A (re)view of Winged Migration—Do unconventional documentaries offer more positive representations of human-animal relations, or do they still perpetuate anthropomorphism?

 

poster
Theatrical poster (Source: Winged Migration 2009)

A montage of breathtaking scenes of migrating birds, gathered “over the course of four years, on all seven continents.” (Wikipedia 2017), complemented by heartfelt instrumental soundtracks, Winged Migration is an unconventional documentary with an aim: to give viewers an experience of flying alongside birds in their “flight of survival”. However, there are contrasting views regarding whether the film actually gives wildlife a voice by avoiding anthropomorphism with typical tropes found in David-Attenborough type of documentaries, since during the filming, specific techniques were employed, which will be discussed later on this page.

Having looked at hundreds of reviews by audiences (on IMDb, RottenTomatoes) and critics (on New York Times, IMDb) and critically watched the documentary myself, I will explore the debate above in this blog, which I hope you will enjoy.

For those who have yet to hear about Winged Migration, you can watch the trailer and take a look at this infographic for details and fun facts about the film.

Winged Migration
Infographic made by me, using Canva; all images are free to use on the website

Whether it is nature that is in power…

The producers made a bold claim in the theatrical trailer, that Winged Migration “presents a new vision of nature”, implying its countering against the traditional wildlife film themes which reinforces a binary relationship between humans and other species (Lerberg 2010, p. 36). The concepts reinforcing this relationship is usually formed using anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is, simply put, the (sometimes forceful) attribution of human traits to animals (Dwyer 2007, pp. 86-87)—its root is in Greek, with anthropos meaning human and morphe meaning form. According to Elliott (2001, p. 290), anthropomorphism can be physical, emotional, and on a deeper level, cultural. Physical anthropomorphism is what makes human empathy more easily with species which share the same physical characteristics we have or biologically resemble us, e.g. with chimpanzees or monkeys; emotional anthropomorphism is how we interpret animals’ emotions similarly to how we “read” other human beings, e.g. saying one’s dog or cat is cheerful/angry etc. Meanwhile, cultural anthropomorphism is how we explain behaviours of animals in alignment with our own, for example, we might see two mammals bumping into each other while grunting loudly and report the sight not as a mere description but as them being “aggressive” and “competitive”.

In conventional, BBC/David Attenborough-style documentaries, all three types of anthropomorphism are densely employed to catch viewers’ attention. There often are narratives of mother-child bonds, societal bonds, the hero vs. the antagonist (Leane & Pfennigwerth 2011, p. 32). This short trailer of March of the Penguins is an example:

(Source: Movieclips 2011)

  • Some examples:
    • 0:12—“Mysterious rituals that date back thousands of year” on the background of epic music is a powerful opening to a narrative, oftentimes used in stories about the history of human beings, whom the word “ritual” alludes to;
    • 0:59-1:10—the protagonists-antagonists trope shows as the leopard seal hunts on the penguins, ominous music reminds viewers of intense chasing sequences in action movies.

The trade-offs for such engaging films are succinctly put as follow:

By doing so, these producers and directors are taking the beauty and mystery of the wild world around us and turning them into just another bland story you’ve heard a million times before. (VanDerWerff 2015)

Veering off the norms, in Winged Migration, there is seemingly no anthropomorphising narratives forced upon the animals, no attempts to piece it all together in a particular order that aligns with one or more of our familiar storylines, e.g. the nuclear family or the hero’s journey. This attempt of the filmmakers successfully earned audience’s recognition, which is confirmed by the themes emerging from the 153 reviews on IMDb and roughly 50 others on RottenTomatoes that I examined, combined with opinions of experts:

