The Next Birding Movie, part 2: it's no walk in the park

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  Back on July 14 I wrote about a feature-length film, A Birder's Guide to Everything, that was about to start shooting under the direction of a remarkable young filmmaker, Rob Meyer.  If you don't want to scroll all the way back to that date, you can read my earlier post at this link.

In August, at Meyer's invitation, I had a chance to visit the set for a few days.  Now, I've watched a lot of movies but I didn't know much about how they were made, and it was fascinating to have this behind-the-scenes view.  Although this isn't a filmmaking blog, this particular movie has birding as a main element, so I figured it was legit to write about it here.  To keep things manageable I'll break this up into multiple posts rather than writing one incredibly long post. 

So, class, today's lesson: there is a HUGE AMOUNT OF WORK that goes into making a film!

Seriously.  I was stunned to see the dedication and the attention to detail that went into this work.  The first full day that I was on the set, I was there for more than 12 hours, but some members of the crew were there before I arrived and after I left.  I figure it was about 14 hours of work altogether, involving seven actors and more than 30 members of the crew, and they were focused and pushing hard the whole time. 

How much footage for the final film did they produce during that 14 hours?

About two minutes' worth.

Yes, I'm serious.

They were shooting a scene outdoors.  Work on it had begun weeks earlier, with scouting out the location.  They had chosen Teatown Lake Reservation, a beautiful wooded park in Westchester County, north of New York City.  With all the proper permits from the park authorities, they had set up along a trail through open woods.  The scene was of an encounter between two groups of birders - four teenagers and three adults.  I had read this scene in the screenplay months before, and hadn't given it much thought, but it was remarkable to see the effort that went into putting this short scene on film. 

Early morning on the set. Part of the crew has arrived; they're working to set up the first shots of the day.

The pressure's on to get today's filming done during the available hours of daylight.

The scene starts with the four teens running out of the woods to the edge of a clearing, and pausing for a moment before exchanging a few lines of dialogue. When you see it in the film, it will look simple. But filming it was anything but simple. 

The camera crew was using two cameras (huge, professional cameras) to shoot the scene from two angles.  When the kids ran up and stopped, their positions had to look random and natural, but they had to be positioned so that the faces of all four were visible to both cameras.  They had to be positioned so that no odd shadows fell on their faces, and so that no background elements were in awkward spots (e.g., so that no one appeared to have a tree growing out of their head).  In running up to their positions, they had to avoid crossing in front of each other in ways that would look awkward to either camera.

Of course, the director and cinematographer and camera operators were all on top of these details, planning them out carefully in advance, but there were other considerations.  With repeated "takes," the costume and makeup people had to swoop in periodically to make sure the appearance of the characters stayed consistent from one shot to the next.  With the passage of time, the light kept changing, so part of the crew was discreetly setting up lights and reflectors off-camera to keep the lighting consistent. The sound crew was constantly monitoring how things were being recorded, and sometimes a take would have to be redone because of background sounds that couldn't be edited out. 

In the left foreground, one of the sound crew with part of the sound equipment. In the left background, a giant reflector to keep the angle of sunlight on the main scene looking consistent. To the right, people running around attending to innumerable detailed tasks.
Somewhere out in front of us, a scene is being filmed. The director and art director and script supervisor are watching the big monitors under the canopy to see what the cameras are seeing, while costume and makeup and other departments wait at the ready, poised to jump in whenever needed.

And those were just the things that I, as an amateur, happened to notice.  The professionals on the crew were attending to a zillion details.  When we watch the finished film, we won't notice most of these details - but if they were wrong, we would notice subconsciously, making it seem less realistic and less compelling.  The pros have to put an extraordinary amount of effort into making it all look totally natural and easy. 

What was my contribution?  Nothing, really; I was just there to observe.  I did check out the birds in the area during an afternoon lull, and reported my results to eBird, using the BirdLog app.  Mostly the birds you'd expect on an August afternoon in the forest: Red-eyed Vireos still singing, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, etc., with the highlight being two Pileated Woodpeckers that flew right past where the crew was filming.  But the film professionals were intensely focused on their work, and I didn't have a chance to point out the big woodpeckers to them. 

Teatown Lake Reservation, NY: habitat for Red-eyed Vireos, Pileated Woodpeckers, and a film crew.


  1. Wow, that IS a lot of work! What a wonderful opportunity you had to watch them all doing their specialized parts of the production. Thanks for writing about it, Kenn, and I look forward to your next installment. ~Kim

  2. this looks like it will be a good film. looking forward to it very much.


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