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Behind the Scenes of the Film ‘The Big Year' with Cinematographer Lawrence Sher

The cinematographer calls the birding movie his 'biggest dream project to date.'

BirdChannel News Division

Canada's Yukon Territory

Canada's Yukon Territory stood in for Attu, Alaska, when "The Big Year" crew filmed in June 2010.

The man in charge of the cameras and lighting of the movie "The Big Year" knows a thing or two about birders. Lawrence Sher drew on childhood memories as he, the director and the production designer translated the screenplay into visual pictures. Sher grew up birding on the East Coast with his father, whose interest in birds and bird photography infected his son "in a big way."

"He was really into it when I was 6 or 7," Sher said. "Like all kids, I wanted to be like my dad. He took me and my twin brother Andy out, and we kept bird lists. We have specific memories of birding, like waking up super early in the morning to see an Arctic Loon that was in a reservoir near our house in Teaneck, N.J. That was a very vivid memory."

Sher's father regularly kept tabs on rare-bird sightings by calling hotlines known as rare bird alerts, and the family often visited birding hotspots, including Florida's Everglades and Sanibel Island. "Whenever we went on vacation, birding was always a part of it," Sher said.

The search for rare birds — individuals classified by American Birding Association as Code 3, 4 or 5 — made an impression on the youngster. "I remember being on a baseball field when I was 8 or 9 and swearing that I saw a Code 4 or 5 bird overhead and missing a pop-up," he said. "It was a seabird, like an albatross — there was never a sighting in New Jersey — but I was convinced that was what I saw."

I remember being on a baseball field when I was 8 or 9 and swearing that I saw a Code 4 or 5 bird overhead and missing a pop-up.

Even the not-so-rare birds held Sher's attention.  "When I would come home from school, I would grab binoculars and look in our back yard," he recalled. "Our dad had a feeder to attract birds in suburban New Jersey."

Sher's father also influenced the cinematographer's career.  "My dad was a pathologist at New York University Medical Center but had a real interest in nature photography," he said. "It's one of the reasons I became a photographer. He started with birding, but then he started photographing birds and he got me into it. Even as his amateur photographer, he had his photos published in magazines like 'Ranger Rick.'"

Although Sher and his relatives kept life lists, he wasn't aware of the Big Year competition, the informal contest in which birders try to see the most species in a calendar year. (The  2009 report is the most recent one on the ABA website.)

After the 2004 publication of Mark Obmascik's book, "The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession,"  Sher's dad shared a copy with this son and created a career goal. "When I read it, I thought it would be my dream movie," Sher said. "It's funny, it has travel, and it has a unique perspective of something I liked when I was young."

In the meantime, Sher worked as cinematographer on such films as "Garden State," "The Hangover" and "Due Date." He kept his sights on the birding tale, though.

"I had been following the history of the movie since they decided to make it," Sher said. "I had known that Dave Frankel was going to direct it, but he has a cameraman that he works with all the time. I got a random phone call on a Friday, and they said David Frankels' cameraman might not be available.
"There was no way I wasn't going to do the movie," he said. "It was a no-brainer.  It's the biggest dream project of mine to date, strictly because of the birding aspect. It was such a big part of my childhood."
Birding can be perceived as a "nerdy" hobby, Sher admitted, so as he got older, his interest moved on to sports and girls, with the hobby falling by the wayside. "This reinvigorated my interest, from doing prep for the movie to even now, a year later after shooting it," he said. "While shooting 'The Hangover Part II,' I was looking for Thailand birds; I kinda wish I had the right app on my phone. I look at birds everywhere I go now, no doubt about it."

Larry Sher in Yukon Territory

Sher (shown here) and Frankel first scouted the Yukon for shooting locations in April 2010.

While preparing to shoot "The Big Year," Sher birded every time they scouted locations and increased his life list throughout the filming. "I got at least 30 to 40 birds while scouting," he said. "We saw some good ones, especially when we did the pelagic trip. I'd never done that."

One of Sher's best memories mirrors that of Frankel, when they found a Willow Ptarmigan in the Yukon Territory. "We were scouting, and I'd brought a video camera so we could shoot birds any time," he said. "We got out of the car — me and David — and we're chasing the bird.

"The app with bird calls worked like a charm," Sher said. "I walked into the shrubs, and the bird kept calling back, and it's speaking to my iPhone. We're super excited, and we thought it was so cool that we saw this ptarmigan."

After resuming their drive, they saw more Willow Ptarmigans in increasingly larger numbers. "We were so excited to see it the first time, and then we couldn't walk 20 feet without seeing a ptarmigan," he said with a chuckle. "We thought we were seeing something super rare."

Sher's father joined him on location for a week. "We stayed up all night with my camera and shot different birds," he said. "I saw a bunch of hawks I hadn't seen before, seabirds, some finches and other smaller birds."

I genuinely hope that birders like the movie and see it as a way to grow birding and bring the hobby into other people's minds.

Meeting birders stood out as one of the most fun aspects of filming the movie in British Columbia, Sher said. "When we went to Tofino to shoot all the pelagic stuff, there was a guy — a serious birder — who became an extra," he said. "He'd done a Big Year once or twice himself.

"He took me out to these mudflats at dawn to see if we could see some stuff," Sher said. "He was such a great guy, and he was out there with his 7-year-old son. It reminded me of me and my dad."

Sher said he wants birders to know that they were respectful of the sport and hobby: "We did try to stay true to the story and to birders. I'm sure we made mistakes, but we tried to be as good as we could.

"I genuinely hope that birders like the movie and see it as a way to grow birding and bring the hobby into other people's minds," he said. "When I go out now, I'm much more aware of the birds around me. I hope the general public who goes to see the movie will be, too."

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Posted: October 13, 2011, 7:55 p.m. EDT

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Behind the Scenes of the Film ‘The Big Year' with Cinematographer Lawrence Sher

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