since 1996. These songbirds are in serious decline, but without clear answers as to why this was happening, Lyle knew he had a mystery to solve.
“Since 1970 the population of Wood Thrush in Canada has declined by 85%, that’s just an astonishing number.”
Our day of filming started with a lucky shot of a Wood Thrush on her nest. We were hoping to capture behavior so we patiently filmed this shot for a long time, waiting for this songbird to forage, wiggle, eat or sing — any action for the camera! However we ended up in a stand-off.
The Wood Thrush knew we were there and simply froze. The only movement we could see was the occasional blink of an eye. She seemed to believe that if she stayed absolutely still we would not see her. This was likely a tactic to defend her nest, which apparently is serious business for a Wood Thrush.
“We found and monitored almost 900 nests and about half of the nests fall prey to predators, yet we’ve never seen a predator at a wood thrush nest.”
Lyle and his team set up a series of infra red camera’s and installed ‘nest cams’ at the nests. Over the course of several years, Dr. Lyle Friesen documented an amazing night-time woodland drama.
What we learn from Lyle’s work is that the world is becoming a less friendly place for Wood Thrush. Predation in itself is a natural phenomenon, but in this case the reasons behind its dramatic increase are anthropogenic. Humans have modified the landscape and upset natures balance — with devastating consequence for Wood Thrush.
The Forest Bird in Siegfried, not unlike today’s songbirds plays a role in warning Siegfried of impending danger.
Birds have something to tell us indeed.
I recently had the opportunity to see Wagners’ Siegfried, one of the four operas that combine to create the epic “Ring des Nibelungen” or Ring Cycle. Wagner took his inspiration for The Ring Cycle from Norse mythology and an ancient German epic called the “Nibelunglied.” The Ring Cycle took more than 20 years to write, and was first performed August 16, 1876.
While I had seen Siegfried ten years ago, the experience was more significant after making The Messenger. What made it so special this time round was the role of the Forest Bird.
The Forest Bird is an actual character in the drama and has its own musical themes. Much of the Siegfried score occupies a somber yet beautiful low, bass tonal range with the exception of the Forest Bird — a musical motif that soars beautifully over the dramatic, emotional music.
In act 2 Siegfried takes in the tranquility of the forest around him. Here, the audience is treated to a series of birdcalls, which Wagner is said to have modeled on actual birdsong. The oboe plays the first and it is answered by a second on the flute. Next the clarinet takes up a melody. This melody on the clarinet later becomes incorporated into the soprano vocal lines of the Forest Bird character.
Humans have been inspired by birdsong for hundreds of years, and there is evidence to suggest that music pre-dates language in humans. In The Messenger we playfully re-purpose the musical motif of Wagner’s Forest Bird. Framed within a scene featuring contemporary techno artist and DJ Dominik Eulberg we created our own unique operatic moment with real forest birds singing along with the symphony. You can watch a short excerpt of the scene here.
Once we believed that birds were messengers between humans and the supernatural world. We would interpret the flight and songs of birds to foretell the future.
The Messenger opens with the voice over quoted above. Herein lies another interesting connection between The Messenger and Wagner’s Ring Cycle – as the Forest Bird does indeed have something to tell Siegfried. Like today’s songbirds, who in their very decline warn us of the environmental dangers we all face, the Forest bird warns Siegfried of danger, and by listening to the bird he is saved from a betrayal that would have cost him his life. Birds have something to tell us indeed.
Watch an except of The Messenger with Dominik Eulberg on Youtube.
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 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!
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
On Norway’s southwestern coast surrounded by mountains and fjords, is the 1000 year old city of Bergen. It’s a great mix of old and modern, brightly coloured historic wooden homes on cobble stone streets are steps away contemporary architecture and state of the art cinema’s. A renovated, full of character, waterfront sardine factory was one of the venue’s by the BIFF festival.
The Messenger was part of a program called KLIMAFESTIVALEN, a group of 8 films that all, in different ways, touched on the theme of Climate Change. In addition to two very successful public screenings, The Messenger was part of the School Program and a Master Class at the University.
