SK Films has released Flight of the Butterflies in 3D, an IMAX/giant screen film that details the true story of the scientist who spent 40 years researching the incredible epic migration of the monarch butterfly. Using, among other technologies, a specialized 3D snorkel camera designed by Peter Parks for close-up photography, the feature film features spectacular real footage of the brilliant monarch butterfly sanctuaries.
Flight of the Butterflies 3D IMAX Movie Trailer
In 1975, Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart, assisted by legions of volunteer "citizen scientists," uncovered the mystery of the monarch butterfly migration, ultimately discovering their over-wintering site in the 10,000-foot high mountains in Mexico.
The compelling story and spectacular imagery proved irresistible for Director, Producer and Co-Writer Mike Slee and Executive Produce Jonathan Barker, who had worked together on SK Films' multi award-winning IMAX release Bugs! 3D as well as the ghost story Legend of Loch Lomond. The beginnings of Flight of the Butterflies in 3D can be traced back to the success of Bugs! 3D, which was shot in Borneo.
A unique yearly life-cycle allows the fall generation of Monarchs to migrate 2,000+ miles to a warmer climate. Click image for larger view.
"In Bugs, there is one shot where the riverbed in the tropical forest in Borneo is full of butterflies," says Slee. "We spent a lot of time trying to make it work in 3D. When the movie played in cinemas, the reaction from the audience to that scene was spectacular. We had people standing on the seats trying to grab the butterflies, which appeared to be flying around in the theatre. We thought, Wow, this is perfect! How do we make a whole movie about butterflies?"
Barker agrees. "Bugs was so successful on the giant screen market that we really felt that it indicated there was an appetite for the tiny little world of insects in 3D on the giant screen," he says. "Butterflies was both a human and a natural history story. One of the things that attracted us to it was that we weren't going to be making another insect movie but one that involved a dramatic story with humans. It was a way to build off what we did before...and do something different."
The story of Dr. Fred Urquhart and the 40 years he spent trying to discover the mysteries of the monarch butterflies' journey and secret winter hideaway was a well-known story, notes Slee. "Mixing the two stories -- of the butterflies journey and one man's search for them -- became a real trigger," he says. "It encouraged me as a filmmaker to try to weave these two stories together. It was actually really, really difficult. I was surprised by how complicated it is to tell two narratives in 40 minutes in a feature film style."
Above left, BTS U.K., Systems Designer Macro Photography Peter Parks and Dir. Mike Slee. Middle, Dir Mike Slee and Producer Jonathan Barker. Right, Mike with a Monarch blessing his shoulder.
BTS Director Mike Slee. Click images for larger view.
Although Slee often wished for 90 minutes to tell the story, the giant screen/IMAX marketplace is focused on institutional cinemas that plan to have audiences in and out within an hour. "The short films of 30 minutes is one thing," says Slee. "But 44 minutes is very difficult as it's a very awkward in-between length for storytelling -- neither one thing or another."
The advantage of having an international story -- especially since UNESCO had declared the monarch butterfly reserve in Mexico a World Heritage Site in 2008 -- was clear in the support the project garnered. The movie received major funding from the National Science Foundation (including an extensive Educational Outreach Program built in partnership with The Maryland Science Center) and the Mexican Federal Government.
One of the major things that had changed in the nine years since Bugs! 3D was made was technology. "The single biggest change was the digital universe and what we're able to do with digital," says Barker, who reports that Bugs! 3D was shot in 8-perf 70mm film and optically blown up to 15/70. For Flight of the Butterflies, the filmmakers used a pair of RED Epic (on Element Technica and P+S Technik rigs) and a pair of Phantom digital cameras as well as 15/70 film and Nikon 3Dx and Canon 5D cameras for time-lapse photography. Barker reports that because the 4K cameras only go to 120 fps, they used the Phantom Gold 2K camera to capture one scene of a butterfly lift-off at 550 fps. "It was so stunning that we took it for our test shoot and put it in the movie," he says.
The production team also benefitted from a prototype macro snorkel system built by inventor Peter Parks, who won a Technical Academy Award® for his snorkel system used on Bugs! 3D and most recently worked on The Tree of Life. "He devised this snorkel system to shoot tiny things in 3D," explains Slee. "You need to bring the two camera lenses closer together than is physically possible. He created a way of using prisms and bending the light path that allowed us to have the equivalent of the cameras being 1 to 2 millimeters apart. That was quite extraordinary. It meant we could film a butterfly's head and have the cameras the same distance apart as the eyes on the butterfly."
This Monarch butterfly is drinking in this close-up. Click image for larger view.
According to Slee, the team used the snorkel before it was truly ready. "I cajoled Peter into allowing us to use it before it was fully tested," he relates. "He had a long-term development plan and when I told him I'd be photographing the macro photography he said he thought he could get it ready." They spent three weeks filming in a very small garden in the U.K. "We built a set that was meant to be the Texas wildflower meadows, the Midwest corn belt and Canadian flower garden and filmed all the macro material," he says. "Because this piece of technology was so secret at the time, Peter insisted that the important parts were covered with duvetyne while we were shooting. He'll officially unveil the actual product next year."