  1. The film scores an 8/10 average rating on IMDb, aggregated from more than 10,000 users. Among the 153 reviews, an astounding 42/153 (roughly one-fourth) gave it a 10/10 rating, 23/153 gave a 9/10, and 20 gave an 8/10.
  2. The approach was highly praised by the majority of reviewers, with phrases like “presents the world of birds in a way never before seen”, “unprecedented”. Almost every one of these viewers attributed this achievement to the montage format and the absence of storylines and voiceover, which itself is used sparingly only for explanatory purposes at the beginning (Holden 2003). Swicegood, in her review (2003, p. 25), also claimed to enjoy this “lack of narration”. To those complaining about a lack of narration, at least ten users on IMDb pointed out that this is “not your usual Animal Planet documentary”, noting that the filmmakers could have added a perfectly detailed commentary, yet chose not to do so. Many emphasised on the non-narrative approach as the key to their feeling they were actually on a flight alongside the birds.
  3. The filmography and aesthetics are, apparently, instrumental to this success; the “visually stunning”, “awe-inspiring”, “magnificent beyond words” footage allows viewers to immerse themselves into the avian world of the birds. Stephen Holden, critic on New York Times (2003) remarked that the scenery was absolutely “glorious”.
  4. The music in the film, including vocal choirs and effects, was praised as soul-touching, “astounding”.  Eight reviews on IMDb, and another handful on RottenTomatoes, however, criticises the directors’ overuse of “horrible new-age music” and the choir effects, complaining that It is “overwhelming” and that the filmmakers should have let the natural beauty of the scenes speak for itself, as most of them are already so “expressive, musical, and powerful” (an user on IMDb).
  5. The moderate presence of humans in the film adds to (2)—some scenes with an elderly woman feeding the cranes in her field and some hunters shooting at flocks of migrating birds. They are featured just enough for “a glimpse into humanity” and “human nature” in a binary relationship with nonhumans where harmony and cruelty are equally present, about which much reminder is needed.

A minor complaint is the acclaimed non-narrative format can be counter-effective, leaving the audience with little more knowledge of avian life than they had before the show. This is negligible when put in the context of the filmmakers’ goal:

But Winged Migration doesn’t try to hold your hand. It accepts that the impulses that drive these birds are fundamentally alien to human beings — no matter how much we can understand them scientifically. Yes, the footage is amazing, but Winged Migration is basically a non-narrative art film — and all the more effective for it. (VanDerWerff 2015)

birdsfly
Sequence from the film (Source: Birds Fly GIF 2016)

It may sound facetious, but ”Winged Migration” provides such an intense vicarious experience of being a flapping airborne creature with the wind in its ears that you leave the theater feeling like an honorary member of another species. (Holden 2003)

If (from a limited number of reviews) we take it as a fact that Holden speaks for the majority of the audience, then the film succeeded—humans are, in this novel experience, flying alongside the birds on screen…

…Or it is humans who are in charge…

…but they also flew with the birds off-screen during production. In the filmmakers’ description of filming technologies (sonyclassics.com n.d.), they listed the rigorous use of transportation—hot air balloons, air gliders etc.—and the years and distanced travelled. These all obviously sound impressive, technologically. What is hidden between the lines is that the birds in Winged Migration “imprinted on staff members” and are trained to fly alongside filming cameras; some of these species were imprinted for the first time ever (Wikipedia 2017).

sonyclassics
Source: sonyclassics.com

In these conditions, then, the birds were performing in a way to the camera, to the audience, and therefore are not really the wild birds they are supposed to be represented as (Lerberg 2010, p. 44), there are in facts moments when they appear to be reacting to the crew/camera. Cinematography and ambitions have unfortunately interfered with the ultimate goal of a natural nature documentary.

To thoroughly understand this refutation, one could look closely at the trailer of Winged Migration, to see whether there is any implicit or explicit anthropomorphism:

(Source: Cinemusic7888 2015)

  • Some possible signs might include:
    • 0:23—The depictions of birds in couples/pairs and interacting “intimately” (stroking each other’s beaks and necks) alludes to a sense of love and partnership among all species, humans included;
    • 1:04—The scene with a “parent” and his/her baby, with caressing behaviours, might be a reference to motherly love and bonds;

