France Activist Andrea Rutigliano

Les Landes and the Ortolan

This fall, the illegal hunting of birds is much in the news and I am reminded of a September, two years ago when we filmed our story about the trapping of the Ortolan bunting in Les Landes, France.

The Ortolan Bunting is a beautiful little songbird that used to be common but has declined in the last 30 or 40 years. Each fall the Ortolan migrate from all over Europe to their wintering grounds in Africa. The Ortolan are largely grain eaters, and they spend the summer working on building up their fat reserves so they can survive this long migration. It is their diet and their fat that makes them particularly appealing to humans, as they are delicious to eat, and in France there is a long-standing tradition of doing just that.

Napoleon granted the right to hunt and trap small birds to the peasants. The large game was reserved for the noblemen. To this day this tradition continues. Les Landes is an important stop over site for the migrating Ortolan. It is also a battleground between Hunters who continue to trap (and eat) the bird and activists who wish to put an end to this practice. Trapping of the Ortolan bunting was banned in 1999, yet despite the fact the hunt is illegal the French authorities turn a blind eye. The stakes are high.

Ortolan in cage

To tell this story we filmed with the hunters and with the activists who touch down each year, at the same time as the migrating Ortolan. Their mission is to protect the birds. The activist groups unofficial leader was Andrea Rutigliano, an Investigations Officer. With CABS, Committee Against Bird Slaughter, Andrea, an Italian anthropologist has been doing this kind of work all over Europe for almost 20 years. He speaks five different languages, loves birds, knows his politics and his science. Science is key in this battle as local hunters defend their right to trap, believing that the hunt is sustainable and the numbers affected by trapping are pale in comparison to other problems the birds face. That said, in France the nesting population of Ortolan is in danger of extinction.

Ortolan investigation

As a recent article in The Guardian states 25 million birds are illegally killed each year in the Mediterranean, and nearly half the killings occur in EU states where the hunting of songbirds is banned and there is a massive failure of governments and the authorities to act. In the Messenger, Andrea tells us “You cannot defend a tradition that is not sustainable anymore… a tradition is not something that must be kept alive at any cost.”

Wise words. You can see the entire scene in The Messenger.

Ortolan Gendarmerie


Mixing Sound – a sensory experience of place

In filming The Messenger we travelled to three different continents, and each place we went possessed a unique acoustic and auditory character. From the editing to the final mix, I felt it was imperative that we fully articulate this sensory experience of place and time.

Supervising Re-recording Mixer Daniel Pellerin with Re-recording Mixer Chris Guglick

Supervising Re-recording Mixer Daniel Pellerin with Re-recording Mixer Chris Guglick

As our final sound mix gets underway at URBAN POST in Toronto, we are very lucky to be working with the talented duo of Daniel Pellerin Supervising Re-recording Mixer and Christopher Guglick Sound Re-recording Mixer. These guys make for a super-busy team, as in the last few weeks they have mixed the films “Remember” (Atom Egoyan) and “Milk” (Noemi Weis).  From a practical perspective, this takes a team. So for many months, composer and sound designer Phil Strong has been fine-tuning music, location ambiences and bird song.

Chris Guglick; “The most unique aspect of mixing this film was the scope and range of all the different sounds of birds.  Phil did an amazing job organizing all the sounds which allowed me to take all of the different birds and give them a life on screen. I have worked in many different human languages, but working in the language of another species entirely was something new for me.”

Re-recording Mixer Chris Guglick at Urban Post

Re-recording Mixer Chris Guglick at Urban Post


Because our schedule and budget are very tight, Phil was just a day or two ahead of the mixers with his work, sometimes outputting the original music just hours before it was needed in the mix theater – quite the marathon indeed. Importantly, the mix is a creative journey in its own right, as the work is both intense and intuitive.  Daniel Pellerin;

“With every film you have to find the language that suits the film. The tone of the characters, quality of the voices, the sense of unfolding time and emotion of the story.”


