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Case Number 03666

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Winged Migration

Sony // 2001 // 89 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // December 2nd, 2003

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All Rise...

The Charge

Like The Birds, except they don't peck your eyes out.

Opening Statement

Winged Migration is a film of staggering depth and beauty that thrills the spirit and makes the imagination soar. Though a touch heavy-handed on the social commentary, the film is uplifting, magnificent, and a unique and stunning film experience unlike any other.

Facts of the Case

From the producers of Microcosmos comes Winged Migration, a fascinating first-hand look at migrating birds taking to the skies, traveling north to south, species by species, one end of the planet to the other, re-tracing the same migratory routes year after year, enduring harsh weather and unforgiving dangers, simply to find food, raise a family, and survive.

This is a film about creatures with no borders, with no limitations. We see birds in flight, and birds on the ground, grazing and nesting. We see birds fighting for territory, and birds fighting for women. Everything they do is an extension of their desire to survive.

Winged Migration captures the experience on film over a four-year period, creating a movie that is poetic and beautiful, capturing seasons and landscapes on all seven continents; from the sweeping Manhattan skyline to the Great Wall of China to the Amazon rainforests, to the fierce Antarctic wind-swept rock islands, and everything in between.

The Evidence

The filmmakers describe Winged Migration not as a "documentary" or a "movie," but rather, as "a natural tale," which is a fitting description. Blurring the line between scripted motion picture and nature documentary, the film has the outward appearance of a mammoth and sweeping documentary, but in reality, the film has very little emphasis in fact or ornithological information and sequences occur that are obviously scripted and manufactured for dramatic effect.

This strange hybrid finds a surprising balance between the Zen-like documentary-style approach of simply pointing a camera at nature and allowing the viewer to appreciate the beauty of the subject, and the manipulative, but dramatic approach of orchestrating sequences of footage in order to heighten and expand the picture like a mainstream feature film.

The visuals are truly surreal. A disclaimer at the start of the film assures that absolutely no special effects were utilized in any footage to enhance or alter the birds in any way. This film breeds disbelief—there has never been anything shot quite like it. The sheer power of the imagery—birds streaking through the sky, in front of the Manhattan skyline, over the dark ocean, across vast tundra and icy plains, and countless other breathtaking cinematography—has the effect of a glorious baseball bat to the chest. It literally knocks the wind right out of you.

If not one of the most technically impressive and groundbreaking movies ever shot on film, Winged Migration is certainly one of the most ambitious. The level of technical coordination and sophistication involved in filming birds in flight—not from a distance, but actually alongside the birds—is staggering, and the level of cooperation behind-the-scenes is no less impressive.

To give you an idea, let us recap: Winged Migration involved the dedicated work of over five film crews with teams totaling more than 450 people. These included 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers filming in forty countries and all seven continents, using planes, gliders, helicopters, and balloons to fly above, below, and in front of their subjects. Twenty-nine production companies spread over five countries (France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland all claim co-ownership to the film) created the film; and oh yes, it also took four years to make.

While many shots of birds were done the old-fashioned, nature documentary way (sitting in a camouflaged tent for six days, shooting birds from afar), the awe-inspiring airborne shots of birds careening through city skylines and costal splendors took an astonishing amount of effort, time, and resources to achieve.

Birds, generally, will not tolerate human beings, especially human beings with gigantic clumsy flying machines that fume with black smoke and sound like a flying earthquake. The problem, therefore, was twofold: how to get the birds to tolerate human beings, and secondly, how to fly with the birds and not scare the crud out of them, or engulf them in spinning propellers or jet engines.

The solutions were ingenious. First, large groups of birds were hatched, and tended to by members of the crew. These "imprinters" were to spend as much time as possible with the birds, feeding them, playing with them, running around with them, surrounding them with groups of people and large noises, in order to convince the birds that the imprinted humans were part of the bird collective, and to make the birds comfortable around motorized vehicles and film crews. This exhaustive and time-consuming procedure takes months upon months, since the birds literally have to be hatched, grown, fed, fattened, and taught to fly. The flying was done through a variety of fast-moving vehicles, such as cars, trucks, motorbikes, boats, hot-air balloons, and various forms of ultra-lightweight aircraft.

Sounds familiar, you say? Well, Winged Migration owes much in spirit and in method to the Carol Ballard film Fly Away Home, the true story of a Canadian who developed an ultra-light flying apparatus (an astonishingly functional and clever combination of a hang glider, a giant fan, and a lawn chair) in order to fly with a flock of Canadian geese. Bill Lishman, the Canadian in question (of which the semi-autobiographical film was based around) assisted as a consultant during the shooting of Winged Migration, and provided his techniques of imprinting paternal command over flocks of birds, and his ultra-light aircraft were used extensively throughout the Winged Migration shooting.

Sure, the trick may have been done before, but never has it been done on such a grandiose scale. The film crews packed the birds up in wooden crates, shipped them to exotic and stunning locations, set them loose, and fired up the gliders, filming the entire procedure. The risks involved were extreme—film crews and cameras packed onto postage-stamped sized airplanes flying at high altitudes, crashing into the ground from time to time, and of course, the generally unpredictable nature of the birds themselves. A very real fear throughout the filming of Winged Migration was the notion that the birds, when released into the wild for shooting, may simply become overwhelmed and take off, never to return.

