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Dream takes flight

A labor of love leads to the making of Oscar nominee 'Winged Migration.'

March 20, 2003|Ellen Baskin | Special to The Times

Here's the story line for "Winged Migration," one of five documentary features nominated for an Academy Award this year: Birds fly away, then they fly back.

But to reduce the film's soaring accomplishment to a plot point is like saying "Casablanca" is a movie about gambling. It's the film's spectacular camerawork that people are talking about, the way it places the audience next to, above, below, in front of and behind a global array of winged creatures.

Five production teams, including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers, followed dozens of birds -- including several kinds of geese, an American bald eagle, pelicans, puffins, penguins and an albatross -- across 40 countries and seven continents.

Filming spanned more than three years. Cameramen wielded equipment on airplanes, gliders, helicopters, hot-air balloons, parachutes and a specially designed ultralight motorized aircraft that allowed a 360-degree field of vision.

"When we first went in the air," writer, co-director and narrator Jacques Perrin recalls, "we thought, 'OK, the birds will go this way.' But no, they went that way. You cannot direct them. They didn't follow us, we followed the birds."

Being that close produced an unexpected emotional response. "The first year of the shooting," notes Perrin, "when the cameramen returned, they didn't say, 'Oh, it was incredible, the clouds were here, the birds were there.' No. More or less, they cried."

Perrin has been involved in the production of such renowned works as "Z" (1969) and "Black and White in Color," which won the 1976 foreign-language film Oscar. He's also well known in front of the camera with acting credits that span five decades. Perrin's interest in the natural world is deeply personal, and the years of work devoted to documentary projects are clearly a labor of love. He also produced "Microcosmos" (1996), which, like "The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971) -- the last nature-centric documentary to win an Oscar -- is about insects.

"Our planet is not our garden," he said during a recent interview in Santa Monica. "I have two young children, and I am not sure they will see the same things that I saw when I was young." Perrin's next documentary project is about the world's oceans, "the good intervention of man and the very bad intervention."

"Winged Migration" has so far been screened in this country only to qualify for Oscar consideration. In France, however, more than 2 million people saw the documentary the first week it opened.

For years, any academy member could volunteer to help choose the five feature-length documentary nominees, as long as that member went to a number of preliminary screenings. Under rules adopted in 1999, an initial group of semifinalists is chosen by a panel of documentarians, then a larger group of academy members decides on five nominees. To cast a vote for the winning documentary, academy members must attend theater screenings of all five nominated films. This may work in "Winged Migration's" favor, as big-screen projection offers numerous gasp-inducing sequences of birds in flight.

Perrin was among those who took to the sky to photograph the birds, but he is quick to give credit to the cinematographers who participated in the filming. The voice-over narration is noticeably sparse.

"In a documentary, I think if you speak too much you don't exactly see the picture," Perrin explains. "We just give some information so that the spectator is not lost. It's better if everyone seeing this movie has his own impression.."

Whatever the Oscar outcome, "Winged Migration" is set to open in New York on April 18 and in Los Angeles on May 2.

"It's been a hit in every country it's opened in so far," notes Barker. "It's like the little engine that could, and then when it's there, it makes it." Nevertheless, Sony has attempted to feather the nest with carefully planned advance screenings for the Audubon Society and bird-watching enthusiasts. Undoubtedly, an Academy Award win would help the film's chances at the box office.

"It's difficult to [promote] a movie where you only have birds. And when you speak about documentary, people think it means a dry, pedagogic approach. And maybe they're not interested. But the moment we had the nomination, the thought changed: Maybe it's not [just] a documentary; it's a movie."

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