Joanne Jackson, Producer Left. Su Rynard, Director Right.

Joanne Jackson, Producer Left. Su Rynard, Director Right.

As a director, my work is very nuanced, often contemplative, and layered in both content and context. Sound plays a pivotal role. It is often the aural experience that positions how a scene will be experienced and interpreted. In The Messenger we walk a razor sharp edge between tragedy and joy, dramatic tension and release, optimism and sobering truths. In most cases it is the sound that tips the scale to what the experience will be. This balance is not something that can easily be achieved, but with this team I knew I was in good hands. Daniel Pellerin;

“I love docs that have to do with nature, as the challenge is to make it immersive — putting the audience in the theatre yet creating the feeling that they are not in the theatre. In this film, music and birds are the lead “instruments” and a delicate balance is required.”  This idea is taken a step further by Chris Guglick;

As a sound effects mixer I’m often asked to turn down the sound of birds because they can distract from the action in the film.  This film gave the birds a leading role that could, if executed poorly, distract from the important information being expressed by the other characters on screen.  Finding that balance was key.

Here is a taste of the mix experience. A brief pirate recording of my own film, created on my iphone. Enjoy.


The Secret to Filming Wild Birds in Big Cities & “Jungles”

To film The Messenger we travelled across three different continents, as the film takes viewers on a journey from the northern reaches of the Boreal Forest to the base of Turkey’s Mount Ararat to the urban streets of New York – and more. In Toronto, we filmed with FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program). Here, at dawn, during migration season, volunteers patrol the city street looking for dead or injured birds. They document the dead and rehabilitate the wild. Some days are worse than others, as fatalities can range from zero a hundred birds or more.

Our shoot day was a lucky day for the birds, due to the weather conditions and migration patterns – collisions were low. So without much to film, our team headed by Joshua See (cinematography) and the multi-talented Caitlin McManus (sound) packed up their gear and headed home.

However, a short time later, Cait stumbled across a small flock of Golden-crowned kinglets that had collided with a building. Given that the day’s filming had been a bit of a bust – Cait called Josh back to the “crime scene” to film the collision fatalities. To find a group of dead Golden-crowned kinglets is a sad story indeed. These birds have declined by about 2.5% per year since 1966 – this translates into a 67% decline since 1966! Sobering statistics indeed.

kinglet 2 kinglets x 2

There is a ray of hope in this story.

There was a kinglet that survived, and it was sitting on the sidewalk stunned. Josh managed to get his camera out and ready in time to film this kinglets transformation from stunned to “back in the game” as it flew away. This has to be one of my favourite moments in the film. Watch it here:

We were really happy to see this little guy muster his strength and get back on this way. Golden-crowned Kinglets live in Canada’s dense stands of spruce and fir forests during summer, and when it gets cold they move south to spend winters across the U.S. Let’s hope the rest of his journey was safe.


Filming wild birds in the city has its challenges, but what about in the wilderness? This is a question I put to cinematographer Joshua See.

“Filming wildlife, tiny songbirds included, takes a special set of technical skills, nature-knowledge, and patience.”

“From the camera technical side of things you typically need large telephoto lenses and big stable tripods that support the camera’s weight and keep shots steady. You’ll also need strong legs to haul the gear to where the wildlife is!

An important ecosystem that we wanted to capture in The Messenger was Canada’s vast and notoriously thick Boreal forest. Wildlife biologist colleagues of mine often refer to it as the “Boreal Jungle”. With a massive camera slung over your shoulder, and a pack full of lenses and batteries, it definitely seems a fitting term!

The next critical piece is to find the birds you are looking for.

There are two main strategies that can be employed here: sit and wait, or listen and move.

While filming on location in Costa Rica more often than not I was able to identify busy bird locations where he could set up inconspicuously and wait. Flowering trees, ripe banana plants, or a shady trickling stream were bird hotspots.

Joshua See cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman fine tune the "blind" that kept the camera hidden from the birds.

