Do you ever wonder about those flocks of computer-generated birds flitting across the screens of so many of your favorite shows and films? I do. I'll be watching your average contemporary Hollywood film or TV show, but when I'm supposed to be gazing at the planet-destroying starship, giant robot, mythical behemoth, or fantastical cityscape, my attention always gets pulled elsewhere, focusing instead on much smaller things within the frame -- usually, those confounded digital birds flying around.
And they are everywhere, once you start noticing them: initially invisible, tucked into the branches of trees or snuggled under a derelict underpass. We didn't even know they were there; and then they burst into flight, flap and turn and are gone in a skittering black rush of wings. They cut across the barren Atlanta highways of TV's The Walking Dead. They soar from the middle heights of Peter Jackson's Isengard. In Man of Steel, some vast and sublime Kryptonian space-thing crashes into the Kansas fields, and there they are yet again, reliably fanning out from the crash site like the spray from an impact crater, a dark flurry of black birds erupting from the fields and flying swiftly away from danger and out of frame. In the midst of all the ornate action on screen, they're perhaps the least consequential objects in the frame. And yet I find myself seeing and thinking about them constantly. Like the overstuffed grocery bag and the unlocked door, fake birds are so common, and yet so inconsequential in modern Hollywood film. What are these things? What are they doing there?
Their first function seems to be in the service of some fairly straightforward notion of verisimilitude. After all, the world is filled with birds, so it shouldn't be surprising that films would incorporate them. But it would be easy enough to have a sufficient measure of verisimilitude in your film about hobbits or zombies or supermen without needing birds. No theatergoer ever said of such a film, "It was okay, I guess, but it just wasn't believable. I mean, where were the birds?" The cultural artifacts of the ancients make clear that they were obsessed with birds too: the owl, the raven, birds denoting good luck, birds of ill omen. But this isn't reverence, what we're doing with these birds all over the place on film. It feels different.
When you scrutinize the shots that contain them, you begin to discover that they aren't just there to make the unreal scenes feel a bit more real. These are instrumental birds. Part of what they are there for is to indicate, by way of comparison, the scale and grandeur of the sweeping landscapes and vistas that are so central to establishing the proper atmosphere of awe and beauty in film. This has been a familiar tactic in painting for centuries. To take just one example: in the lower right corner of Frederic Edwin Church's gigantic painting Cotopaxi (1862), which depicts an enormous volcanic eruption clouding the skies and the blazing sun, we find a tiny group of birds in flight in the bottom right corner, well beneath the vault of the high rugged cliffs in the foreground, minuscule against the backdrop of the sublime scale and power of the geologic world. If you didn't look closely at the tumult of the enormous painting, those deliberately placed birds would be so easy to miss.
The visuals in modern film share a lot with Church's work, but differ in one important respect: where Church places his tiny birds within the vast scope and grandeur of the largely non-human world, birds on film seem to exist chiefly in order to be placed in spatial relationship to the Great Works of Man. The towering cities, the new glossy CGI demi-gods, the enormous intergalactic entities, and mythical creatures of the deep-everything that once lived only in narrative and myth is now made lifelike through the wonders of sophisticated software. And after all the texture-mapping and motion-capture and such, how better to evoke some fleeting sense of awe or the sublime than to have some puny birds darting past for the sake of spatial comparison?
Birds on film are therefore important not in and for themselves but as part of a relation of figure and ground, as foils, or as objects that help us appreciate artificially rendered scale. It seems as if their function is to lend weight and sublimity to the glorious expanse of humankind's and Hollywood's technological prowess. At some point, somewhere in the dark corners of some digital animation studio, a version of this exchange must have taken place: "How's this giant robot fight sequence looking, boss?" "It's looking dope, man, but you know what -- you need to throw some birds on that!" And why not? In the age of easy digital manipulation of images, how could any self-respecting CGI artist or art director help himself? After all, birds are pretty, and so easy to animate; they are a staple in the mise-en-scène of modern CGI-saturated film.
The digital flock of birds functions as a convenient proxy for "Nature" in the modern cinematic imaginary, that realm of living energy against which Man, surrounded and beset by Nature but somehow set apart from it, acts out his private and public traumas. Except where they are protagonists of the non-talking (War Horse) or, more frequently, talking variety (Beverly Hills Chihuahua), today's films generally have little interest in animals qua animals, living their inhuman lives. These scores of birds we find littering our screens are never actors in the human drama, because in so many of these fables "Nature" itself, separated out from humankind, is chiefly employed as a cheap and easy ornament.
