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If Nature Could Talk

5 Apr, 2013 By: Ashley Ratcliff

Disneynature presents ‘Wings of Life’ doc from a flower’s perspective

Hummingbirds, bats and bees each have their moment in Wings of Life, but the real star here is the flower. And it’s not just any flower. It happens to have the regal voice of actress (and avid gardener) Meryl Streep.

Writer-director Louie Schwartzberg, with 35 years of experience, takes a different approach in presenting an enchanting tale about the crucial, symbiotic relationship between pollinators and flowers from the latter’s point of view. Viewers may find this a welcome diversion from the usual man-looking-down perspective employed in many documentaries.

Streep was Schwartzberg’s first choice to narrate the story, calling her voice “timeless and ageless.”

“Meryl’s voice was perfect because, to me, the flowers were definitely feminine in terms of energy,” he said. “I think the story of these nurturing relationships is kind of the feminine side of nature. Women are closer to this whole idea of nurturing, having babies, creating cooperative relationships, synergistic relationships that work.”

Wings of Life is the latest effort from Disneynature — previously responsible for such films as African Cats and Chimpanzee — and lands on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack ($39.99) April 16 from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, just in time for Earth Day.

Through time-lapse and high-speed cinematography shot with cameras capable of taking 1,500 frames per second, and some with pinhole lenses, the film presents vignettes of pollinators and plants all over the world, from hummingbirds fluttering freely about the tropics to bats drinking nectar in the still of the desert night, to a million-strong monarch butterfly colony in Mexico.

“This intersection between the animal world and the plant world is like this magical moment where life regenerates itself,” Schwartzberg said. “It’s an amazing interface. When you think about it, every day that intersection is what enables life to go forward on this planet. Plants are the only true solar collectors that can take light energy and turn it into food, fuel and medicine. Without the help of pollinators to reproduce, we wouldn’t have that connection to the ultimate source of energy. It’s a really big idea.”

The most difficult shots to capture involved the orchid bee and the bucket orchid, Schwartzberg said. Wings of Life opens with this enthralling account of how one bee puts itself in danger, flying through an orchid that is filled with sticky nectar.

The flower nearly traps the bee, but in the process, it performs the vital pollination process. The bee narrowly escapes, and all is well.

“We’re lucky we got that shot,” said Schwartzberg, who said the crew had just arrived in Panama and had to move quickly to catch the action, which happened as the flowers opened up after the rain. “I loved that story because it wasn’t the typical Pollyanna win-win situation. There’s a little bit of deception. It was certainly highly risky … something that would be completely surprising and almost death defying. He barely makes it out without drowning.

“We nailed it on day one, which was a miracle because wouldn’t have had another opportunity after that,” he added.

Creating Wings of Life was a 15-month-long endeavor, Schwartzberg said. Filming took place in more than a dozen areas, including the El Rosario Preserve in Michoacán, Mexico, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Park in Arizona. About 200 hours of footage was filmed.

Each location presented its own unique variety of wonderment, but Schwartzberg counts the monarch butterflies in Mexico as the ultimate experience.

“You’ve got millions of butterflies flying around your head,” he said. “The sound of the wings fluttering against each other — it’s like being surrounded in a New England fall environment where leaves are just flying around your head constantly. I think it was the most spectacular place I’d ever been to in my entire life.”

As a filmmaker, Schwartzberg said he learned a great deal from the research he conducted and the information he received from scientists.

One-third of the food we eat comes from pollinating plants, so it’s important that we protect them. Wings of Life provides tangible ways that people can help sustain these plants.

“I know how difficult it is when people hear of global warming, for example,” Schwartzberg said. “You think, ‘Oh my God. The ice cap is melting. Gee, what am I going to do about that?’ And you feel unempowered. When it comes to this particular issue, the beautiful thing is, we can all do something. You can plant a garden. You can grow a tomato. Support your local organic farmers. All those things, besides creating healthy food for you to eat, it’s a great educational experience for parents to have with their children. Teach them biology and botany and the whole essence of where their food comes from.”

Schwartzberg said the reaction viewers have had to Wings of Life is his very mission behind making the film: to celebrate the little things in life that we take for granted, to “have your mind blown” by the commonplace, and to encourage people to stop and smell the flowers, if you will.

“The fact that we can turn people on with the beauty of nature, to fall in love with things in order to protect them was really what I was striving to do,” he said. “I love revealing things that the human eye can’t see, that are what you might consider ordinary. You can walk by a flower all the time but you don’t give it a second look. I think once you’ve seen the flowers open and seen that relationship that they have with pollinators, after watching this film many people look at their garden in a completely different way.”

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