Joshua See cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman fine tune the “blind” that kept the camera hidden from the birds.

Our incredible bird guide, Ernesto Carman from Café Christina coffee farm, took director Su Rynard and me to a large and beautiful tree next to an old café in a Costa Rican river valley. There, every night hundreds of Baltimore orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks seek refuge under its canopy. We watched and filmed in amazement as streams of beautiful birds converged on the old tree.

Joshua See cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman. Filming at  Café Christina coffee farm in Costa Rica

Joshua See, cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman. Filming at Café Christina coffee farm in Costa Rica

Blue-crowned motmot

Back in the Boreal jungle, the best strategy was to listen for the songs of the songbird species we especially wanted shots of, and then to try and locate that male based on his loud song being broadcast through the forest. Having knowledge of birdcall identification proved invaluable.


It’s also important to consider the time of day: birds are most active at dawn and dusk while the air is cool. Typically mid-day is when bird activity is lowest, and the sunlight least pleasing for getting the most beautiful frames.

western tanager

When all of the right factors come together we are able to get a close-up view into the often-mysterious world of songbirds.

Ultimately, the birds are the real stars and should take most of the credit for the beautiful imagery we see on screen. We are grateful for their participation in the production.

magnolia warbler

Soundtracks – where do they begin?

Many elements go into the creation of a good documentary soundtrack, but one key ingredient is great location sound2013-05-03 06.53.22.

I confess I feel a bit sorry for location sound people because they only get feedback when the soundtrack is BAD. As a Director I’m guilty of rarely saying “sounds great” – because we take great sound for granted, ironically, as if it is a natural occurring phenomena. Yet there is an enormous amount of skill and talent required to obtain great location sound.

In a film about songbirds, you can imagine how important location sound is to the final soundtrack. On The Messenger documentary we primarily worked with Jason Milligan. I truly believe that Jason has “dog ears”. By this I mean an aural range beyond the average human.

A super important element of location recording is not just the “sync tracks” i.e. recording the sound that happens in tandem with the image, but recording location ambient sound.

Because the birds would be different everywhere we went, we had to ensure that we recorded the unique sounds of every place we filmed.

Here’s a sample of an ambient track of Purple Martins songs and calls that Jason recorded for us while we were filming with Bridget Stutchbury and The Purple Martin Conservation Association in Erie PA.

Bridget Stutchbury passes a Purple martin to location sound recordist Jason Milligan

Bridget Stutchbury passes a Purple Martin to location sound recordist Jason Milligan

One of the very special audio events we recorded was in Ithaca New York during fall migration.

We were filming with Bill Evans, who designs and constructs his own microphones dedicated to capturing the night calls of migrating birds. A wonderful scene with Bill Evans is featured in our upcoming documentary SongbirdSOS to be aired on David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things. Below is a sample of the these night calls our sound recordist James MacDonald captured that evening.

Listen carefully, each species of songbird has a different call. They are only a fraction of a second long, and happen randomly ever ten seconds or so in this recording.


James MacIntosh records Bill Evans and friends.

James MacDonald records Bill Evans and friends.

Back in post production, all of the elements of location sync sound and ambiences have to be edited. The first step is to  sync all the sound – matching back to the picture, then the sound is imported into the edit suite. When our picture edit is locked – the edited sound is exported back out to another sound editor, who polishes it, takes out the umm and ahhs and clicks and pops, and prepares it for the mix. A super important element of location recording is not just the “sync tracks” i.e recording the sound that happens in tandem with the image, but recording location ambiences. Phil often mixes and merges these “categories” For example, a sound from the wilderness might be sampled and transformed into music, or a musical tone he created in studio may sound so organic, it feels as if it was part of the natural landscape. This is all done on the computer – and here’s what the soundtrack layouts looks like.

Phil Strong

One of the most important ingredients of a great sound track is music.

