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'Winged Migration'

Birds gotta fly in "Migration"

Friday, July 04, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

How did they do that? It's a question moviegoers increasingly ask these days, but the answer typically involves computers or miniatures or fake backdrops -- not determination, ingenuity and planes, gliders, helicopters and balloons.

"Winged Migration"




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In "Winged Migration," the various devices place you on the edge of a flying formation or deep in a grassy thicket where a nest is tucked away or on the slippery slope of a mountain seconds from an avalanche. It makes you wonder if the photographers had sprouted wings or cloaks of invisibility for their three years of tracking migratory patterns.

The crew used no fakery or birdcams. They relied on more than 450 people in five teams, including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers, to chart bird migrations through 40 countries and seven continents.

You don't have to be addicted to the nature channels to appreciate "Winged Migration," an Academy Award nominee for best documentary feature that opens today at the Manor Theater. It's beautifully filmed, a graceful tribute to the rhythms and majesty of nature and flight and a look at societies of winged creatures that exist outside -- or in spite -- of man. When, late in the film, some birds are felled by hunters' blasts, you unexpectedly feel the sting of the loss as they tumble to the earth.

The movie, which uses a minimum of narration, explores the ancient routes that migrating birds take to seek better living conditions, especially food. A line of information flashes across the screen to explain the type of bird, the number of miles the species typically travels -- such as 3,000 or even 12,500 miles -- and the route they take.

Watching the movie, it's impossible not to put the birds in human context or to be reminded of phrases that have their origin in the winged world: craning your neck, puffing up your chest, being the unlucky possessor of a pair of bird legs. When one group reunites and the birds start honking and flapping their wings all at once, it's like witnessing teens meeting at the mall after a long separation. You almost expect to see subtitles translating their chatter. Other birds move as if they're Riverdancers, creating a frothy foam in the water.

Director and narrator Jacques Perrin started in July 1998 in Iceland with puffins, guillemots and northern gannet and then hopped around the world to Japan, France, Kosovo, Germany, Senegal, Spain, Canada, Nepal, Argentina, Peru and Vietnam (and many more countries), with the United States a periodic and final destination. The shots in New York City were taken in October 1999 and 2000, which is why you can still see the World Trade Center in the background.

At a time when the world seems to churn with turmoil and division, along comes "Winged Migration," a movie that makes no distinctions about borders. It glides into theaters without a hulking green monster that exists only courtesy of computers and lets its subjects -- and us -- turn skyward with wonder and amazement.

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