Eldey Island, where the last pair of Great Auks were killed in 1844. The island, which lies about 15 miles off the southern coast of Iceland, is home to one of the largest colonies of Northern Gannets in the Atlantic. (photograph by Todd McGrain)
Garefowl, Penguin, Pinwing, Gordo, Moyacks, Great Apponath, Geirfuglar, Wobble, Binocle—these are some of the names given the Great Auk by people who lived on the coast of Europe, north to Iceland, Greenland, to Newfoundland and down the eastern seaboard of North America. Swift and agile swimmers, able to dive to great depths, the Great Auk lived most of its life at sea.
In the spring, auks came with their life-long partners to mate on the isolated rock islands of the North Atlantic. Flightless and awkward on land, the Great Auk was extremely vulnerable out of the sea. Although it had been hunted for thousands of years and was an important fresh meat source for early explorers, its numbers began to decline significantly in the 1500’s as it was overexploited for sale in the fish markets of Europe. In the 1770’s, its numbers were decimated as men corralled the birds by the thousands, and, using some of the birds bodies as fuel, boiled the auks to harvest their black feathers.
By 1800, the last population of Great Auk found refuge on a remote island off the coast of Iceland. In 1830, a volcanic eruption pulled the island beneath the waters of the sea leaving the fragile population adrift. The remaining few took refuge just off the southwestern tip of Iceland on Eldey Island, within easy reach of man.
Todd McGrain’s memorial to the Great Auk is located on Fogo Island, Newfoundland.
See The Great Auk drawings by artist Todd McGrain:
Question:Can you describe how you collaborated with director Deborah Dickson to compose the music for The Lost Bird Project?
Composer: Deborah and I have worked several times before, and so we have a pretty comfortable and familiar working relationship, which is very important. She’s very good about fostering a sense of trust, and giving me free reign to try ideas out. They don’t always work, but what’s important is that she’s very encouraging of me to explore, and find something that works. I, in turn, invest myself heavily in the composing process, because I know that she’ll be open to my ideas. It works great.
Question:Tell us about scoring a film so that it can support and enhance what’s happening in the film?
Composer: I try to look at the film from the director’s perspective as much as possible. I ask myself a lot of questions… about the motivation of the characters, about the director’s intent in selecting a certain scene, etc. It’s not always an easy thing to figure out, and many times I just have to call Deborah and let her talk me through what’s going on at any given time in the movie. It’s not always easy to watch a film from the director’s shoes, instead of the shoes of a composer.
Question:How do you work on your scoring so as not to overpower a scene?
Composer: It’s about having restraint, really. I have a pretty full musical life writing music away from picture, where I can indulge in whatever attention-grabbing musical gestures I want. But in the context of a film, I have to set that aside a lot of times and let the dialogue, camera work, and editing be half the composition, so to speak. In some ways scoring a film is a lot easier, in that there’s already a built-in interplay between the music and visuals that exists the moment you start looking at the picture. My job, then, is to find the right balance in that interplay.
Question: What instruments and instrumentation did you decide to use specifically for this?
Composer: We wanted to go for a really lush, romantic sound. Maybe it’s because Deborah had been spending a lot of time in Rome, but early on we talked a lot about Italian film composers like Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. You’ll hear a lot of that sort of romantic writing in the score. As such, we recorded the score with a chamber orchestra in Prague… it’s mostly a lush, string-heavy score, with some light woodwinds to add a little humor and character.
Question: What were the unique challenges about composing for this film?
Composer: Early on I was a little too ambitious about the type of score that I was going to write. I was fresh off of winning two Grammys for my album work at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards, and I was feeling a little superhuman at the time, so at first I tried writing a score that could also double as a violin concerto. That was a big mistake. Concert music and film music are two separate beasts. Deborah very patiently let me work that out of my system, and once I stopped trying to achieve an ideal and instead just started focusing on what the film was asking for, the notes started flowing freely.
Question: What do you love most about composing film scores?
Composer: It’s funny, but I often say that, even though I love writing music that exists purely for music’s sake, oftentimes my best music comes when I’m scoring to picture. The Lost Bird Project is no different. I was really inspired by some of the gorgeous imagery in the film, and when I finally worked past my initial struggles and started paying attention to the film that was in front of me, the music took flight, so to speak. So the thing that I love best about scoring films is the inspiration I get from them. If you’re listening to my music and you think that it’s beautiful, then don’t compliment me… compliment the director, because I’m only channeling what I see in musical form.
Question:You’ve had an incredible breadth of experience in your career as a filmmaker. What were the producing challenges unique to this film?