Apart from reviewers, academics are the ones keenest on digging down below the natural surface of Winged Migration, exhaustively unpacking the use of technology in relation to the “natural” quality of the outcomes. Lerberg (2010, p. 44) commented that the birds were comfortable being viewed and filmed, and that they were aware of the presence of all the bulky equipment and the crew members. In this case, the genuineness of all footage is doubtable. The abovementioned NYT critic also noted how the filmmakers shied away from showing the gore in nature (2003)—images of birds devouring their preys or of the birds shot by hunters, for instance (Loftus n.d.). There are also scenes that were staged (still complying with the “no special effects” though), including one with a Red-Breasted Goose brought down by an oil spill, in which the “bird actor” were placed in a mimic-oil mixture (Loftus n.d.)

howbirdsrfilmed
A filming technique and vehicle similar to that in Winged Migration (Source: BlackKittyIsTheBest 2016)

The layman audiences on RottenTomatoes and IMDb noticed the same subtle signs of staging in filming and in post, the major themes emerging from their reviews are:

  1. The use of CGI for scenes featuring the birds crossing continents and deserts is “obvious”, though acceptable since such techniques were used sparingly;
  2. Stunning as the film is, the cutting and editing of some parts were rather “flat”, anything seemingly “unscripted” were hastily cut and patched with other sequences, making the outcome “hurried” at times.

…Depends on individuals’ interpretations.

One commenter on IMDb made a rather snide remark:

“It is so incredibly beautiful that to miss it, you must have very little appreciation for nature.”

As much as I wanted to preach to the choir, maybe what he/she said is not truly the case for those who fail to see the beauty in Winged Migration, seeing that there are plenty of IMDb and RottenTomatoes users reaffirming that the film is what enlightens them about appreciation for nature.

Amazing footage. Wondrous and emotionally engaging, and I don’t even like birds. (a reviewer on RottenTomatoes)

Even if you don’t like birds you will find this fascinating. (a reviewer on RottenTomatoes)

Most of those who cannot enjoy the film might have been cognitively “trained”, in a sense, to pay attention only to anthropomorphised content. Anthropomorphism is employed, traditionally, mainly for attractiveness—“nature uncut and unedited is never as dramatic and captivating as nature on screen” (Mitman n.d., cited in Russo 2013), and few people would be enthusiastic about watching hours of natural nature footage no matter how “exact, accurate, and nuanced” the scenes are.

In the case of Winged Migration, despite criticisms by some viewers and critics (see above), it is the background music, the beautiful scores (although sometimes overdone), that pull the audiences closer, act as an indirect force for the film to capture its (reluctant) viewers focus, for them to then enjoy the wondrous avian journey. Since individual interest and inclinations have such strong influence on whether a completely natural wildlife film can captivate its audience (Nash 2014, p. 232), as much as one might criticise the music for “artificially” attracting audiences, I personally believe this practice is justifiable.

wingedmigration_snippet
Sequence from the film (Source: Birds Ducks GIF 2016)

An audience study by Nash (2014) which examines audience’s interpretations of Bear71 (a similar non-narrative documentary) has proven that, even when given narrative-free content, members of the audience still impose certain storylines and schemas on the content presented, despite the producers’ promotion of various ways of thinking (p. 232). This holds true—from my reflection on some of the observations I made above about the film’s trailer, it is notable that the majority of them are heavily shaped by my own interpretation of the narrative-free footage, based on how I had been “conditioned” and the frameworks they had established from my years of viewing NatGeo and BBC’s productions. Though the film might have completely refrained from physical anthropomorphism, emotional and cultural anthropomorphism are, in contrast, more intrinsic to human empathy. 

Ultimately, with Winged Migration, most of the anthropomorphism does not occur during filming nor post-production, but in consumption, when it is all in the viewers’ mind. Even when anthropomorphism is used, it is subtle, and only serves to raise moral awareness by touching viewers emotions (Pollo et al. 2009, p. 1358).

Far-fetched as it seems, perhaps, what we have needed all along might be more films like Winged Migration to simply remind us of the untamed magnificence of nature and for us to be captivated by the pure beauty of the wild, with our mind free of adulthood’s judgements.

