Director, producer, and cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg has spent a large portion of his life capturing the beauty of the natural world. Wings of Life showcases his innovative high-speed, time-lapse, and macro filmmaking techniques, and more importantly his subjects: butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, bats, and flowers—the unsung heroes of our planet. Unfortunately, these heroes are increasingly under threat, lending a sense of urgency to Schwartzberg’s desire to portray what he considers "one of nature’s most beautiful and fundamental dances." Louie introduces a trailer with some of this breathtaking photography below, and was kind enough to answer a few questions about Wings of Life for us as well.
What do you want viewers to take away from Wings of Life—beyond enjoying the simple beauty of these plants, creatures, and images?
I hope that viewers will protect the pollinators by falling in love with the beautiful story of how they interact with flowering plants. Without their help we would lose a third of the food we eat, as well as ecosystems that sustain life for billions of animals and plants. When you begin to see the big picture of how pollination, a keystone event that is the foundation of life on our planet, could unravel due to mankind's negative impact, you begin to appreciate these diminutive animals that we often take for granted.
What sparked the idea of using the flowers/plants themselves as the narrator? What did Meryl Streep bring to the table?
Many nature documentaries tell the story from the human point of view. I wanted viewers to feel and see what it would be like to be a flower or pollinator, to tell the story from their point of view.
I believe that beauty and seduction is nature's tool for survival, because you protect what you fall in love with. I also wanted to tell the story from a more feminine, nurturing point of view. Too often nature is portrayed as predator and prey, survival of the fittest, kill or be killed. The truth is that nature's story is more about how we are all connected, cooperative, building symbiotic relationships. I felt that Meryl Streep's voice would be perfect because it is intelligent, compassionate, timeless and her integrity and passion for gardening would inherently come through her narration.
You’re a director and cinematographer (e.g., artist) as much as you’re a technologist. Do you see the two as mutually exclusive? What do you love about the high-speed digital cameras, pinhole lenses, and all the other gear you’ve employed over the years?
As a director you want to weave all the elements to tell the most entertaining story. As a cinematographer you master the tools that enable you to capture magic moments in order to tell a compelling story. My toolkit enables me to take the viewer on a journey through portals of time and space. To see things which are too slow, too fast, too small for the naked eye. We filmed events that our scientific experts had never seen before in that scale or time. I enjoy heading out on a voyage of discovery, seeking to identify and connect with the intelligence and wisdom of nature, unveiling the mysteries of the Universe, without traveling to deep space or across the planet, just being aware and grateful of what is under my feet in my own backyard.
So much of the film is this wonderful time-lapse photography, and your bio states you’re “the only cinematographer in the world who has literally been shooting time-lapse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week continuously for more than 30 years.” Dare we ask how much time lapsed to get all the shooting done for this particular film? What draws you so consistently to time-lapse photography?
Three decades of filming time lapse flowers, one frame every 20 minutes, which is 2 seconds of screen time in a 24 hour day, has netted me almost 12 hours of time lapse flowers. So I have squeezed 30 years into 12 hours, now that is compressed energy. For “Wings of Life,” I was able to select the ultimate shots which fit the narrative of the film, so viewers are seeing the creme de la creme of that effort. After all these years I still never get tired of seeing the results of these flowers moving and dancing to the light. Each flower is unique, and each movement is a masterpiece of choreography.
The bats in the desert moonlight were a particularly striking image (in a film full of them)—they barely seemed real. Incredible stuff. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges of shooting that particular footage?
We waited, and waited doing a week of all nighters and eventually we were able to get the shots we wanted.
Aside from the technical aspects, what was it like to simply be among those millions of butterflies while getting the Michoacán footage? Does the gear or the task at hand (shooting) ever get in the way of simply taking in the beauty of such a place?
Yes the gear makes it more of a challenge, but that is what I live for. I am not happy to just enjoy the scene for myself. I want to share it, that is my joy and passion in life. If I was looking up at millions of butterflies my mind immediately starts mapping approaches to capturing the event in the most startling way. Cameras on zip lines to fly with the butterflies, cranes sweeping near the branches to capture the moment they cascade on the trees, slow motion shots of them landing and taking off from their watering hole, I can't stop visualizing the way to get the ultimate shot. Without my cameras I would feel frustrated. It's not a very Zen statement, but I would rather be in the zone capturing the fantastic, than soaking it in just for my own enjoyment.
You’ve contrasted the subject matter here with that of the more predator/prey-centric nature documentaries. This one presents an idea of life as a great collaboration between species. What can humans learn from these relationships? What is the danger in not learning?
Great question, the film seems to have delivered on my intention of having viewers think differently about nature and our role in it. We are a part of nature, not apart from it. Since we and other large mammals sit on the top of the food chain, we need to be conscious of the little critters that make the world go round. Our path to sustaining life on this planet is cooperation. Maintaining nature's cooperative relationships and building new cooperative relationships to realize we are all in this together, and whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves. We have the technical and scientific know how to avert a massive extinction event on this planet. What we lack is the change in behavior, we need a shift of consciousness, and that is what I hope this film can provide.
Reviews will inevitably get a laugh with “the birds and the bees,” that great euphemism and convenient stand-in for our own biological processes. What can younger viewers learn from the film?
Pollination happens to be this mystical, magical, keystone event, where the animal and plant kingdoms intersect, billions of times each day, that sustains life on our planet for us and millions of other creatures. Certainly younger viewers will be enamored with the beauty, understand the connections, and protect and nurture flower and pollinator habitat.
Finally, Disneynature contributed to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF) to celebrate this film’s debut. What would you say to viewers about getting involved in conservation or learning more about the issues specifically affecting bees and other pollinators?
I am grateful for Disneynature’s contribution. DWCF will be working with pollinator non profits and build awareness about protecting pollinators and flower habitat. The end credits of the film is very solution oriented.
The good news about this environmental issue is that we can all do something about it and at the same time improve our health and receive the benefits and joy that comes with gardening and eating tasty organic food that comes out of your garden. Anyone can plant a tomato bush in their yard or porch. We can grow flowers in our windows and bring joy and color into our lives. We can support your local organic farmer by buying at farmer’s markets. This is all about making the right choices, and living with those results. It is up to all of us to create a sustainable environment for future generations.