Producer: Interestingly, several times in my career I have been asked to make films about subjects about which I have not given much thought or in which I have not been intrinsically interested. The Lost Bird Project was one of these films. When Andy and Todd came to me to discuss making a film about finding places to put sculptures of extinct birds, it did not immediately strike a chord. But when they started both describing the stories of the birds and how they became extinct, my interest was piqued. I figure if I can become interested, then there is probably a way to interest an audience.
The challenge of the film: why would anyone want to watch a movie about two guys who drive around North America trying to find sites for large bronze sculptures of five extinct birds that few people have even heard of? How do you make an audience care about what happens? The key – as it is in all films – was to find the big themes, the things people do care about. In this case, it is learning enough about the wonderful quirkiness and beauty of these birds to care about their loss, it is in seeing anew how seriously (and unthinkingly) humans have damaged the environment, and it is in understanding that even small steps – steps that individually might seem insignificant - can actually make a difference. One of the parts of the film that really resonates with me is when they are talking about the preserve that was created for the Heath Hen in the 1930’s: it was the first time people had tried to save a species from extinction, it did not work, but it raised people’s consciousness and set the stage for future successful efforts.
Question:What do you like least about filmmaking?
Producer: I like two parts the least: (1) the beginning, when you feel like you do not know what you are doing…you are awash in a sea of information without form or shape (but having said that, it is also an energizing, exciting time); and (2) the middle of editing, when you are awash in a sea of footage that seems to have no form or shape…a point where you think that this is a complete disaster – the one that you have always been afraid you would make some day.
Question:What was your favorite part of this project?
Producer: My favorite part of filmmaking is almost always that moment in editing where the film starts to come together. It is a time when the stray scenes that didn’t seem to fit - snap into place…and what had been a lumbering string of events starts to feel like a movie.
Question:What do you love best about filmmaking?
Producer: I love the thinking, the learning, the talking and the editing. Filmmaking is like a puzzle and I like the process of fitting the pieces together. I also love the collaborative nature of film.
Question:This film draws several threads together into one story— can you describe the threads and your interest in each and the challenges you faced in directing a film like this?
Director: The Lost Bird Project draws together the story of five North American birds driven to extinction and artist Todd McGrain’s mission to create memorial sculptures and to place them in the sites where the last birds were seen in the wild. I was fascinated by the stories of the birds and moved by McGrain’s idea of making memorial sculptures. Being primarily a cinema verite filmmaker, I chose to use McGrain’s road trip to negotiate the placement of the sculptures as the primary narrative arc—the plot, as it were. The action takes place (for the most part) chronologically. We decided, though, that we would only show the installation of a sculpture at the end.
Question:What was the most exciting moment in the process of directing and editing this film?
Director: The most exciting moment during production was the helicopter flying the box which contained the great auk sculpture out to the point on Fogo (Newfoundland, Canada) where it was going to be installed. As I watched the box overhead, spinning madly, I knew it was going to be an important scene (and of course, I couldn’t avoid thinking how very Fellini-esque it was.) Actually, the entire experience in Fogo was amazing—especially the installation and dedication of the Great Auk memorial. The people of Fogo are incredible. When they all showed up for the dedication, I knew I had an ending for the film.
In terms of editing, the breakthrough moment was having the idea to begin the film with the box being flown in (knowing I was going to end with the dedication in Fogo.) I like how mysterious yet compelling it is. The other exciting moment, of course, was the screening where we knew that the film was working.
Question:Can you talk about the extraordinary use of music throughout and how it helps punctuate the film?
Director: This is the third time that Christopher Tin has composed the score for a film of mine. I love working with him—he is so talented and also very collaborative. Working with a composer is like the dessert course in the editing process. Music rules. It’s an incredibly powerful element in a film. Different music will change the feeling and meaning of a scene completely. So that means that the scoring must be done extremely sensitively because music can easily overpower a scene. What I love about Chris’s music is that it supports and enhances what’s happening in the film; it deepens the feeling—pathos or humor or whatever—without being illustrative or reductive.
Question:What is the Goal of LBP and how will it raise awareness?
Director: People don’t know the stories of these birds we drove to extinction. Todd’s mission in making the memorial sculptures and placing them in the sites where the birds once lived is to make people aware of what we’ve lost. And hopefully, the awareness of the loss will inspire people to take better care of the birds (and other animals) which are still here. The film has the same goal—to make people aware of the extinctions through the incredible stories of the birds and to inspire hope through McGrain’s beautiful memorial sculptures which ask us not to forget. And even more, to act.
