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The Crimson Wing - Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward interview

The Crimson Wing

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MATTHEW Aeberhard and Leander Ward talk about their documentary, The Crimson Wing, which takes a look at a year in the life of flamingos and the remarkable surrounding natural environment of Lake Natron in northern Tanzania, which has been visited by fewer people than have stepped foot on the moon.

They outline some of the many challenges of filming in such an inhospitable environment, the fear and wonder of watching the volcano erupt and the threat to the landscape posed by development…

Q. How long did it take for you to complete The Crimson Wing?
Leander Ward: Well, we met in 1999 and first discovered images of Lake Natron, in Africa, together that excited us, which had been taken by a friend of ours who had flown over it and got some video shots. We saw it and thought we had to do something about it. So, we started developing it around 2002… But it’s one of the most ambitious films you can try to make because there are so few of these. If it was a rom-com and we’d written a script, it might have been an easier journey. Also, if it didn’t look like it was working out, we could have left it. But we were so inspired by it and kept on being bolstered by the fact that we wanted people to see these images for themselves on the big screen. Things eventually found a place and we developed the storyline and we also started figuring out who might want to see it as a film, whether there was potential there and who our potential partners might be and started chipping away. Everything then seemed to come together in 2006.

Matthew Aeberhard: The filming was 13 months solid, which sounds like a long time but is actually quite a truncated period for a film like this. The editing period was as long as any other film you can imagine. We did try to make this a proper feature film. Numerous specialists helped us to make sure we put forward something that was a theatrical spectacle with a storyline… it’s not just a wildlife film that delivers information and fact. We wanted it to be a story where the flamingos become more than just birds.

Q. Do you think the success of a film like March of the Penguins – to which this has been compared – helped?
Leander Ward: It would be very wrong of people to think that we saw or heard about March of the Penguins and thought: “Let’s go and have a crack at this ourselves… but use flamingos!” We were developing this before anyone, including us, had heard of March of the Penguins. There was already a market that had been proved, by the French, whether they were theatrical wildlife films or whether they were in IMAX format. If you look at the 10 most successful documentaries of all time, you’ll find that most of them are actually IMAX’s that have been playing for years.

So, we knew there was a genre that had potential and the Holy Grail for anyone that makes films is to get your film in cinema. Matt had worked on two as a cameraman, so it all felt like we had the right experience to do it. But I think March of the Penguins interested the money people more and made them take a punt at what may have been seen a few years before like a fairly wild idea.

Matthew Aeberhard: The irony was that when we were developing this film we were told that there was never going to be another March of the Penguins. Having made it, people keep on referring back to it. We approached this from a totally independent position. There’s also a single story about the coming of age of the flamingoes, but then there are other layers on top of that, which might resonate with older people, or people who can think a little bit. It’s essentially a film about the regenerative power of nature.

Leander Ward: It’s a benefit, for sure, because we got to make the film. But it’s also a hindrance because everyone is comparing it. One of the things we’ve tried to do is be respectful to the audience and not patronise them. We’ve kept things as honest and real as possible. It’s also a film about a landscape that’s alive and which certainly came alive while we were filming there with the volcano erupting. But it is a landscape that’s constantly in transition. So, it’s a film about hope and transformation too.

Q. I was going to ask… the documentary states that the volcano only erupts once every 30 years. So, was it timed to coincide with this event or was it merely fortuitous that you were there to capture it?
Leander Ward: I had nightmares about it erupting while we were going out! I did my maths and was like: “Hmmm!” [laughs] One of the things about filming in Africa, though, is that the reality of being there is more extraordinary than the dream that you have. The first experiences I had of just being in a tent in a national park years before, with an elephant running through it. You wake up from a dream and then all of a sudden it’s better than the dream. And that certainly applied to the experience of seeing the volcano erupting. It was bizarre.

Matthew Aeberhard: I actually found it a little disturbing because our house was only 10km away from it. Potentially, this volcano can erupt cataclysmically. There are a number of mini-mountains by the edge of the lake, which are a previous incarnation of it. So, there was the potential for a big eruption. But I guess we learned to live with it, and the prevailing winds were away from us. But certainly for the local Massai [tribe], who lived in the direction of these ash clouds, they had significant health problems and problems with their pastures. The ash is quite poisonous.

Leander Ward: It also reinforces just how unique this place is. It’s the only place that these birds breed and it’s the only place where there’s an active volcano in that part of Africa. So, all these things coming together make it much more dramatic.