I showed it this time to my 9 year old daughter, and she was utterly enthralled, and kept repeating, “It’s so beautiful daddy…” (a reviewer on Amazon)

Mia (Minh-Anh)

 


References:

  1. Cinemusic7888 2015, Winged Migration (2001) trailer, online video, 16 June, Youtube, viewed 19 May 2018, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UX2XmvnLfQM >.
  2. Dwyer, J 2007, ‘A Non-companion Species Manifesto: Humans, Wild Animals, and “The Pain of Anthropomorphism.”‘, South Atlantic Review, vol. 72, no. 3, pp. 73-89.
  3. Elliot, NL 2001, ‘Signs of Anthropomorphism: The Case of Natural History Television Documentaries’, Social Semiotics, vol. 11, no. 3, p. 289.
  4. Holden, S 2003, ‘FILM REVIEW; A Beady-Eyed Perspective on Migrating Birds’, New York Times, 18 April, viewed 19 May 2018, <https://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/18/movies/film-review-a-beady-eyed-perspective-on-migrating-birds.html >.
  5. Leane, E & Pfennigwerth, S 2011, ‘Marching on Thin Ice: The Politics of Penguin Films’, in C Freeman, E Leane, E Watt (eds), Considering Animals, Ashgate, Surrey, pp. 29-40.
  6. Lerberg, M 2010, ‘Animals, Actors, and Agency: Navigating Winged Migration’, Studies in Ecocriticism, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 36-49.
  7. Loftus, D n.d., ‘Winged Migration’, documentaryfilms.net, viewed 13 May 2018, <http://www.documentaryfilms.net/Reviews/WingedMigration/ >.
  8. Movieclips 2011, March of the Penguins Official Trailer #1 – (2005) HD, online video, 16 June, Youtube, viewed 19 May 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7tWNwhSocE >.
  9. Nash, K 2014, ‘Strategies of interaction, questions of meaning: an audience study of the NFBs Bear 71’, Studies in Documentary Film, vol. 8, no. 3, p. 221-234.
  10. Pollo, S, Graziano, M, & Giacoma, C ‘The ethics of natural history documentaries’, ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR, vol. 77, no. 5, pp. 1357-1360.
  11. Russo, C 2013, ‘Wildlife documentaries or dramatic science?’, Sci-Ed, weblog post, 4 February, viewed 11 April 2018, <http://blogs.plos.org/scied/2013/02/04/wildlife-documentaries-or-dramatic-science/>.
  12. Swicegood, C 2003, ‘Winged Migration’, Journal of the American Federation of Aviculture, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 24-25, <https://journals.tdl.org/watchbird/index.php/watchbird/article/view/1758/1733 >.
  13. VanDerWerff, T 2015, ‘How March of the Penguins ruined the nature documentary’, Vox, 19 April, viewed 11 April 2018, <https://www.vox.com/2015/4/19/8446027/nature-documentaries-monkey-kingdom>.
  14. Wikipedia contributors 2017, ‘Winged Migration’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 December, viewed 12 April 2018, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Winged_Migration&oldid=813017339>.
  15.  ‘Winged Migration’, Amazon, viewed 12 May 2018, <https://www.amazon.com/Winged-Migration-Philippe-Labro/dp/B00BZB1IQ8/ref=tmm_aiv_swatch_1?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr >.
  16.  ‘Winged Migration’ n.d., sonyclassics.com, viewed 11 May 2018, <http://www.sonyclassics.com/wingedmigration/home.html >.
  17.  ‘Winged Migration—User Reviews’, IMDb, viewed 11 May 2018, <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0301727/reviews?ref_=tt_ov_rt >.
  18.  ‘Winged Migration Reviews’, Rotten Tomatoes, viewed 12 May 2018, <https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/winged_migration/reviews/?type=user >.

Images:

  1. Birds Ducks GIF 2016, image, tenor, viewed 29 May 2018, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/photos/2010/12/17/3095885.htm >.
  2. Birds Fly GIF 2016, image, tenor, viewed 29 May 2018, <https://tenor.com/view/birds-fly-snow-cold-sky-gif-7243566 >.
  3. BlackKittyIsTheBest 2016, that level of paparazzi, image, imgur, viewed 29 May 2018, <https://imgur.com/LfKnLc6 >.
  4. Winged Migration 2009, image, Wikipedia, viewed 29 May 2018, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winged_Migration >.

 

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