During our editing process the picture editors often work with temp music. This means pulling music that has the right rhythm, pace, emotional tone / feeling and / or instrumentation from one’s own music collection and cutting it into the soundtrack temporarily.

In creating The Messenger soundtrack composer Phil Strong worked in tandem with the picture editing process, often creating music for the scenes as they evolved.


Composer and sound designer Phil Strong and Picture editor Eamonn O’Connor at a spotting session in Phil’s studio.



More on Jason Milligan

Jason Milligan is a two time Gemini Nominated Sound Recordist (for “The Take” and “Memory for Max, Claire, Ida, and Company”) based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, who specializes in recording sound on location for Documentaries, Lifestyle, and Reality Programs.   Jason has travelled extensively around the world and worked in Argentina, China, France, India, Japan, Jordan, the Netherlands, Peru, Saudi Arabia, St. Vincent, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Creating The Messenger Soundtrack & Music Sneak Peak


The music and sound design for The Messenger as well as our upcoming CBC TV Nature of Things program is being created by Phil Strong. Phil and I have worked together for a number of years on a variety of projects. He’s an incredibly creative and resourceful person, and often collaborates with his partner Laurel MacDonald.  Stay tuned — you will hear Laurel’s incredible vocals in The Messenger soundtrack.

A great sound track has many elements including the sound recorded on location, additional ambiences and effects, sound design and music. Often these are delegated into distinct departments, except when working with Phil. He often mixes and merges these “categories.” For example, a sound from the wilderness might be sampled and transformed into music, or a musical tone he created in studio may sound so organic, it feels as if it was part of the natural landscape.

On this project, our budget and timelines are punishing, so we have been burning the midnight oil. Recently on one of these cold winter nights, Phil played a new track for me, which I absolutely loved. It’s quite fantastic, and the sound is really unique. I asked Phil how he created it….

“I wanted to create a kinetic, rhythmic, texture… the sound I was after is much like fiddlers as they hold down several strings and bow across them, varying the angle of the bow to create a harmonic rhythm. So I called my musician friend Sarah Shugarman, and we recorded several variations riffing on this idea. I later arranged these into a song order.”


Would it be a stretch to say that this idea was inspired by the subject of the film — songbirds themselves?

“Because the strings on a viola/violin form an arch, they cannot all be bowed at once. The bow has to change angle to get each string. Rapid bowing and angle shifts (are not unlike the flapping movement of a birds wing ) – and create a flowing series of notes – a harmonic rhythm – without needing rapid movement in the left hand.”


Violin Quadruple-Stops


So, if you want to try this at home, Phil Strong shares how this is done.

“Here is the music for a set of “quadruple stops” which represents all the possible combinations a player can make holding down all four strings. “Stopping” a string just means shortening its effective length by pressing it against the finger board with your finger (the effective length of a string [and tension] determines the “pitch” or note). A quadruple stop means that all four strings are pressed down with each of the four fingers in the left hand.”



We call this piece of music “Boreal theme”. Here is a taste of what is sounds like.


Below are me and Phil working in his studio.


Here’s Phil, Lauren and my Mark Bell having a late dinner after a long day in the studio. Mark is a contemporary artist (painter) and he’s donated  three really beautiful paintings to our crowdfunding campaign.


Phil and Laurel also created memorable soundtrack for my dramatic feature film Kardia. You can hear some of the music on the Kardia web site.

More on Phil:

Phil Strong has produced acclaimed albums and soundtracks with his partner Laurel MacDonald, and notably Cape Breton singer, Mary Jane Lamond. Lamond’s CD, Landuil, which was arranged and produced by Strong, won the 2006 East Coast Music Award’s “album of the year”. Phil assisted John Oswald with his various Plunderphonics artworks and from his mentor also gleaned the art and dynamics of dance composition. He received several dance commissions and found his stride in this asynchronous form. In 1999, Phil scored the soundtrack for Nest, the first of 9 major works he created with Toronto Dance Theatre. His work on TDT’s Timecode Break earned a Dora Mavor Moore award.

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