Q. It comes across as quite an inhospitable environment, what with massive storms followed by months of searing heat. What was it like to live there and film for that long?
Matthew Aeberhard: For me, it’s always just a privilege. I have to say… you go out to the salt flats and no one has ever been to this place before, or spent much time there… just a few individuals have helicoptered down for a day or two. But when you’re out there, it’s hot and you’re covered in salt. The salt gets into every little scratch and your clothes freeze with salt, so they start braiding you, and that stings. So, it’s tough. But on the other hand, you’re so absorbed in what’s happening in front of you, and it’s such an extraordinary place to be, that all of those physical discomforts are like: “So what? It’s part of the job.” I’d rather put up than put up with a two-hour daily commute into London.

Leander Ward: It was the longest I’ve spent in a place like that. But it was a beautiful year… very exciting. It was sometimes hard. I wasn’t as used to being out there, so I missed my friends and stuff at certain times. But it made up for it just having that view every day, and those hot springs to bathe in, and then of course having the adventure of going out on hovercrafts on the lake.

Q. How hard is it to keep your camera focused during some of the harsher elements of the story, because you don’t shy away from showing the tragedies that befall the flamingos, or the violence from predators…
Matthew Aeberhard: Well, you’re looking for that drama when filming, so when these things happen in front of the camera you’re absorbed in it. In some ways, you’re even excited about it because these dramatic scenes are the core of the film. Of course, upon reflection it is tough and it is sad, but that’s what makes these films important. It delivers a story to cinema that gives people to hang on to. We all know that life is tough and if we shy away from showing that in a wildlife film, what relevance is there in wildlife, or nature, or the environment? Bad things happen to good people – we all know that, so let’s be honest about these things and let’s present these as a story that has relevance to these things.

Q. Is there one shot in the movie that you’re most proud of capturing?
Matthew Aeberhard: Probably not shots that people would necessarily see as being good images. I’ve spent my whole working life filming in Africa and I like the shots in the film where I’ve got faces in rocks because they’re the ones that… we were trying to show this ancient land and I had to work the hardest to get those particular images. Trying to find the light and how it falls on the rocks…

Leander Ward: For me, it’s when the sense of anticipation has paid off and something has happened that you’d hope would happen. For example, there’s a shot fairly early on where the flamingos are doing their courting ritual and flick out their wings. That, for me, was kind of cool that I could predict it was going to happen and I caught it.

Q. There’s a footnote at the end of the film about the effect of climate change and pollution. How serious is that? How noticeable is the effect?
Matthew Aeberhard: Well, climate change no one really knows. The big problem for this lake is the soda mine that the Tanzanian government – or elements of the government – are proposing, which would be potentially catastrophic to the lake. We hope the film will at least draw attention to this place so that inappropriate development can’t happen without proper scientific studies being done to mitigate against those developments.

So, that’s the big issue. If people want to find out more, the RSPB are doing some enormously good work there with Birdlife International. Also, go to Tanzania and contribute to tourism because tourism is conservation in Tanzania at least. And perhaps you can write to the Tanzania government… but most important is plugging the RSPB campaign, and we hope the film will help that process. These were issues we couldn’t deal directly with in the film because the film is about entertainment. At the end we have the card that outlines the problems with the lake, and we very much hope that people will follow that up and play their part in helping to protect it.

Q. You have The Cinematic Orchestra on the soundtrack. How did you hear about them and how easy were they to get?
Leander Ward: I knew about them for years before. In fact, when I first started developing the project I was out in LA and there was a music guy I met who knew of them. We chatted about various different people to approach but both thought that The Cinematic Orchestra would be quite interesting. I think we let that sit in the back of our minds and then when the time came to make the decision we got more up to speed with what they’d done recently and the change of direction from their early jazzy style to the more ambient, electronic and lyrical style of their most recent work.

So, I just basically managed to get to their management, sent some pictures and the story, and was told that Jason had just finished working on his latest studio album and was up for working on something like this. I think it was a longer and harder journey than he expected, but it meant that he was much more engaged and connected to the process. Although he’s always alluded to cinematic music and really come up with his own interpretations of scores, he’d never done an original score for a modern film. So, that came with his own challenges but he’s done a great job. It stands alone, too, which is something we always wanted to do.

Read our review of The Crimson Wing