Thus, Winged Migration was slowly and haphazardly assembled over a four-year period in a bizarre mix of ornithology, cinematography, political negotiation, and world exploration. When the cameras stopped rolling, an astonishing four hundred kilometers of film had been recorded, totaling over 240 hours of footage. Filmmakers then had to begin the near-impossible task of assembling a feature film from the gargantuan supply of footage.

Personally, one of the most amazing and astonishing things about Winged Migration, at least from a technical standpoint, is that 240 hours of footage ultimately had to be edited down into a 90-minute feature film. It is an editing job to make a grown man weep. It numbs the mind. During the "In-depth Filmmaker Interviews" featurette, the crew explains that an entire two months spent in a country, filming consistently, struggling in treacherous climates and exotic locations, finally edits down to less than a single minute in the final cut of the film.

This film looks fantastic. The visual quality is a thing of beauty, and the detail, colors, and black levels are absolutely fantastic. It is hard to find fault with anything visually in Winged Migration. The birds leap from the sky in such a peculiar and surreal way it seems almost artificial. There is nary a speck of dust, a jagged edge, or an artifact to be found on this transfer. The only conceivable problem occurs during some extreme night shots, where things get awfully murky and grainy, but the film's minimalist approach to touch-ups and special effects excuses this as a necessity of filmmaking.

The soundtrack itself is quite a spectacular thing as well. The music is jaunty and haunting and complements the film exceptionally well, and the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is a thing of ethereal beauty. Every rustling reed, every air current, every chirp, honk, and rustle of feather is meticulously reproduced utilizing the full array of channels to create a deep and involving surround experience. Winged Migration sounds as fantastic as it looks.

Winged Migration contains an impressive array of extras considering its single-disc presentation, and anything that can be crammed on has been crammed. The "Creating the Music" featurette is interesting, but not nearly as compelling as some of the other content on the disc. The filmmakers' commentary is fascinating, and worth watching the film a second time immediately following a first viewing simply to hear what they have to say.

The shining star on the disc, however, is the 51-minute "making-of" documentary. Amazingly enough, this documentary is almost more spectacular and astonishing than the feature film itself. Narrated in a similarly dramatic style, it chronicles the ordeal in embarking on such a monumental and all-expansive production, as well as explaining the technical specifics in chronicling the flight of numerous flocks of birds. The documentary is so fascinating, in fact, that it is absolutely critical and mandatory to watch. It magnifies the level of astonishment and wonder in Winged Migration tenfold. If you think the film was magnificent, and you wondered with awe how a camera crew could record such spectacular visuals; when the tricks are explained, the real answers are more incredible than one could ever imagine.

One of the larger surprises, personally, was the photo gallery, a feature that I generally skip over with disdain. However, the photography is so beautiful in Winged Migration that the photo gallery is a worthwhile stopover—the photos are beautiful in their composition, and the addition of filmmaker's commentary giving a sporadic narration to the photographs on-screen make this a welcome supplementary addition.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The only major problem occurs when the equilibrium struck between documentary-style and dramatic-style filmmaking goes awry. Occasionally, especially during heavily-constructed sequences, Winged Migration completely ditches its "pseudo-documentary" guise and emerges as a carefully scripted, crafted, and deliberate production in order to preach socially relevant observations about the plight of man and his advancement over the globe at the expense of the environment.

This is all well and good in small doses, but at times, it feels extraordinarily heavy-handed and manipulative, to the point of sending the more conservative viewer into paroxysms of loathing and disgust. Those of a more sympathetic bend may survive the sequences with merely a small groan.

Also, the disclaimer at the start of the film, assuring that no special effects have been used, is slightly misleading; but only slightly. There are three blatantly obvious CGI shots in the film involving birds careening through the upper atmospheres of the planet, with a spinning globe below, before diving down through the clouds and cutting to real footage. They are unmistakably CGI shots because at the altitude in which the earth is shown as a blue globe, these birds flying through the sky would be roughly the size of Cleveland.

Closing Statement

What a fantastic DVD experience. Winged Migration could be one of the absolute safest blind bets ever released. For a single disc feature, it offers hearty value with robust features, but more importantly, it has appeal to every race, creed, gender, and orientation imaginable, which is a rare thing indeed. This is as close to a universally appealing film as we may ever see.

While the political undertones and environmental messages underlying the film may occasionally be causes for discontent, the stunning visuals, haunting music, and jaw-dropping cinematography creates a fantastic film that can be enjoyed by absolutely everyone, with the possible exception of bird and duck hunters (but then again, they may enjoy it for other reasons).

The Verdict

The court finds Winged Migration not guilty, and gives it a giant bag of money, plus two free salad bar tickets.

Also: go buy this DVD, you fools! You shan't regret it!

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Scales of Justice

Video: 94
Audio: 95
Extras: 75
Acting: 100
Story: 90
Judgment: 94

Special Commendations

• Golden Gavel 2003 Nominee

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
• Hindi
• Portuguese
• Spanish
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated G
• Documentary
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• "Making-of" Documentary
• Director's Commentary
• "Creating the Music" Featurette
• Photo Gallery with Filmmaker's Commentary
• Filmmaker Interviews
• Bonus Trailers
• Weblinks


• IMDb
• Official Site

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Review content copyright © 2003 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.