One of the delights of being allowed “backstage” during the filming of FLIGHT was the progress reports sent to us every couple of months from Producer Lad Allen.
Last October he shared that a pelican’s bone “looks like a cavern laced with arching beams. This architecture is no accident. Instead it serves a vital purpose. White pelicans are large birds and magnificent flyers. A key component of their success in the air is a skeleton that is both strong and light weight–especially the bones in the wings.
“The majority of the bone is hollow (that certainly takes care of the weight requirement). But, the stress inflicted by soaring and flapping would snap a wing bone filled with nothing but air. That’s where the ‘beams’ come in.
“A pelican’s bones contain a network of narrow struts. They work like trusses in a bridge to strengthen the bones most required for flight (it’s the same basic design medieval architects used to support the ceilings in their massive stone cathedrals). The entire skeleton of a 20-pound adult pelican weighs about 20 ounces.”
In April he wrote, “A project like this is really a massive jigsaw puzzle. You start out with a general idea of the story you want to tell. Then you spend months collecting all the pieces needed to bring that story to life.” He described how Google, Facebook and SKYPE enabled the team to discover, consult and receive “extraordinary cooperation from photographers and scientists I’d never met in Greenland, Denmark, and Florida. . . It was a puzzle with pieces that came together from all over the world. Pieces I never even knew existed when we first decided to produce this film. . . . Almost like some supernatural intelligence was guiding and directing us every step of the way.”
These connections enabled the team to film stunning sequences such as the dexterity of hummingbirds in flight (and the dexterity and detail of their tongues gathering nectar) and the choreographed patterns of “murmurations” of starlings sweeping across an English countryside.
I liked when Lad shared his own emotions as he and photographer Jerry Harned traveled to southern Alaska last June in search of the champion long-distance traveler of the entire animal kingdom–the Arctic tern. Each year, these terns migrate from the Arctic regions of Europe, Asia, and North America to the South Pole, and back again. In the process they journey more than 30,000 miles. Some terns live for 25 years. That means, in its lifetime, the bird can travel a distance equal to three round-trips to the moon.
“We arrived in Anchorage about 2:30 A.M.,” Lad wrote. “When we got to the hotel, I was too excited to sleep. I knew we were within 15 miles of where Arctic terns laid their eggs and raised their young during the early summer. I took the camera and the directions I had received from a park ranger and set out for Potter Marsh.
“As I was driving, I remember thinking, ‘what if the terns aren’t there!’ Nothing is certain when you’re working with wildlife. Finally, I stopped the car in the turnout circled on my map. It was about 5:00 A.M. and I hadn’t slept for 24 hours, but I couldn’t have been more wide-awake. I bolted out the door and immediately saw hundreds of gulls, geese, and ducks. Very nice birds, but not what we’d traveled 2000 miles to photograph.
“Then I heard a distinctive, high-pitched call. I quickly looked up to see an Arctic tern flying right at my head (they are very protective and aggressive during egg-laying season). I jumped out of its way, then sprinted to the car to get the equipment. This was going to be a good morning.
“During the next three days, Jerry and I filmed several hours of wonderful footage. The terns are graceful in flight and equipped with spectacular vision, internal navigation systems and bio-clocks, a host of aerodynamic components absolutely essential to fly, and physical strength that must ooze out of every pore of their two-pound bodies. In short, these birds are elegant products of purpose and plan. They were designed. The story of their incredible migration will be included in Flight: The Genius of Birds. We look forward to sharing it with you.”
Pictures c) 2012 Illustra Media