Barker talks about deciding on cameras for specific scenes in the production. "Although I've been making IMAX films for 20 years, this is the first time I've captured for the giant screen in digital," says Barker. "We tested gear and actually tested going all the way out to film. We're still not at a point where 4K digital image capture provides sufficient resolution for aerials and big wide shots. It will fall apart when it goes to 15/70. We tested the cameras to decided how wide we went before we switched to film."
Since a 3D IMAX film such as Flight of the Butterflies took two years to film, the technology also changed during the production. "Every single piece of technology we used was upgraded at least once if not two or three times, with better storage, better stereo capabilities, during the process of making the movie," says Slee. "The savior of natural history filmmaking is to be able to run the digital camera continuously to the hard drive and then save the data if the action is exactly what you want."
Click image for larger view.
Click image for larger view.
Click image for larger view.
Slee describes one spectacular scene towards the end of the movie where hundreds of thousands of butterflies burst from a tree. "We rolled the cameras for hours hoping that burst would happen," he says. "What the technology allowed us to do was continuously overwrite. When the moment happens, you know you have 60 seconds of data. Then my job is to say cut...there's our minute of magic. That's a big advance in technology. With Bugs, I rolled $3,000 worth of film every few minutes."
There is one spectacular scene towards the end of the movie where hundreds of thousands of butterflies burst from a tree. Click image for larger view.
The amount of data they recorded in the field was "unbelievable," says Slee. "With the Phantom, we were shooting at 4K resolution, the highest end we could be recording at that frame rate," he says. "We had to dump data live in the field, which is the scariest thing that a director or DP could do...to decide to dump original footage when you're 10,000 feet up on a mountain."
"We had to dump data live in the field, which is the scariest thing that a director or DP could do...to decide to dump original footage when you're 10,000 feet up on a mountain." Here, the crew drags the rig up the mountain. Click image for larger view.
The main reason for dumping data in the field was when the butterflies got too close to the camera and the stereo would fall apart. "The DP and stereographer stood beside the camera and watched the distance the butterflies wee from the lenses and decided what shots were no good," he continues. "So we'd dump data and carry on. It was a bit like wiping shots off your camera while you're still on holiday."
"Cinematographer/stereographer Simon De Glanville and Director of Photography Paul Williams understood how to photograph nature because they've been doing it all their lives," he continues. "They were prepared to wait and also prepared to say there's no point in waiting. You don't have control in photographing natural history, and that's unique to this kind of storytelling. We had to be in the right place at the right time and make sure everyone is ready when the magic happens. This is the kind of movie that is brought to life because of this special breed of cinematographer and stereographer who have this experience with shooting nature."
Systems Design Macro Photography Peter Parks. Click image for larger view.
The difficulty they had capturing butterflies in 3D illustrates his point. "Butterflies go wherever they want to go," he says. "You can learn from watching their behavior that they generally fly towards the light, but when you're filming, the light is everywhere. We had about a week up the mountain where the butterflies were flying to close to the camera and the shots were falling apart."
They wracked their brains on how to resolve the dilemma. "When we observed them more closely, we saw that they actually zigzagged to say in the sunlight in the woods," says Slee. "We put giant shades over the top of the camera and extended them out so part of the screen in front of the camera was shaded. The butterflies then would come towards the camera and as soon as they hit the shade, they would turn away. It was an artificial force field. Now we had some control over the behavior of the millions of butterflies. The shadows held them in the right place. It was a great solution to what seemed to be a high-tech problem."
The MX Crew makes their way up the mountain; set up and filming follow. All images enlarge with a click.
Click images for larger view.
Slee calls himself "very happy" with the choice of cameras. But despite the adoption of digital acquisition for IMAX/giant screen movies, he still harbors some doubts about the ability of even the highest resolution digital cameras to capture the necessary detail. "Film has an almost infinite ability to record detail whereas digital has a set number of pixels," he says. "I think even some of the DSLR cameras at 8K and 12K are not capturing the essence. They may be technically capturing the data but film still has this curious chemical granular beauty, which is subjective. If you want to shoot a late evening look of a massive landscape full of detail, you shoot on 15/70 and walk away with it. If you shot it on digital, you'd have to do a bit of work and cross your fingers."
The difficult production environment made some "fix it in post" inevitable. "Especially in natural history, you have the most amazing content but the light wasn't right or the camera wasn't operating properly," says Slee. "You're always making a decision. That's the story of the post process...making sure you have the narrative and the highest quality imagery. And if you don't, to figure out what you can do to make it better."
