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.