Posted: June 1, 2010, 12:00 a.m. PDT
With a front-row seat to the spectacle of unadorned life, Patrick Morris gets to witness aspects of birds’ natural history that make many birders feel just a little envious. As a producer in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s natural history unit, Morris recently worked on BBC’s 11-episode "Life” series, which includes an episode dedicated to birds, and he experienced the filmed sequences firsthand while overseeing every aspect of the entire series.
When "Life” aired in the United States on Discovery Channel, birders around the country sat riveted to their seats while watching the incredible footage of animals and planets all over the planet. The series tells 130 stories about the natural world, offering a peek at some never-filmed-before behaviors.
The task of choosing which stories to tell started more than four years ago, when a team of researchers began looking for distinctive, unique and surprising aspects of plants and animals, the 20-year BBC employee said. For a year, they scoured books, magazines and the Internet while also talking with scientists to glean the latest information. Then the filming entailed two years, and Morris and his team spent a year crafting the episodes – editing the footage, scripting the narration by Oprah Winfrey and adding music.
"In all of ‘Life,’ we focused on key elements, like dealing with difficulties,” Morris said. "We tried to find the most interesting and exciting stories to show the most extraordinary behaviors.”
In creating the birds episode, he said the team found it particularly challenging to select just a dozen or so stories from the 10,000 bird species. Among the questions that the team asked of the stories were "Is it something that’s scientifically fascinating? Does it perhaps have drama? Is it surprising? Is it spectacular? Every sequence we focused on, we went for an unusual behavior that shows what sets birds apart.
"We also considered the diversity of habitats around the world – mountains, forests, coastlines. We wanted give as much variety as we could.”
The birds episode contains three acts that showcase different behaviors: flight, nesting and courtship. Viewers get to focus on Marvelous Spatuletail, Lammergeier, Red-billed Tropicbird, Red Knot, Lesser Flamingo, Chinstrap Penguin, Great White Pelican, Cape Gannet, Clark’s Grebe, Greater Sage-Grouse and Vogelkop Bowerbird. The bowerbird sequences reveals a behavior not caught on film before now.
Before filming each sequence within an act, Morris said the team brainstormed extensively. They thought about the different types of shot angles, what would create an exciting sequence and what kind of equipment they would need.
"Inevitably, when you get to the field, you find things different than anticipated,” he said. "You have to think on your feet. You have a window of time to capture that behavior as best you can. We would often try to get the core of the sequence filmed first, and then if you have the luxury of time, you can build on that with different camera angles.”
While creating the sequences in the opening act – which focused on different aspects of flight, such as wings, soaring, aerial interaction and migration – the camera operators received instructions such as: "Imagine that you are gliding on the coast, waiting for tropicbirds. What would your perspective would be as a Magnificent Frigatebird?” Morris said, "We were trying to think of that bird and its style of flight.”
Some sequences required closer work, such as those with Vogelkop Bowerbirds. Morris said the team used camera hides (or blinds) and placed them a good distance from the bower, depending on the bird’s tolerance. Hides also helped with the Lesser Flamingoes and Red Knots but proved unnecessary for some species, such as Chinstrap Penguins. "The penguins were very comfortable with the cameramen being close, but we’re very sensitive to not wanting to cause any disturbance and keeping a respectable distance from our subjects,” Morris said. "Long lenses allow us to keep a distance and still get great shots.”
The producer says the series couldn’t have been made without camera man Barrie Britton, who filmed two-thirds of the sequences. Morris often took care of sound-recording duties while Britton worked in a photo hide. The "Life” team worked in pairs or trios while filming to minimize their disturbance to the subjects, Morris said.
Of the many trips during the two-year filming process, the Lammergeier trip left the biggest impression on Morris: "The people I met in Ethiopia, the staggering beauty of the Simien Mountains, the stunning cloud patterns in the skies, and these birds. Since childhood, I’ve always admired these creatures with bloodshot-red eyes.
"Watching the precision of the bone-releasing and the smashing is something I’ll never forget,” he said. "Having the opportunity to go in a helicopter and fly in those peaks gave me that extraordinary sensation of being a Lammergeier.”
That sequence with the Ethiopian vultures also offers the chance to include more humor in the episode. "It’s always a challenge of crafting when you’re in the editing room -- the style of music, the placement of words,” Morris said. "I think we were fortunate in our birds film that there were a few moments of humor. With the Marvelous Spatuletail, we tried to make it light while showing the effort that the male was going through. With the Lammergeiers, we could show the tilt of the vulture’s head as the younger Lammergeier releases the bones.”
While some birds provided unscripted moments of humor, others acted in ways that could be highlighted best with slow-motion footage. "You need to have a reason to feature a slow-motion shot,” Morris said. "Sometimes it can be sheer beauty. With the Red-billed Tropicbirds, we had one particularly beautiful shot of this tropicbird flying to the camera, and I thought it was one of the most striking images. It was chosen as an opportunity to celebrate her running the gauntlet of the Magnificent Frigatebirds.
"With the Red Knots feeding on the horseshoe eggs, there was one sequence to show the dexterity and action involved in eating one egg,” he said. "The birds have to eat thousands and thousands of these eggs. That was what struck me, when you see the detail in the bill. Ultra high-speed can really reveal things as well as the beauty.”
While the cameras primarily focused on the birds, one camera was reserved to film sequences for "The Making of Life” episode. With it, Morris filmed the challenges that Britton faced in filming the Lesser Flamingoes, and the team chose to highlight the Vogelkop Bowerbird sequence to show the hide work. "So much of filming in natural history is about patience,” Morris said. "Often we can spend three or four weeks for a sequence that lasts four minutes.
The producer praised the "extraordinary behavior” that the cameramen caught while the male bowerbirds decorated their bowers. "It was at the end of the trip that Barrie caught the mating – the payoff for that male’s effort. It lasted a split second, but it was life-defining.”
Morris remains quite pleased with the final product and wouldn’t change any of the species or stories that appear in the birds episode. "All of the stories had an important place in the storytelling and the structure.
I was very keen with our birds film to have stories of a length where you could be taken to a place, identify with a species and understand its objectives and the many challenges that it faced,” he said. "I hope it was a voyage of discovery.”