Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Real(istic)

I showed the kids Winged Migration today. I thought I would just show part of it and then allow the students who wanted to see more to come watch at lunchtime, but then Ms. Pascal - who also really likes the movie - offered to allow the entire eighth grade to watch the movie together, during the periods when one class has math and the other has science. At the end of the first hour, the kids were really excited about the film, and they definitely liked it overall, but I think two hours was too much. They were very restless during the second hour.

Winged Migration is one of my all-time favorite movies. The filming of the birds in flight is spectacular; the landscapes and music are gorgeous. So, in anticipation of showing the film year-after-year to my classes - and because I've already seen it three times myself - I went out and bought the DVD yesterday. I only own a handful of movies, so it's a big deal when I buy one.

Last night, I watched the "Making of..." special feature. Although I still love Winged Migration, I am slightly disillusioned now that I know exactly how they got all that amazing footage. They actually raised the birds from chicks and allowed them to imprint on the people who would be involved in flying the special ultralight vehicles and shooting the film. Then, when migration season came, they packed up the birds into crates and flew them to the far corners of the Earth, where they released them at very particular times and in very particular ways and then filmed them against lush landscapes.

I had always had the impression that the filmmakers "followed" wild birds on their migration. The back of the DVD even uses that word, but in truth, the birds followed the filmmakers, not the other way around!

Does it matter?

I believe that the filmmakers did their research and that the scenes they created were realistic, if not exactly real. They picked locations where each species of bird really does migrate. The birds were not entirely predictable in their behavior, so spontaneous moments did occur during filming. And they would not have been able to film the birds' behavior from so close if the birds had not first become comfortable around their human "mothers" and "fathers." So perhaps the elements that make the film less real make it, at the same time, more realistic: the birds are behaving more naturally than they would if humans in strange, threatening vehicles buzzed across their flight paths and into their roosting grounds.

One of the books my students' used for their research on mammals was about the "batman" whose research on and outreach about bats led to greater understanding and less fear of these animals among the public. After he began studying bats, he learned enough photography to be able to take his own pictures of bats for publication. It turns out that many of his photos are of bats that he raised in captivity, in his laboratory, and photographed in settings he created to look like nature. Other photographers - who took pictures of bats in the wild - would just grab the nearest bat and snap a photograph, then let the bat go. This led to dozens of pictures of scared - and scary-looking - bats, snarling at the camera. Since the batman's bats were relaxed and accustomed to his presence, his photographs, while not taken in the wild, present a more realistic view of the everyday existence and habits of bats.

This real/realistic split is interesting. More on it later. Now I have to prepare for my students' owl pellet dissection.

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