Su Rynard, Canadian cinematographer Daniel Grant, Joanne Jackson and a very stoic (cardboard cut-out) of CSA host Norm Macdonald
The most popular question we get at screenings of The Messenger is how we managed to capture these small and incredibly agile songbirds on camera. The simple answer, if you dare to call it that, is that it took years of planning and an incredible team of hardworking cinematographers. Collaborating with director Su Rynard to bring their shared vision for The Messenger to the screen were Daniel Grant, Amar Arhab, Laurent Charbonnier, Chris Romeike, and Joshua See.
This week, The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television recognizes that work with a nomination for The Messenger in the Best Cinematography in a Feature Length Documentary category at The CSAs.
Messenger Cinematographer Amar Arhab, draining the water out of the water jugs we used as counter weights for our high angle shots, while at the same tie trying to squeeze in a smoke break. That’s the truth of our shooting schedule — we never really stopped moving.
Sometimes we had more than one crew filming simultaneously in different locations. Joshua See camped out in the Boreal forest, trekked to Costa Rican coffee farms and managed to capture footage of birds in Toronto, while the main crew was elsewhere. Check out a previous blog post revealing some of his photography secrets.
“Filming wildlife, tiny songbirds included, takes a special set of technical skills, nature-knowledge, and patience.” – Joshua See
Camera Assistant Lori Longstaff and cinematographer Daniel Grant filming with Phantom camera inside the wind tunnel at AFAR.
The task of capturing The Messenger’s songbirds in flight for the film couldn’t have been accomplished without the work of our talented cinematography team, but we also have the scientists and staff at Western University’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR) to thank. Without access to their expertise and hypobaric climatic wind tunnel we could not have captured The Messenger’s stunning slow-motion sequences of the birds in simulated night flight.
The 800-frame-per-second footage, captured with a Phantom camera by lead cinematographer Daniel Grant and his team became the unifying force for the many stories in our film, and even provided the beautiful photography for our movie poster. You can watch The Messenger documentary crew filming in action at AFAR in our amazing short “behind the scenes” short documentary and read about it here.
And don’t forget to tune in to The Canadian Screen Awards on CBC, Sunday March 13th at 8 pm to cheer on our talented team!
The Messenger is an international co-production between Canada and France.
Produced by SongbirdSOS Productions Inc. and Films à Cinq.
The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television has been celebrating Canada’s talented film, television and digital media professionals since 1945. Founded by the academy, The Canadian Screen Awards (Formerly the Gemini and Genie Awards) celebrate Canadian productions and talent who excel in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. The awards have evolved from humble, pre- beginnings at Ottawa’s Little Elgin Theatre to the star-studded red carpet event taking place at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts Sunday, March 13th at 8 pm (ET).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.