PBS series sees world from a bird's-eye view
Filmmakers mount HD cameras on birds for 'Earthflight.'
Tue, Aug 27 2013 at 4:41 PM
Photo courtesy of John Downer Productions
Four years in the making on six continents and in more than 40 countries, the six-part PBS “Nature” series “Earthflight” reaches new heights in wildlife photography. Breathtaking aerial views of the world’s most stunning landscapes and iconic landmarks — all seen from a bird’s perspective — and spectacular footage of flocks as they migrate, feed and breed, make the documentary series a must-see.
Originally seen in an abbreviated two-hour version called “Winged Planet” on Discovery last year, “Earthflight” premieres Sept. 4 with an episode focusing on the birds of North America, followed by Africa, Europe, South America, a combined Asia and Australia, and in the finale, a behind-the-scenes story about how the series was made. It includes the special photography procedures and imprinting process, in which a human raises a flock of geese to have them "imprint" on him and follow him in formation in his micro-light aircraft.
Photo courtesy Christian Moullec
For wildlife filmmaker John Downer, capturing more than 100 avian species, from pelicans, bald eagles, petrels, pelicans and seagulls to flamingoes, cockatoos and macaws was a thrilling, if challenging prospect. “For the first time, we were able to mount real HD cameras on condors, vultures and snow geese and see the world as they see it,” says Downer, explaining that the birds were rigged with harnesses and trained to become comfortable with them.
“We used micro-lights to fly with imprinted birds, filming at high speed over some of the world’s great cities. We created a vulture cam, a model of a flying vulture, which could film from inside the flock. For the first time, we used multi-bladed drones to film massed flocks of 2 million flamingos. In fact, through the course of the series, we must have attached cameras to every conceivable flying device; from paragliders and gliders to full-sized helicopters with stabilized mounts and, of course, the birds themselves.”
Wide-angle lenses heighten the verisimilitude, Downer adds. “The footage shot with these lenses more closely resembles the way we see the world. When you capture birds close up on a wide angle lens, it actually feels like you are in their world. We wanted to capture the experience of what it was like to be a bird.”
Each “Earthflight” episode features a flock, a predator, and a scavenger. “Every species is different and each one creates different challenges. But some of the hardest involved making sure we were in the right place at the right time when big natural events were occurring,” says Downer.
He’s encouraged by some of the things he learned making the series, such as the growing populations of some species that had previously been in decline. “It surprised us to discover that snow geese were actually three times more numerous than they were 40 years ago and the beautiful Japanese crane had increased in numbers from a low of just 25 birds to over a thousand because of the protection the Japanese have given the birds,” he points out.
Downer suspects that viewers will be surprised too. “I hope that people will discover that birds are clever and adaptable creatures often with a complex social life not so different from our own. They have an unrivaled knowledge of the life of the planet and through their remarkable journeys they bring countries and continents together in ways that are constantly surprising."
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