"You edit conventionally but everything has a technical element," he adds. "Are the cameras running in sync? Is the quality of the image going to work in context? You can shoot some slightly lower resolution but how you juxtapose the images will either show that you switched cameras or you won't notice."
Susan Shipton (known for The Sweet Hereafter and Barney's Version) edited Flight of the Butterflies in 3D, on an Avid at Pinewood Studios in Toronto. "I wanted to bring the perspective of a feature film editor into this rather than a documentary editor, says Barker. Shipton cut in 2D and then watched it on a 3D TV. "Occasionally we'd throw up sections on the 4K projection system in the building and go up close to semi-simulate the IMAX system and see if there were issues that needed adjustment," he says. "There wasn't a lot that needed adjustment while we editing. It was gratifying that the decisions we made in the edit room held up on the bigger screen."
Choosing Shipton paid off. "She brought the ability to hang onto the narrative at all times, even when every technical issue was trying to encourage us not to use a shot," says Slee. "It was a constant battle of story versus technical quality."
For example, there were a few times when the cameras lost sync when they were pushing the limits of high-speed photography. "Some scenes are at 550 fps at the highest resolution we could get at the time," says Slee. "As you go faster, you have to drop resolution because you can't record the data quickly enough. We had a test day to see how fast we could go and still have the quality we needed for IMAX, and we did a couple of shots at 550 fps in 2K."
Filming in the Butterfly Sanctuary. Click image for larger view.
One memorable shot is a butterfly taking off. "We had to work on the surround of the frame," says Slee. "We zoomed the image slightly smaller to get the action part of the frame at 4K and we added the edge of the frame -- greenery and some surroundings -- in post. We called these frame extensions. Probably 10 to 20 percent of the movie has frame extensions, and it's actually changed my thinking about how IMAX movies can be shot on digital camera systems."
OnSight and Dimenxion, two visual effects companies in the U.K, did the CGI and frame extension work. "I've seen lots of visual effects in 3D and it's very tricky," he says. "You have nowhere to hide and the ability of the human brain to spot a sleight of hand in 3D is many more times than the ability to spot it in 2D. With IMAX, it's even trickier, because when you look at a normal size cinema screen, your eye can make allowances -- you know you're looking through a window. In IMAX, it fills your vision including your peripheral vision. With a conventional screen, a butterfly can fly through the frame and disappear. But in real life, things don't fly past and vanish. We had to put the butterflies in the sweet spot of your vision but have them fall away before they get to the edge of the screen or they appear to disappear. It's called breaking the frame and is one of the many challenges unique to IMAX 3D filmmaking."
In post, they also discovered that they needed sharpening to bring the image quality up to the expected level. According to Slee, they used a whole range of techniques to sharpen the image, ending up working at Deluxe in Toronto. "I didn't realize this was going to be an issue, but when you have a shot of hundreds of thousands of butterflies, you don't want to use the same sharpening as a car driving through the frame," he says. "The amount of sharpening and how you apply it is different when you have a screen full of busy, busy animals. A couple of times, we'd sharpen things and it would look worse than when we started, and we'd have to change it. The process was laborious."
Husband and wife duo Prod. Jonathan Barker and co-Writer Wendy MacKeigan in the butterfly sanctuary MX.
The Digital Intermediate was done at Deluxe and FotoKem. The music score was by Audioflot in Mexico and Tim Cavagin mixed the audio at Twickenham Film Studios in the U.K., with sound design by Canadian Peter Thille. Tim Wellspring and Rick Gordon supervised post production. "This was a Canada/Mexico/U.K. production," says Barker. "The reason the film went to all these places was to take advantage of all the incentives.
For Barker, making his first large-format 3D film digitally was less of a learning curve and more about his anxiety as to whether it would hold up on the big screen. "Because I've put a huge amount into this film and had a lot riding on its success, I was afraid making it in digital would undermine its quality on the big screen," he says. "It was vey, very gratifying that it worked, and the reason is partially because the film is so strong. It's a really good example of the truism that if you make a fabulous film, you get forgiven. I'm extremely happy with what we have. And we couldn't have done it if not digitally so, in a way, there's nothing to discuss."
From Slee's point of view, technology is to be embraced, as long as it doesn't become the tail that wags the dog. "Ultimately my responsibility was to hold the story and the characters and the emotions in a place where people had access to it," he says. "It's all very well using every toy and piece of technology and giant screen 3D, but if you haven't got peoples' interest and they don't care, it's all been a waste of time."
In fact, Flight of the Butterflies in 3D is nothing of the sort. It is, rather, a dazzling example of how digital technology can be used to enable storytelling that otherwise would have been much more limited in scope. As resolution of digital cameras continues to move upwards, storytelling for the giant screen has the opportunity to tell more and different kinds of stories without the constraints of film or low-res digital.
Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart depicted in his youth. Click image for larger view.
All images courtesy SK Films
ACADEMY AWARDS® is the registered trademark and service mark of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED.