Saturday, September 17, 2005

Movie Review: Winged Migration

Gail and I added Winged Migration to our Netflix queue after seeing a preview on another disc; the few scenes were enough to capture my attention. It is a mostly visual documentary, filmed on every continent, which follows the travels of dozens of species of migratory birds. The camera techniques are astonishing; filmed in the air, literally inches from the birds in flight; we wondered over and over how such scenes could be captured, without special effects and without frightening the birds. (More on this below.) Scene after scene shows the grace and beauty of the powerful birds, and the awesome variety of landscapes they fly through. There is little narration, mostly orchestral and choral music to accompany the visuals; a few helpful captions identify the species and the routes they follow.

The film has won acclaim for its beauty, and we were captivated too. On reaching the end, we went right into the DVD extras, looking for some insight into how the remarkable aerial footage was captured. The filmmakers developed a lot of innovative techniques, including the use of ultralight aircraft, balloons, helicopters and even remote-controlled model aircraft. But most striking was the fact that many of the birds in the film were actually raised and trained to be photographed in this manner, by a technique known to zoologists as "imprinting". Over the four years of production, the birds - many from shelters and zoos - were raised from chicks by the filmmakers and crew, and trained to tolerate (even pursue!) the noisy aircraft and camera vehicles. While the scenes in the film show the correct species of bird, flying over the correct terrain - in truth, the birds returned to their crates at the end of each day's filming, and travelled with the crew by airliner. Bird actors!

Does that change the impact of the film? I think it does, in a small way; it was disappointing to learn that what I had thought was the pure beauty of nature was in fact achieved with some artifice. Still, as mentioned, the film does show the correct species in the correct situations; with unforgettable images that could not have been achieved any other way. I still definitely recommend Winged Migration; the images are stunning, however they were captured, and the truths about the lives of these amazing birds are astounding.