This is why these birds are nearly always rendered at a distance. Fake birds are important for their collective energy and motion, as objects meant to possess a vague kind of dynamic, living, animal presence, but they're entirely unimportant in any close-up or individualized sense. It's not the individual creature that has any standing or value, but the notion of the flock, of "Nature," as set-dressing in cackling, aggregate form: philosophically unimportant as fellow living things, but cinematically (aesthetically) essential in the frame, functioning in much the same way that filmed images of clouds and rolling waves are supposed to. They're shorthand for an emaciated natural world, a minor nature, beautifully and even lovingly rendered, but always subordinated to the comings and goings of man, the living object who matters.
Denatured birds are a perfect cinematic trope for an age that chiefly comprehends the non-human world as a site of throwaway resource extraction, while also romanticizing it with cheap spectacle. On one level, their background presence in the scene seems natural and lends the semblance of a casual authenticity or verisimilitude to the scene, without being obvious or intrusive about it (seriously, how many of us would ordinarily even register their presence, much less dwell on it?). But this presence is framed in an unthinking and reactionary way that reinforces an actual indifference toward and lack of interest in any genuine relationship with the non-human natural world. The world is ultimately just an inconvenient obstacle to stories of humankind's travails.
If you visit the exterior of One Chase Manhattan Plaza down on Wall Street, you'll see flat black silhouettes of birds in flight on each of the lower level's enormous glass windows. You can't inspect them up close because the plaza, just up the street from Zuccotti Park, has been walled off to keep unruly pedestrians away from the building for most of the past two years. In fact, from a distance, you might mistake the fake birds the bank has applied to their gleaming windows for the "public art" that modern corporations are so fond of. But the silhouettes of birds in flight are basically utilitarian. They are variations on the classic scarecrow, designed to keep birds from striking the glass and sullying the space.
I know from my childhood that there's a specific sound a bird smashing into a window makes. In the rear duplex unit I grew up in, the giant living room window looked out on a wooden slat fence, the roofs of adjacent duplexes, and the dry Sierra Nevada mountain range beyond. Since it was the best source of light we'd usually keep the curtains pulled back to let in the sun, and this meant that sparrows zipping through the air would, on a fairly regular basis, mistake the glass for a clear path and hurl themselves into it with astonishing force. My sister and I would usually catch a glimpse of the bird lying in the dirt beneath the window outside, its neck or wing broken, before my mother would walk away from us with the dying bird cupped in her hands and quietly, if not always quickly, end its suffering.
Birds would continue to meet their deaths against our living-room window, as I imagine they must against the towering glass skyscrapers of the modern metropolis-not frequently, but often enough for the terrible sound of their dying to become instantly familiar to us. We could have shut our curtains and remained in the dark, or affixed some deterrent image to the glass (as the massive bank has done) in hopes of steering the birds elsewhere. But we didn't. Maybe our comfort was worth more than the lives of a few insignificant birds, a mere handful among millions; or maybe we just didn't give it enough thought. But I remember with perfect clarity the sound of their deaths, and, when our mother wasn't there to do it, I would harvest the birds myself, and feel the warmth of their broken bodies in my trembling hands.
When dead birds materialize in sufficiently high numbers, they will erupt briefly into the news cycle, as they did in 2011 when hundreds were found littering the fields and roadways in Beebe, Arkansas, and, just a few days later, in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. There's something about the spectacle of a bunch of dead birds that has the whiff of the apocalypse about it, and nothing grabs our attention more than signs of Armageddon. It makes great copy, resurrects the conspiracy theorists, and briefly reopens heated conversations about the state of our imperiled planet. The fascination and creepiness of these stories comes from how things suddenly appear out of joint: seeing a landscape filled with fallen birds is rather like seeing your broken femur craned out at a new and unnatural angle. The world, this spectacle says, is in some kind of disorder and distress. But public interest soon wanes. In our way of thinking, these mass deaths are always an aberration, and we trust that the world will be set aright, and birds will be birds, flying freely as we like to imagine all birds do.
This is part of the reason why, on film, fake birds are nearly always a wing-beat ahead of disaster, escaping whatever harm humankind's blundering might bring to them. Flight is our oldest and most common metaphor for freedom, but this is because metaphor dwells in the land of make-believe, and so it can strip away the realities of flight and non-human life and focus only on what seems to be so liberating about it. Based on the evidence, it seems that birds need to be tucked in somewhere in the scene of modern films that, in their technological splendor, are as far removed from the natural world as they've ever been -- but those birds on film need to make a clean escape, too. Otherwise their symbolic associations with absolute freedom might be disrupted. But watching film after film, galactic battle after galactic battle and tower after tower, what I see in the tiny birds scattered everywhere is the unfreedom of another banal and unspecial effect: floating, silent, and false.