Hakon Tveit at Bergen Film Festival in Norway
BIFF also offers a robust School Program. Masterminded by Hakon Tveit they grouped three films; The Messenger, License to Krill and Racing Extinction and showed them in one day to a group of 500 high school kids. How amazing is that! I found myself wishing I was 17 again.
Some of these enthusiastic students also run the film magazine Kinosyndromet and Utenriksmagasinet MIR with Bergen Student Radio broadcast on Chagall 2100. They invited me to discuss The Messenger. I confess was expecting a typical Canadian college radio station in a basement with some basic equipment and all night music. Not so, the show was hosted live in front of an audience by two enterprising young women, in a technically sophisticated and crowded social venue. You can download the podcast here – originally broadcast – Tuesday Sept 29, 2015
The University of Bergen hosted a Masterclass in science communication titled “Get the Message Out”. The intent was to create a dialogue between the filmmakers, broadcasters and scientists with the goal of improving our ability to communicate science to a broader audience.
The kick-ass panelists were Thomas Wallner, Director of POLAR SEA 360. Me, Director of THE MESSENGER. Carina Bordewich, Acquisition Executive, NRK. Kaare Hersoug, Head of Development at Teddy TVand Øystein Jansen, Assistant Professor at the University Museum of Bergen – all of whom shared thier diverse, innovative and creative approaches.
On another level the topic felt especially important to me as a Canadian, as in recent years our scientists have been muzzled by the current government. For more on this listen to the great CBC podcast series Science Under Siege.
Thomas Wallner & Su Rynard
Get the Message Out
On another note entirely, I highly recommend a film I was fortunate to see at BIFF called Poached.
Directed by Timothy Wheeler, Poached reveals the bizarre underworld of illegal bird egg collecting. The film follows convicted egg offenders as they evade an army of bird lovers and wildlife crime police during “Operation Easter” in Britain. As the most notorious eggers begin to realize the destructiveness of their behavior, we wonder whether they ever can be redeemed and harnessed for good.
The festival has a wonderful hard working & talented team that made my brief visit a worth while experience.
Thanks to BirdLife Norway for helping to spread the word.
This year, RIFF could have been called the festival of amazing women in film. Margarethe Von Trotta was the special guest, and her Q & A was moderated by the former (female) prime minister of Iceland – Vigdis Finnbogadottir. When I stepped onto the stage for The Messenger Q&A one of the many faces in the audience was that of Bjork. She was not a special guest of the festival, and did not receive any kind of VIP invite to the screening. She selected her films and simply bought her tickets on-line, just like any other Icelander.
In addition to the impressive audience and moderators, there were many great films with female directors including, Amber Fares wonderful film Speed Sisters, about a team of women street racers in Palestine and Paris based Leila Bouzid beautiful and powerful film, As I Open My Eyes, a coming of age story of a young girl pushing boundaries testing the limits in Tunisia.
I confess there was little time for anything other than the busy-ness of the film festival, however when walking through town many birds were present. Near city hall the Tjornin Pond is home to the Whooper swan, Graylag goose and the Lesser black-backed gull. But beyond Reykjavik ponds, Iceland’s seabird colonies are vanishing. Our high-carbon lifestyle is turning up the oceans’ thermostat, and seabirds are feeling the heat. The leading reasons behind this are the array of profound changes under way in the world’s oceans—their climate, their chemistry, their food webs, their loads of pollutants.
A Different Tomorrow
The task of change can sometimes feel overwhelming. Yet when at a festival like this I am inspired by other films that creatively and beautifully address many of the concerns we are facing today. RIFF featured a program called A Different Tomorrow – These films shed light on environmental and humanitarian topics because, sometimes the right film can change the world. If any of these films come your way, please watch! Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World, How to Change the World, Planetary, and Last of the Elephant Men.
The Messenger screening prompted the comment “I didn’t know this was happening” and question “What can I do?” Both of these statements I can very much identify with. Before making this film, I was in the “I didn’t know” category. As changes in bird populations from year to year can be barely perceptible, but over time, they snowball to create the shocking statistics that face us today. There is no one cause, no “smoking” gun for songbird declines, so how do we combat these multiple threats around the globe? A simple start is to – get outside, go for a walk, and listen. Then visit http://songbirdsos.com/take-action/ Every bit helps.