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Producer & narrator Jacques Perrin and writer Stephane Durand explain how they flew on the wingtips of hundreds of birds around the planet for three years to capture the extraordinary story of winged migration in close up – with the help of 14 cinematographers and 17 pilots. Andrew L. Urban reports.

Producer Jacques Perrin recalls (with his charming French accent) the first emotional day of shooting Travelling Birds. “Earthbound, watching birds fly across the sky, we undertook to make this film but we had to go higher…nearer the birds. How could we manage it? I will always remember the first time we achieved this. The [airborne] cameraman was following the movements of geese; with one hand the assistant pushed away those birds who came too near the camera. The spool of film ran out…Radiant, tears in their eyes, they looked at me, speechless, motionless. Their mastery and the technical result were of minor importance: they had been in the confidence of the birds in flight.”

Seeing the finished film, one can easily understand the feelings of the crew. Even in the dark of the earthbound seats of the local cinema, audiences will feel the exhilaration of being so close to nature’s fantasies - those who can fly.

"the proximity to the flying birds"

But how indeed did the filmmakers achieve the proximity to the flying birds and such fluidity of images? 

”The film was shot over three years across seven continents by five crews of more than 450 people, including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers, so that the camera could fly alongside, above and below many species of birds as they made their annual round trips. In some cases that migration is more than 10,000 miles between the tropics and the Arctic. Travelling from one pole to another, across oceans to snow capped mountains, from the openness of the skies to dense mangroves
and swamps, from scorching deserts to peaceful countryside. For the birds, it’s a matter of survival.”

As Stephane Durand explains, the routes taken by migrating birds have existed for thousands of years. “It is because life becomes momentarily difficult where they breed that the birds leave to find better living conditions elsewhere, Most migrations follow a north-south axis. As autumn approaches, birds living in temperate or northern climates migrate towards more hospitable latitudes, towards the tropics and the Equator.

Four main routes can be defined :
North American birds (snow geese, Canada geese, sandhill cranes, etc) move towards the southern States of the USA, towards Central or South America.

European and Asian birds (Eurasian cranes, white storks, study swallows, curlews, etc) aiming for Africa, cross the Mediterranean Sea or fly round it via Spain or the Middle East.

Asian birds (bar-headed geese, Siberian cranes) going to India, fly to the east and the west around the Himalayas, or else sweep over the passes and peaks of the Roof of the World.

Finally, there are the Asian birds, such as knots going to south east Asia and as far as Australia and the Pacific Ocean.

Each migrant will follow one of these four main pathways, adapting it in accordance with its individual constraints, capacities, history and according to the bird’s points of departure and arrival.

For example, European white storks which winter in Africa cannot cross the Mediterranean Sea, contrary to swallows, since they use thermal up-streams which do not exist over the sea. They are therefore obliged to pass through – that is over - Spain or Turkey.

Each species therefore has its own migratory route which follows more or less faithfully one of the four main transcontinental pathways and reflects its specific natural history. The four great migratory pathways possess a multitude of cross roads, deviations and branches which move away or move together, as many ways as there are populations of winged migrants.”

Innovative techniques were developed to film birds in flight and to observe their behaviour on the ground or even over the seas. Different species required different ways of filming - the circular flight of storks was shot from a hot-air balloon, pelicans from boats, geese from uniquely adapted ultra-light aircraft and even remote controlled gliders.

"breathtaking cinematography"

”The breathtaking cinematography transports audiences around the planet. In celebrating the ecology, tenacity and beauty of avian life, Travelling Birds transcends the genre of nature documentary to become something entirely new. The film speaks volumes about the way birds live in nature and, occasionally, in spite of nature. There is something heroic and awe-inspiring about their indomitable struggle to follow the instincts they were born with,” say the filmmakers. 

The film’s juxtapositions of birds with monuments (both man-made, like the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China, and natural ones, like the stark outcrops of Monument Valley and the red earth of the Sahara) and its awe in the face of nature's power (an Arctic blizzard, a thundering avalanche) speak for themselves.

As well as offering a sweeping global tour from a bird's-eye view and witnessing the beauty of the changing seasons, Travelling Birds provides a vicarious experience of being airborne. 

Published June 19, 2003

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