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If you haven’t seen Microcosmos, an epic, cinematic documentary about bugs, go rent it. If you have, you know that Jacques Perrin’s cinematographers are artists and technicians capable of photographing practically anything.

This time, instead of getting down with insects, they go up with the birds. If you’re not saying “wow,” you’ll be saying “how did they do that?”

Flying with Penguins

Winged Migration stars thousands of birds shot by 15 cinematographers
Winged Migration stars thousands of birds shot by 15 cinematographers

As the title indicates, the film is concerned with migration, although that “theme” is just an excuse to photograph birds on the wing. Producer Perrin’s cameras fly with hawks, waddle with penguins, and travel with about fifty species of birds altogether.

A narrator offers a brief introduction and random observations throughout the film. Subtitles give us quick facts about some of the species we see. But the narration and titles are so inconsistently used, they seem like an afterthought. If you ignore them completely, you won’t get any less out of the movie.

Winged Migration is “about” the amazing cinematography as much as it is about the birds. Cameras on helicopters, balloons, gliders, and remote-controlled planes capture birds from above, below, and right at the wingtip. Rather than simply recording footage, Perrin’s crew gets dolly shots, crane shots, and tracking shots of birds in their nests and in the air. Sometimes it looks as though the birds are professional actors hitting their marks for elaborately choreographed shots.

One retreating steadicam leads a hopping bird through a tangled canopy. Another scene shows a flock of Canada geese inspecting a rusted pickup, and includes footage from three different camera angles, two of which ought to reveal the presence of another camera. The geese must have been trained to do multiple takes. “I’m ready for my closeup Mr. Perrin.”

Comedy and Tragedy

There is more to Winged Migration than just great photography. It has a sense of humor as well. Red-crowned cranes look like marionettes the way they float above the ground between steps. Graceful dance music plays on the soundtrack, but these birds are on ice and they slip and fall like a vaudevillean hockey team.

The movie even makes a joke about a bird-brained Canada goose, trapped behind the wires of a cage. The goose looks wistfully up at his brothers flying overhead, no doubt longing to join them. Then the camera pulls back to reveal that his “cage” is merely a fence.

There is a dark side to the movie as well. Long into the movie, after you’ve forgotten about human civilization, hunters bag some of the geese that the camera flies with. Another flock loses a bird in an industrial area: oil and tar grab the bird and won’t let go. Finally, one of the waders lands on the shore of an African coast with a broken wing. Turning the scene into a horror-film nightmare is the presence of a crab chasing the injured bird, joined soon by another crab, and another, until the scene looks like something out of Pitch Black.

But other birds survive, and soon we are flying with them again to return at the end of the year to the places where they started.

Ugly Ducklings

For what it achieves, Winged Migration is outstanding. But a few flaws are all too noticeable. For example, the titles and narration are seemingly random. Sometimes a title introduces a new species of bird, and sometimes it tells the distance of their migration. But other times there is no such title. And when the narrator speaks, he often merely states the obvious.

Also, scenes of flying wing-to-wing with birds, believe it or not, do get old after a while. To its credit, the documentary does have structure and texture, however, and these longer moments always spill out into something new and interesting.

The film’s worst flaw is a deceptive title card at the beginning, which says that no special effects were used to depict birds in flight. But halfway through the movie, we see a bird flying over the Earth from a satellite’s point of view! These plucky little birds are flying in low Earth orbit, making it from France to Greenland in under a minute! The continents and oceans below are obviously computer-generated, and the birds are obviously digitally added to the picture.

Of course, the title card at the beginning was qualified. It didn’t say there were no special effects, only that they weren’t used to fake certain scenes of flight. But why create resentment by tricking the audience with half-promises? The faked CG scenes were unnecessary anyway. The movie would have been better off had it let the cinematography speak for itself.

But even if Winged Migration is imperfect, it’s still amazing. Don’t miss it.