The Best Special Effect

Winged Migration

Four years in the making, the documentary Winged Migration is beautiful to watch yet empty. (Full disclosure: I slept through most of the final half hour.)

For all the time, money, and effort spent filming migrating birds, would it have been too much to ask to bring an editor on-board to turn the result into something a bit more compelling? I’m not asking for the Errol Morris treatment or the philosophical underpinnings of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi/Powaqqatsi/Naqoyqatsi trilogy. I merely want an organizing principle to hold my interest when the pretty pictures start looking repetitive.

So much is right with Winged Migration — the cinematography, the framing, the sound, the intimacy — that this glaring shortcoming makes me angry. I’ve nothing against nature documentaries — Microcosmos remains a sterling example — but the makers of Winged Migration are too satisfied with their footage and techniques. (This is also the root of the lazy filmmaking that afflicts most IMAX titles.)

The real value of Winged Migration is in showing the effectiveness of hard-won images. It would likely have been easier and cheaper to create all the shots in the movie with computers, but they wouldn’t have the impact of these no-special-effects versions.

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) has degraded the cinema experience. What’s missing from movies these days is a sense of awe: “How’d they do that?” For a little more than the past decade, that question has been replaced by a yawn.

Fortunately, it’s still easy to spot CGI additions to movies. The 1986 version of The Fly does the best job of explaining the difference between organic and digital. In the movie, Geena Davis’ character tastes a steak that’s been teleported and then one that hasn’t. She can’t explain the difference, but the teleported steak — the one that’s been put together by computer — tastes “synthetic.” The same is true of CGI; it just looks fake, no matter how well done it is.

And that’s what makes Winged Migration a wonder. You know — you can sense and see — that the pictures are real, and they make you ask: “How’d they do that?”

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