Filming the World From a Bird's Eye View

Gannets. Photo: Winged Planet

When filmmaker John Downer was in elementary school, he got down in the dirt of his parents' garden so that he could film the insects, frogs, and toads using a Super 8 camera. “I think that kind of, as I look back now, inspired my way of filming,” says the 59-year-old director. “Which is to try and get in the animal world.”

He studied zoology in college and then went to work in radio for the BBC before landing a job making TV shows for children. One of those shows involved filming life in a garden with miniaturized cameras that he built. “That was the first time I ever married advancements in technology with the capturing of images,” says Downer.

From there he got a job on the nation’s top-rated animal show, “Wildlife on One.” After making a show about snakes, he moved on to birds. He raised a duck from birth so that it imprinted to him as a parent, and a year later filmed it while flying in a parascender—a parachute pulled by a vehicle. He also stripped a Super 8 camera down to a lens, a film cartridge, a motor, and a battery so that he could put it on the back of a buzzard. The bird flew, and he got some grainy footage. “That was an inspiration,” he says.

But he knew inspiration wasn’t going to cut it for the film he ultimately wanted to make. He imagined capturing a bird's eye view of the world from multiple species. To do that, he needed to wait for smaller and more sophisticated technology. Twenty-five years later, he used drones, POV cams, and ultralights to film the new Discovery Channelshow “Winged Planet” (October 6, 8 P.M. EST). I called him up to find out more about the making of the two-hour-long special.

Was there a moment when the idea for the show came about?
It was a yearning to get back to filming birds, knowing that the technology was catching up. It hadn’t quite caught up when we started “Winged Planet,” because it took four years to make. Some of the technology wasn’t there. Everything is digital now, but even four years ago high-speed digital cameras were pretty rare and not very good. Now they’re wonderful. We didn’t even try to put cameras on birds’ backs for two years, because I just knew the cameras were getting better and smaller. For me, it was really waiting for the right moment to make this film, and that moment was partly technologically driven.

Snow geese in New York Harbor. Photo: Winged Planet

What shot are you proudest of?
I think there were a few dream moments. One, really, was the camera on the back of a vulture soaring over the savannah. You see the savannah stretched out and almost bowed like the earth, like you are on the bird’s back and seeing its wings and everything.

Similarly, using the snow geese in New York Harbor. The birds are becoming the camera operator and you’re seeing the view from a new perspective. You see the birds’ necks stretching out as they’re taking you across the harbor. And that again was just like, I can’t believe we got this shot. You can’t really believe it until you have it.

Another was when we started with the imprinted cranes with ultralights and we were flying down the Loire Valley in France. You see this incredible landscape stretched out like a map. When you see it from a bird’s view it is just amazing.

Cranes. Photo: Winged Planet

It also seemed like there was a lot of footage gathered by more traditional means. Did you have to camp out in places for a really long time to get some key moments, like the baboon taking out a flamingo mid-air?
Underlying it always is those additional shoots that require a lot of time, a lot of patience, and determination. There is a lot of second-guessing about animal behavior and making sure you are in the right place for things to happen. You mentioned the baboons. In the end, it was 100 days of camping to capture that incredible event. It was worth it, because the image is quite extraordinary. When you’re making these films, you have to make time for spectacular behavior.

Another one that didn’t take as much time, but we were prepared to get it, was the flying rays. These fish jump out of the water and try to fly. That was almost mythological in that it hadn’t been filmed. We knew where it was supposed to happen, but we weren’t sure it was real, and we went out to film it and it happened on the second day. So sometimes things occur very quickly and sometimes you have to put in the time.

What was the toughest shot to get?
I think flying with birds over cities, and particularly London. It’s not fun because you have a year to get experts who are willing to do it, and whenever there are humans involved things become much more complicated. And to try and get access to the city with some of the most air traffic in the world, it took a new level of negotiations to where we could fly our birds over the city. And by that time, they were beginning to molt, so they’re not fond of flying. So very often, it’s not the animals, it’s having to deal with things like paperwork. Once people become involved, it becomes a hell of a lot more complicated.

What was the biggest thing you learned during the four years of filming?
I think we’ve learned a huge amount. At the beginning I was pretty in awe of the birds, but I became more so. We found that if we followed the birds, they would take us to the most incredible natural events, but it was the knowledge that was extraordinary. They could fly across a continent and remember the route. The youngsters would follow their parents and remember it. As soon as you start getting into these animals’ worlds you understand them more, but in the end you become even more in awe of them because you realize there’s still so much you don’t understand. The idea of calling someone bird-brained is actually a compliment because they do such incredible things.

John Downer with a scarlet macaw. Photo: John Downer Productions

Was there one moment that blew you away most?
The first thing that really informed our filming was that we wanted to film birds arriving at natural events, to see how they perceived them. We sort of started with the idea that we have to find these natural events happening and the birds will be there. Now, some of those events were really difficult. One of those was in the Gulf of Mexico, which is the gathering of grunion, these fish that come ashore and lay their eggs in the sand. It’s incredibly difficult to predict. You know roughly when, but where is really difficult. We were at the right place at the right time, and we discovered all of these pelicans going in the same direction and we decided to follow these pelicans and they take us to the event. That was, now, an obvious thing, but at the time it was a revelation. If we follow the birds, they will tell us the story they have to tell and they will take us to these incredible events. That pretty much informed how we went from that point on. It really changed how we were making the film. It was much more the birds telling us their story, rather than us imposing a story on them, saying this is what we’re going to film.

A lot of people might think of “Winged Migration” when they here about this show? How is “Winged Planet” different?
Obviously “Winged Migration” was an extraordinary film, but we’re trying to do something very different. It’s really about how birds perceive the world. The migration story is interesting, but we’re much more interested in what does the world mean to birds? What do they see? How they perceive natural events? And how they can take us to those events? It’s really a bigger canvas that we have because it’s not just about the bird, it’s about the life of the planet as seen from a new perspective.

—Joe Spring

Filed To: Science / Nature
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