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Winged Migration: Special Edition

The first thing one wonders — and then continues to wonder — just moments into Winged Migration ("Le peuple migrateur," 2001) is one of the oldest questions in cinema history: How did they do that? Producer/director Jacques Perrin's acclaimed film stunned audiences at film festivals worldwide, and earned a theatrical release in the U.S. in 2003, for one basic, and yet profound, achievement — capturing birds in flight by placing cameras directly within their migrating formations. Needless to say, the results are entirely hypnotic. After all, there is no other animal on earth that humans see more, and yet interact with less, than birds. City dwellers share sidewalks with obstinate pigeons, suburbanites often will draw common species into their backyards with feeders, and rural folks only have to look into the sky to see flocks of geese honking at each other as if arguing over their loosely drawn formations. Most birds are neither scarce nor exotic, but they remain essentially mysterious — the only living remnant of the mighty dinosaurs (their distant ancestors), our encounters with them are brief as they stay in place for a moment or simply cut a path across the sky. However, most of Winged Migration presents birds not as we see them, but how they see themselves — when scudding across bodies of water just feet from the surface, or crossing a high country, looking down through passing clouds at vast expanses of timber, the filmmakers' cameras remain one with the flock, capturing this evolutionary miracle. Their grace is notable — most of the time they don't flap at the air as much as smoothly carve into it like expert downhill skiers. And their natural instinct for flight is remarkable, as they make constant corrections in gliding air to maintain or lose altitude, finally spilling away lift when they're moments from the ground. It's easy to think the filmmakers' have done the impossible, or somehow cheated by making us think what we're looking at is genuine, until it's made known that the formation footage was done with their birds. Through the very natural phenomenon of imprinting, several species were purposefully bred in France for the production, where they latched on to human parents and were trained to fly with wingless guardians piloting ultralight aircraft. The four-year production (with a crew of 400) then traveled around the world with their flocks, capturing them in locations as diverse as the Arctic Circle, Manhattan, Monument Valley, Paris, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the Himalayas. Many other species were filmed while on location the old-fashioned way — camouflage, silence, and patience — and while they aren't seen in close formations, the footage is still remarkable. Notably, the filmmakers don't try to hide the fact that some birds don't survive their annual migrations. This footage (a bird caught in an oil slick, an injured fowl captured by beach crabs, geese shot down by hunters) is presented as tactfully as one could hope for, but parents may want to have a preview spin before sharing the movie with young children. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Winged Migration features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and intermittent species/location subtitles (from the theatrical presentation, and apparently non-optional) shown as digital content. Supplements include the wonderful "Winged Migration: The Making of" (52 min.), which is an invaluable assembly of pre-production and B-roll footage. A featurette on the musical score (18 min.) includes comments from composer Bruno Coulais and others. Producer/director Jacques Perrin delivers an enthusiastic English-language commentary, while additional interview footage and the theatrical trailer round out the set. Keep-case.

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