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Tracking the Monarch Migration

  • Posted 01.27.09
  • NOVA

For most of his career, director and cinematographer Nick de Pencier was more interested in filming artists and dancers than wild animals. A few years ago, however, he set out to pursue monarch butterflies. In this interview, learn why the monarchs' story—and the adventure of filming them—captivated him.

Director Nick de Pencier (center) began chasing butterflies as a boy on Toronto Island. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Kevin McMahon

A HERCULEAN JOURNEY

NOVA: What compelled you to make a film about monarchs?

Nick de Pencier: They're a big part of the collective psyche, I think, all over North America, but certainly where I was from. I grew up on Toronto Island, which is on Lake Ontario. My childhood was full of images of these creatures, and of metamorphosis, so that seed was planted early.

The specific idea for the documentary came from reading Sue Halpern's book [Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly]. It's a story that, in some ways, is pretty arcane—the story of just one insect, but it's so well-written and the characters are so rich that it resonates with universal struggles. I wanted to tell that kind of story with the film.

Do you have memories of watching monarchs in your backyard as a kid?

Yes, exactly. As a kid, you see this butterfly just in your own backyard, and you know that it flies away, but you don't know where it goes. Making the documentary, I met lots of people who have equivalent local stories. By following the monarchs, I was able to get a panoramic view of this incredible Herculean journey and how we are all connected to it.

Did you actually take the journey of the monarchs yourself?

I did. After the shooting the first year, which we did with a big crew, we realized that we didn't have the whole story. So then I went out—just me and a camera in an RV—and I drove through all the states, consecutively, right down to Mexico and camped in the mountains.

Adult monarchs can feed from almost any flower, which helps them on their transcontinental trip. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Kevin McMahon

Did you ever think about focusing on just one butterfly's journey?

Obviously, we couldn't follow one butterfly all the way. That would have been impossible. In drafting the original script, we thought of trying to tell the story through the struggle of one butterfly. But we realized that wasn't important.

Some natural history films, like Meerkat Manor and others that successfully anthropomorphize animals, have a lot more to work with. Monarchs aren't exactly primates. They are such small animals. Yet it was essential that viewers could see the butterfly as having the characteristics you need for drama, which I truly believe it has. It has the perseverance to go on this journey, against all odds, with a kind of heroism.

Maybe what captivates people watching the film is the almost mythic, magical quality of the migration, rather than identifying with one particular butterfly.

Yeah, that is what we discovered.

MIGRATING TO MEXICO

It astounded me that the extent of the migration wasn't understood until fairly recently.

Yes. It was a big mystery that was solved by citizen-scientists and the tagging programs. Eventually, enough tags were recovered that they were able to understand the migration patterns and where the butterflies went. Obviously, the locals in the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico have known for centuries about the monarchs' over-wintering sites, but science didn't discover them until the 1970s. It was a National Geographic article that really broke the story.

So even in the 1960s, scientists in North America were aware of monarchs in specific locations, but they didn't know where they were going?

They didn't. The sites in Mexico are extremely remote, far off the beaten track, and they're at high altitudes. There aren't a lot of reasons to go to those places if you're not looking for butterflies.

"Their ability to navigate relative to the size of their brains is astounding."

Watching the film, I felt like I was flying along with the butterflies. How did you do the aerial shooting?

At the beginning, I wanted to use a very expensive camera mount on a helicopter called a Wescam. We could only afford one day with it, which meant that we couldn't get all the representative landscapes between Canada and Mexico from the air. But we had a spectacular day and a great pilot, and I think the footage really does elevate you.

Filming from a hot-air balloon turned out to be the best way to simulate a butterfly's POV. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Kevin McMahon

Later on I discovered that, in fact, a hot-air-balloon ride is a much closer approximation of the speed and the way that butterflies fly. We did a few of those, and if I could do it all again, I probably would forgo the super-expensive helicopter day for 10 or 15 balloon rides.

We also had a wonderful ultralight flyer, which we used to shoot aerials right in the Sierra Madre Mountains.

When you were in the mountains in the ultralight, were there butterflies right around you?

There were some fairly close to us, but they don't really appear in the footage because we were flying faster than they do. We certainly didn't want to fly right into a big cluster of them.

In some shots, closer to the ground, it seems like the camera is one of the butterflies, flying with them. Was that hard to capture?

It was. It's hard to get their typical flight because the French DP [Director of Photography] or I had to basically run along beside the butterflies with the camera for a short period of time, so they tend to go into more of an evasive flight than a cruising or gliding flight.

I didn't realize they were flying away from you!

Pretty much.

In their winter sanctuary, the monarchs gather by the millions, clinging to mountaintop trees and to one another. These clusters provide warmth that helps them survive. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Kevin McMahon

EUPHORIA

Of all the challenges, what was the trickiest moment in the film to capture?

The biggest gamble, with the highest stakes, was the one day that we were allowed up into the sanctuary in Mexico, where you are not technically allowed for non-scientific purposes. We made the case that, if we were extremely sensitive and went with the scientists and the local guardians to make sure that we were not overstepping bounds, the benefit of raising awareness about the monarchs would outweigh any downside to us being there on that one day.

So we had to struggle to get there—bureaucratically and physically. We were lugging up a lot of equipment. We had a 30-foot jib arm to put the camera on to film the clusters of monarchs high in the trees as well as lots of other gear.

We went towards the end of March, when the butterflies are still in their winter mode. It is still very cold at night, and they are just hanging on the trees in suspended animation.