“These creatures are extinct. We may never even have heard of them, but it’s a less rich, less animated, less wild world without them. It seems to me that if we can be reminded that they were once here, we can have something of an experience that’s a little more wild. You can look at the landscape and say, ‘this place was once animated by these creatures.”—Todd Mc Grain
The screening of the film on the island is significant because in 1908, the state of Massachusetts established a preserve on Martha’s Vineyard in an effort to save the Heath Hen, one of the five extinct birds McGrain memorializes in his sculpture project. Despite the protection, the species continued to decline. The last Heath Hen, a male, was seen in the wild on March 11, 1932 on the preserve.
The film follows McGrain through his effort to install a bronze sculpture of the Heath Hen in the Manuel Correllus State Forest on the island, memorializing the location where the last Heath Hen was seen in the wild 80 years prior.
A short video of the Heath Hen memorial dedication ceremony is below.
Directed by three-time Academy Award nominee Deborah Dickson and produced by Muffie Meyer, who directed the original documentary, Grey Gardens (with the Maysles & Ellen Hovde), The Lost Bird Project is a documentary about the stories of five birds driven to extinction in modern times and sculptor Todd McGrain’s project to memorialize them. From the tropical swamps of Florida to the rocky coasts of Newfoundland, the film follows McGrain as he searches for the locations where the birds were last seen in the wild and negotiates for permission to install his large bronze sculptures there. The film is an elegy to the five birds and a thoughtful and sometimes humorous look at the artist and his mission. The Lost Bird Project is a film about public art, extinction and memory.
Once, flocks of over 1 billion passenger pigeons darkened the skies for days. By 1900, a 14-year-old boy shot the last one. How did this happen?
On Jan. 20, Christie’s will auction a rare first edition of John James Audubon’s ‘The Birds of America’. The last time an addition of this seminal work of ornithological art came to auction was in 2010. That edition sold for 11.5 million dollars. This new offering is expected to bring an even higher price and in doing so will set a record for the highest sum ever paid for a book. Perhaps this landmark sale will be an opportunity to reflect not only on the monetary value of Audubon’s work but also on its profound importance to art, cultural and natural history.
As part of my research for the Lost Bird Project, I was graciously given access to the Audubon double folio housed in the rare books library at Cornell University. I arrived at the library with high expectations supported by a long interest in Audubon’s work and what I felt was a solid understanding of its significance. As the book was laid out and opened, I realized that I was not at all prepared for its profound beauty. Not only are the individual images much larger and more colorful than I had expected, they are also more handcrafted. Loose brush marks rest fluidly within the intricate black printing. These marks, made by professional colorists, are at the same time gestural and assured with an ease that only comes with great mastery. The book as a whole is a marvel. Leather binding with gold leaf trim offers the prints a context of grandeur and authority.
With white protective gloves and synchronized movements, Curator David Corson and his assistant Evan Earle folded back the pages. It was difficult to allow prints to be passed by without affording each a full inspection. I had, however, come to see six particular birds and we knew we needed to stay on task. The Great Auk, Labrador Duck, Heath Hen, Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon and the Eskimo Curlew were all depicted by Audubon. Today these birds are extinct.
Though Audubon was aware of and concerned about the plight of many species, his images are expressively optimistic, the sentiments well suited for his era. Audubon’s was a time of perceived abundance and natural richness. My task as an artist working today is different. My challenge is to find an appropriate way to depict birds that will never be seen, a representation that suits birds that only exist in history and in art.
As the pages were turned, I begin to notice that the backs of many of the images are stained with a mirror shadow of the print upon which they rest. These ghost images are often quite soft and would have been difficult to identify if not adjacent to the original prints that created them. The black ink of each print is slowly bleeding onto the sheet above. Through weight and time a new print is being formed. These impressions may only be soft recollections of the original, but in this softness I saw a tender companionship. I began to recognize these ghost images as poetic equivalents to the relationship between memories and the events that inspire them. Perhaps the elemental, subtle silhouette is the best form to depict a creature lost but not forgotten? I am honored to have had this chance to be inspired by this remarkable book and I am glad to know that it is secure in the Cornell collection.
Along with many Audubon enthusiasts, I will watch with interest as the bids rise at the upcoming auction. It will be news when Christie’s announces that they have sold Audubon’s ‘The Birds of America’ for a record-breaking sum. The true value of this book, however, will remain its ability to inspire appreciation for the birds of America, including those we have lost to the tragedy of extinction.