Sunday, July 24, 2011

Interview with Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward, directors of The Crimson Wing - 25th June, 2009

Promoting: The Crimson Wing
Venue: Cineworld, Edinburgh Film Festival
Interview type: One-on-two

ViewLondon (VL): Can you say a little about how the film came about?

Matthew Aeberahrd (MA): Two different points of Leander and myself but both distilling around these images that were shown to us by our friend Stefan Hotrell, who was a microlite pilot and he'd been flying over Lake Natron, giving us this view down through the reflected surface of the water and you could see these wonderful colours, the reds and the greens. They're literally out of this world and they kind of blew our minds and we realised that yes, we had something different here and this was a location worthy of a big screen film.

Leander Ward (LW): And then we needed a through-line and the more we uncovered the place, the more we realised that it was significant to the flamingos – I mean, I'm sure Matt knew that already but I didn't – it was amazing to learn this fact, that it was the only lake that they bred at in East Africa. And then we got back to the UK, having finished the separate projects we were working on, and started thinking about putting some energy into this and we spent years in this little box of an office, hacking away. And then with the help of Matt's wife Mel [writer Melanie Finn] we sort of boiled it down into something much more defined that we could really go out to people with, that felt like a film.

VL: Why flamingos?

MA: I just think epic spectacle is the simplest way to put it. They're the ornithological equivalent of the wildebeest migration – no-one knows anything about them. In front of us at Natron in the year we were filming, we had nine hundred thousand birds breeding – that's quite a phenomenal sight.

LW: I think also, one of the things we wanted to do was have a strong music background to the film, have the film kind of propelled by the music. The tradition of many of these films is exactly that. We just realised that these birds were incredibly musical, the way they dance and the way they fly, the rhythms that they take on. So that was an exciting aspect.

VL: Are you at the point where neither of you ever want to see another flamingo again as long as you live?

MA: Not on film! (laughs) I spent a year at Natron after the film, after the edit – I went back there. It's time to move on to other things now, but certainly I would always want to go back and spend time at the lake there.

VL: Puffins next?

MA: Puffins are pretty sweet, yeah. Could be a good Scottish angle there.

VL: The incredible flying shot with the reflection of the birds underneath was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. You've created a whole generation of screensaver material there. How did you get that?

MA: That was the mirror-like surface of the lake. The water is just a level plain because it's so thick with salt. It's very dense and doesn't ruffle with the wind. That particular shot was actually taken from a hide, on a hill, looking down and then panning along, but it gives you the sense of movement because there's no reference point.

VL: Another incredible shot was the shot that's right alongside one particular flamingo as it's flying along – how did you get that shot?

MA: That's either taken from the hovercraft or again, from a high angle but with a long lense just focussing on a detail of that. Just to give you an idea, the previous shot was taken from hundreds of yards away, but with a very long lense.

VL: How does something like that happen? Do you just point the camera and hope for the best?

MA: I think you have to work for the images. You have to move around and look for details in the landscape that you can pull out and isolate. So it's a lot of work, but yes, if you see something you think is really good then you just grab it when it's happening. But knowing what is good, that's something that comes from experience, that's the craft of it.

VL: I gather you broke the Attenborough Code and intervened in the case of the flamingo chick with the salt shackles?

LW: Well, we weren't the first to do that. I know that a very well-regarded wildlife film-maker called Alan Root that Matt worked for came across a lot of these anklet chicks back in the late 60s – at Magardia Lake in Kenya, a lake next to Natron – and because conditions were right, the birds would cross over from their breeding ground. But there were literally a hundred thousand of these little things with these anklets and he spent about five days, with a group of people, just hacking all these salt shackles off. It was a big, big mission. So we just did the few that we saw and it's very hard to leave something like that, you know?

MA: I don't think it's about breaking the Attenborough Code. I think why not, you know? There are those chicks with anklets, lots of them die, the ones that we filmed we happened to just chip them off and give them a second chance. It doesn't affect anyone or anything – we're not denying an animal food. These things would just die and become mummified on the salt. I think maybe the interference element is when you interfere to deny something food, like saving a gazelle from a jackal, say, you're depriving the jackal of its meal for the day, so that's not justifiable, but in this context there's no harm either way.

LW: It would have been worse if we'd broken off the anklets and then eaten them.

VL: Was there anything that you cut that you really hated to lose?

LW: I think we'd have liked more time to comfortably get everything. We did very well in the year we had, but it was pressured and there were certain things we might have wanted to develop that we couldn't.

MA: We had enough time but we had a few toys that we didn't really make use of, because basically, the sharp end of wildlife photography is just a guy with a camera and the more you add to that, the more complicated the process is. So just getting the main story was the first thing and then we ran out of time to play around with some motion-control stuff, gyro-mounts and stuff like that.

VL: Is there a shot you're particularly proud of? A favourite scene?

MA: In terms of shots I'm happiest with, I like some of the shots where I filmed faces in rocks. They're not obvious, but for me it was hard to get the lighting right, go there on the right day and frame those shots in a way that worked best. They're small, little things but that's what I worked hardest at to get right, myself.

LW: I'm happy with the wing-flick shot I took. The first time you see the birds and they make that movement with their wings – it was a real surprise when it happened and I caught that and was pleased with that.


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