It could have been raining, so many other things might have gone wrong, but we got exactly what we wanted in terms of butterflies in their dormant winter state. And it was the time of year when the sun is starting to give enough radiation during the day that they can warm up their wings and start to fly around. We had a beautiful sunny day, and the sun warmed up the whole sanctuary. So we didn't just get the shots of them hanging motionless, we got them flying by the millions and millions.

The film also shows the butterflies arriving, so I assumed you filmed in the sanctuary multiple times.

We had filmed lower down, not in the sanctuary itself, in October-November, around the Day of the Dead, when the monarchs begin to arrive. They arrive over the course of about a month. Eventually, they all gather higher in the sanctuary on just a handful of mountaintops. The aggregations we saw in October were amazingly impressive, but nothing like the numbers we saw later.

In March, we were at the center of the biggest colony of that year. Personally standing there, you cannot help but be moved, and it really hit home for me how important it is to tell this story. With millions of butterflies flying around us, it was a feeling of euphoria that is indescribable.

At that point you also had been invested in the project for many months.

Exactly. In a way, it was the payoff for all those efforts. And it was the end of the journey. It's amazing how parallel the journey of the film was to the journey of the butterflies—with tons of challenges and pitfalls and zingers and everything along the way. So that really was the climax moment. It was a moment I will never forget.

What does it feel like to be surrounded by millions of monarchs? De Pencier calls it a feeling of euphoria that is indescribable. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Kevin McMahon

WORTH THE WAIT

I want to jump back to the beginning of this incredible journey. Was it hard to film the caterpillar first hatching from its egg, and then the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis? How do you plan for that?

It's funny, in the few years since I shot that, cameras have changed. They now have something called picture cache, where you can basically press "record" and have the previous six seconds of time recorded. If I had had that when I shot the metamorphosis, I would have added years to my own life span. I spent so many hours tensely waiting, not wanting to miss the key moments.

We would have two or three chrysalises set up, well-lit for filming. But there are tons of false starts, and I have swaths of blank HD cam tape where I thought it was about to happen. I spent sleepless nights trying to capture it.

So there aren't clear signs of when a butterfly will emerge?

Well, the beautiful emerald-green chrysalis does become less opaque, and you can start to see the black and orange through the outer casing—that's a tip-off that it will happen within about a day. But all I could do was have 10 or a dozen in that situation and just basically stare at them.

"The only way they survive is through this magical process."

Once the butterfly begins emerging, does it happen quickly?

It's very quick—a matter of minutes. Then they pump fluid into their wings, and within an hour the wings have dried and the butterflies are ready for flight.

Given all the waiting and the false starts, how did it feel to actually film the birth of the butterfly?

That's another magic moment. I had a privileged view of a pretty spectacular phenomenon.

Any other special moments?

Some of my favorite production moments were when we had a butterfly tent in our backyard and I had time-lapse cameras set up in the basement for metamorphosis. I have two young kids who were ecstatic to have our house co-opted for butterflies.

So your kids will have childhood memories filled with butterflies, too.

They will.

By documenting the monarchs, and in particular calling attention to the threats to their sanctuary, de Pencier hopes to help the population. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Kevin McMahon

MYSTERIES AND DANGERS

I'm awed that these little creatures can fly 50 miles a day and even more. What do you think is the most amazing thing about monarchs?

For me, it's the navigation. They can be blown way off course, and scientists have Fed-Exed them across 10 states, east to west, and after a day or two they will get back on the right course towards Mexico. They have built-in compasses, somehow. We really don't know how. And just like planes and boats, they often have to compensate for different wind directions. Their ability to navigate relative to the size of their brains is astounding.

You follow them in the film as they cross the Great Lakes. How important is it that they have resting places on boats?

They certainly can make it without boats, but there were Great Lake sailors who told us about their boats suddenly being covered in a blanket of monarchs, so they are obviously happy for the rest. And they are smart enough to wait for favorable winds to give them a better chance of crossing the lakes.

Do they have a hard time going through urban areas?

Since they are such opportunistic feeders, they are well-adapted. The caterpillar can only survive on milkweed, but the adult butterfly can drink nectar from any flower. So that helps them all a lot. What doesn't help them, I am sure, is the amount of land that is being turned into parking lots. But lots of people plant butterfly gardens, and anyone with a flower garden is helping.

I loved going down in the first week or two in September, with my camera, right among the skyscrapers of downtown Toronto and looking up. No one else is looking up, but if you do there are a thousand monarchs.

Lincoln Brower, one of the experts in the film, says that their migration—how they know where to go—is still pretty mysterious.

I think it's part of the nature of science that there always have to be mysteries.

Is it true that there are other monarchs in the world that don't migrate?

That's right.

Where are they?

There are quite a few populations. That's why the migration, if it were to be compromised and the whole population that relies on it to exist were to collapse—which is a very real possibility—it would not be the end of this species. So we are not talking about a species in danger of becoming extinct globally, but it is an endangered phenomenon.

There are monarch populations west of the Rockies that migrate to California, a much smaller migration. There are a bunch of tropical populations that are non-migratory. There is a group in Florida that doesn't migrate, and there are monarch butterflies in Spain and outlier populations even in the South Pacific. But the greatest population, by far, blankets North America east of the Rockies for all the warm months and then migrates to this tiny area in Mexico for the winter. The only way they survive is through this magical process.

The fate of large migrating populations of monarch butterflies remains uncertain. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Kevin McMahon

In the film, you ask Lincoln Brower "What difference would it make if we lost the monarch migration?" He compares it to losing the Mona Lisa. Now that you have spent so much time with these creatures, what would it mean to you if the migration disappeared?

There is good change in the world, and bad change. The collapse of the monarch migration, both in terms of the particular loss and in terms of what it would represent about where the planet is going, would be devastating.

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