When Films are Ruined by 'Special Features'

Recently I rented a DVD of the award-winning 2003 documentary Winged Migration. Famed as one of the most unique and beautiful films ever made, Winged Migration literally takes the viewer up into the sky as it follows birds on their long-distance seasonal flights around the world. Somehow, seemingly as if by magic, the cameras are right there amongst the migrating birds, and you feel as if you are flying thousands of feet in the air with your fellow avians over landscapes which range from the picturesque to the breathtaking. When the film was over, all I could say was "Wow!"

And then, I made the terrible, terrible mistake of clicking on "Special Features" in the DVD menu. Ten minutes later, I realized retroactively that I didn't like the film after all. In fact, I hated it.

Why? Because among the special features was one of those short "The Making of..." mini-documentaries which divulged the secrets of how they filmed Winged Migration. And it revealed that the film was all a lie. A beautiful lie, but a lie nonetheless.

The filmmakers had not documented any actual migrations. Not only were the birds not migrating, they weren't even wild birds! They were basically trained actors, with wings. The "making of..." documentary showed, step by step, how they had hand-raised some migratory birds from the moment they hatched and had, using the "imprinting" techniques of Konrad Lorenz, tricked the birds into thinking that the cameramen were their mommies. As explained in Wikipedia, "The filial imprinting of birds was a primary technique used to create the movie [Winged Migration], which contains a great deal of footage of migratory birds in flight. The birds imprinted on handlers, who wore yellow jackets and honked horns constantly. The birds were then trained to fly along with a variety of aircraft, primarily ultralights."

So to film the birds "migrating" somewhere, the director actually just attached a camera to a motorized hang glider (called an "ultralight"), then let the birds out of their cages and started filming as the birds followed the ultralight around on a short flight, after which they all landed and were put back in cages. To make matters worse, the birds didn't follow the ultralight from region to region on long-distance flights, as the viewer was led to believe. No, as revealed to my shock in the "making of..." documentary, the filmmakers packed the birds away in shipping containers and actually trucked them around the world (on vehicles or in jetliner cargo holds) and then unpacked them only when they were at some pre-determined spot chosen by location scouts for its natural beauty. At which point, the ultralight would again take off, and the "migrating birds" would follow it around for a few minutes, before landing and getting back in the cages.

The final straw came when the director showed how even apparently serendipitous moments of passing "local color" were in fact all carefully constructed artificial props. That water buffalo wandering by in the distance? Someone pushed it into the scene. That quaint villager? A paid extra.

Great God in heaven! What kind of monstrosity is this? The entire film was a deception. I felt like a drunken sailor waking up next to the previous night's beer-goggle conquest, only to see a cheap wig and smell the stale whiskey breath, and realize I had been tricked.

Why in the world did the filmmakers reveal their deception? It had been such a wonderful reverie. The movie was utterly ruined for me after I had already seen it.