"No special effects were used in this movie."
We are told this at the beginning of director Jacques Perrin's utterly magnificent "Winged Migration", an extraordinarily beautiful and elegant documentary about the migration patterns of several species of birds. This, however, is no normal documentary about the migration patterns of birds, hence the warning at the beginning of the program. What follows in the 89-minute piece is scene after spectacular scene of - quite literally - flying along with them, even in poor conditions.
Four years in production and using more than a dozen cinematographers camped out in different areas of the globe, the filmmakers used everything from balloons to lightweight planes to try and be alongside the birds in flight. Perrin provides narration that pretty much just covers the basics of what the audience needs to know about what the birds are up to, while subtitles fill in some introductory information about the different species.
The movie really isn't as much geared towards informing as the IMAX nature programs that this film sometimes resembles. There's probably quite a bit more about all of these species that would interest and entertain. However, Perrin seems interested in making "Winged Migration" more of a sensory experience, with a little bit of information added in. That's fine, as it's pretty fascinating to watch the birds court each other, feed their young, communicate and fly over vast expanses of postcard-perfect land. However, I would have liked to have known more about some of the species included, especially the birds that moved their little feet so fast they walked across a lake.
Some of it staged, reportedly (and some of the birds were hand-raised to be more used to the sound of cameras and people, but thankfully, there are no CGI birds), but there's no denying the skill and ambition on display from both sides - the birds in making their trips of thousands of miles and the filmmakers, who must not have had an easy time getting the right shot with their stars.
Overall, I have little against "Winged Migration". Although I understand Perrin's attempt to try and get us to understand the hardships of birds through visuals, there's just too much fascinating stuff going on here to not go into more depth about some of the species in his narration or through subtitles. The other complaint is the score, which is a little too intrusive at times when the call of the birds would have provided a better soundtrack.
VIDEO: While "Winged Migration" doesn't show quite the level of clarity of the large-format IMAX films, "Winged" still certainly takes flight on what is an absolutely gorgeous high-def presentation. Sharpness and detail are generally outstanding - while some wide shots can seem a touch soft in comparison, most scenes (especially some close-ups, which show impressive fine detail) show remarkable clarity and depth to the image. Flaws include a few light instances of edge enhancement and a couple of minor print flaws. Some slight grain is visible at times, but appears to be an intentional element of the cinematography. Colors are natural and superbly rendered, appearing perfectly clean and well-saturated. Black level looked solid, as well. Although not perfect, at its best, this transfer more than does justice to the film's stellar imagery. Subtitles: English, English SDH, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Hindi, Norwegian, Swedish.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. This is quite a sound mix: the surrounds are used extensively for bird noises and chatter from off-screen birds. The rumble of an avalanche is heard - and felt - throughout the room and the deep, powerful sounds seem to spill out of every speaker. The wide front soundstage captures the birds clearly and distinctly and all of the bird "dialogue" is very cleanly recorded. While not an action movie, this sound mix is still a treat for home theater fans. The Dolby TrueHD presentation does offer some light improvements over the Dolby Digital presentation from the DVD, such as a more "open, airy" feel and somewhat improved clarity.
EXTRAS: Commentary: This is a commentary from director Jacques Perrin. I listened to some of this commentary and found it to be a very enjoyable track. Perrin shares some background information on the birds and locations, as well as his feelings about the film. The commentary does start a bit slowly, but Perrin eventually starts working in some occasional insights on the technical challenges that the production faced.
Documentary: Making of "Winged Migration": This is a 52-minute documentary that follows the crew of eventually more than 500 people across the globe as they try to capture birds in flight. The documentary first follows the crew in the early days of the production, as they attempt to hand-raise birds, care for them and train them. Given the fact that nothing quite like this has ever been attempted in filmmaking, the crew also has to design prototype flying machines that will accomidate their equipment - and the nerves of the pilot and cinematographer are apparent as the machines undergo their first tests. The documentary bounces across the globe as we follow different teams capturing different birds. There are dangerous conditions (terrible storms) and even scares as some of the birds become ill in a remote area. A few stretches of this nearly hour-long piece are slightly slow going, but I found the majority of it to be a very interesting and informative behind-the-scenes look.
Also: 24 minutes of crew interviews, 17-minute documentary on the film's score, trailers and a photo gallery with audio commentary from the director.
Final Thoughts: "Winged Migration" doesn't offer tons of information on birds, but it does accomplish some seemingly impossible and impossibly beautiful visuals, as well as take us along on the experiences of these wildly different birds. The Blu-Ray edition boasts the same extras as the DVD, along with improved audio/video quality. Recommended.
The Film B+