Filmed in 4 continents and 11 countries, Earthflight took 4 years to make.
Almost uniquely, virtually the entire film was shot in 3D using two cameras, to create a never-seen-before cinema experience. Most 3D wildlife films rely on conversions from 2D but true 3D acquisition gives a unique kind of immersion in the imagery, where the birds appear to fly our of the screen.
For the first time, high resolution 3D cameras were taken on microlights, paragliders and octocopters to fly alongside birds. This was difficult enough to do in 2D; in 3D it had never been attempted before.
A significant challenge was operating 3D camera systems in the air. The microlight has a maximum payload of 2 people - the pilot and cameraman. The addition of two Red cameras, lenses and mounts meant that the microlight was on the limits of being overloaded. Shooting 3D doubled the amount of equipment and bulk in the aircraft. So we needed to strip the cameras down to their bare minimum, the 3D rig needed to be redesigned to be compact and light and still resist the flex from G-force and wind speeds. The camera operator’s seat had to also be redesigned to accommodate the 3D rig. It was now capable of swivelling like an office chair so the cameraman could adjust his position in relation to the flying birds.
Mirror rigs had to be specially made for the smaller remote cameras, and keeping the system compact and deployable for any environment was another great challenge. None of this equipment was commercially available, so it was engineered in-house. The production developed its own underwater housings for 3D that used an innovative flexible housing capable of expanding and contracting with changes in pressure. This allowed us to keep the size and weight of the rig to a minimum as thick pressure resistant metal was not required, making it more manoeuvrable and efficient for underwater work.
One of the aims of the film was for birds to take the audience to some of the world’s greatest natural events. The film crew soon discovered that the only way to film these events was to be guided by their subjects, as they knew more about where the events were likely to occur than any scientist. So to find the Great Sardine Run and its extraordinary gathering of dolphins and sharks, the crew followed the gannets across the ocean until they took them to the spot.
One of the most important techniques used in the film was imprinting - when a chick comes out of an egg it believes that the first moving thing it sees is its mother and from that point will follow this foster parent wherever he/she goes. Ultimately it will follow the foster parents into the air – even if they are inside a microlight and using 3D cameras to film them. The process from hatching to flying can take a year and requires total dedication 24/7 from the human team, as the birds mustn’t be left alone.
The most ambitious shoot was flying with cranes over Venice. The birds had to fly many miles following a microlight from the airstrip to the city and therefore needed a lot of training so that their flight muscles were strong enough to complete the journey with ease. Permissions also took many months to achieve as flight plans needed to be worked out to avoid commercial airlines.
All the imprinted birds featured in the film continue to live in luxury with their human parents. They lead normal lives and will breed as they socialise with their own species too.
Over 25 year ago, John Downer was the first person to film birds from the air using this imprinting technique. He filmed a duck that had lived with him for a year, from a paraglider. The breath-taking shots of the duck flying just inches away became the inspiration for the current project.
At the same time, he put a movie camera on the back of a bird – again a technique that had never been attempted before. The camera was a stripped down super-8 film camera and was carried by a buzzard. For Earthflight, modern digital cameras made the whole experience easier and were used on bald eagles and vultures.
To take the amazing shots from the back of a vulture seen in the film, the vulture was given a free ride 1000 feet up in an ultralight plane. Vultures are heavy birds and find it difficult to get off the ground but once in the air they soar effortlessly, so giving it a helping hand saved its energy. It then soared with hardly a wing-flap over the African Plains.
Earthflight draws on John’s unparalleled experience of filming birds in the air and utlilises the very latest 3D filming techniques to fulfill a lifelong dream of showing an audience what it is really like to be a bird.