Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Making Monsters #26: The Birds
Hitchcock was famously a big fan of special effects and the control of shooting conditions they allowed him, preferring soundstages, rear projection and other techniques in situations where most other directors would have chosen to shoot on location. So while The Birds was a famously complicated production, I imagine that Hitchcock must have relished its technical challenges. The special effects supervisor was Ub Iwerks, who used a technique he developed while working at Disney called the sodium vapor process. An element is filmed against a screen lit with sodium vapor lights; the image is captured on two different film stocks, one of which only captures the sodium vapor wavelength. Compositing these two elements greatly reduced the visible matte lines typical of early blue screen effects. The result is that dozens of individually photographed mechanical and real birds seemingly occupied the same shot; the effect (intensified by the incredible sound design) is still chillingly believable almost fifty years later.
The most memorable scene in The Birds, however, borders on documentary. While the scene where Melanie (Tippi Hedren) is assaulted by birds in the Daniels' attic relies as heavily on careful angles and editing as the shower scene in Psycho to maximize the feeling of violence, the fact remains that the scene was largely captured by hurling real birds at Tippi Hedren for five days. The very real fear and exhaustion on Hedren's face lingers long after the movie is over; why is it that Hitchcock, who was happy to use effects to substitute for reality whenever possible, felt that it was necessary to actually place his leading lady in harm's way? I haven't seen The Girl, and I'm suspicious of any account of history taken from one perspective. But it's clear from The Birds itself that director was capable of cruelty, both towards his actors and his audience; he was cold, calculating, immensely brilliant and attuned to the dark side of existence for reasons we may never fully understand.