Love Connection: ‘Wings of Life’ Director on Getting Up Close and Personal With Plants and Pollinators

Photos courtesy of Disneynature

“I’m a flower,” Meryl Streep narrates near the beginning of the utterly mesmerizing new Wings of Life documentary by Louie Schwartzberg. “I’m going to tell you, on behalf of all flowers, about life from our point of view. You think we’re just fragile wisps of beauty, unaware that beauty is our strategy.”

The Disneynature feature, out on DVD tomorrow, takes an intimate look at the relationship between flowers and their pollinators — from milkweed fields that draw millions of monarch butterflies to cactus fruits that lure pregnant bats from across the Sea of Cortez.

“It’s a love story really, a love story that feeds the Earth,” says Schwartzberg, whom we interviewed by phone. (He’s the only cinematographer in the world who has been shooting time-lapse 24/7 continuously for over three decades; credits include American Beauty, E.T. and Men in Black.) Schwartzberg says it was the escalating bee crisis that “really motivated me to push hard and make this movie. We’re hoping people will be inspired by the beauty. Beauty is nature’s tool for survival — you protect what you fall in love with.”

The hummingbirds were shot in Panama. Schwartzberg says their fierce, “kung-fu” altercations were one of his more surprising discoveries during shooting.

The hummingbirds were shot in Panama. Schwartzberg says their fierce, territorial “kung-fu” battles were one of his most surprising discoveries during shooting.

The film employs time-lapse, high-speed and macro cinematography. The result is astounding: We see a bee’s anguish as it attempts to escape the trap of a bucket orchid. We see the as-yet-undiscovered ripple in the wings of a monarch in flight. We see the individual quills on a hummingbird’s head as it closes in on a juicy bloom.

So much for the old saw about technology alienating us from nature. Wings of Life brings us closer than we’ve ever been to the fragrant, unseen calculus that is our ecosystem.

“Technology can actually be a gift and an ally in showing us things the human eye can’t see,” Schwartzberg says. “Flowers growing and moving in a way that rivals a ballet dancer, hummingbirds doing amazing pirouettes. Technology opens up our consciousness to that. It makes us better human beings.”

Below are a few shots from the documentary, plus a must-see clip of a hummingbird in action. Hungry for more video? Entertainment Weekly’s Family Room blog has almost seven minutes of breathtaking footage.

(Photo credit: All photos courtesy of Disneynature.)

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What of those hapless bachelor bees who fall for (and into) the seductive curves of the bucket orchid? The flower’s tight squeeze allows it to affix its pollen to the bug’s back. “It kind of reminds me of the guy going from bar to bar, who keeps on blowing it. There’s a comical side to it. And it’s relatable to the human experience.”

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During their overnight stays in central Mexico, monarch butterflies literally bend fir trees with their weight.

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Shooting took place over a year and a half, in Mexico, Panama and California, including the director’s own home in Los Angeles. “When you serve nature, it makes you more present,” Schwartzberg says. “It helps you to get the shot but also forces you to be in the moment. When your eyes are wide open, you’ll learn something you never knew before.”



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Meryl Streep narrates throughout, assuming the perspectives of orchids, pitaya cactus flowers, and wildflowers. “She’s an avid gardener, and added intelligence, compassion, integrity — and a sort of knowingness,” Schwartzberg says. “And because it’s about cooperation and relationships and nurturing, I thought the story needed to be told from the feminine point of view.”

These gasp-inducing scenes help to remind us that “we are a part of nature — not apart from it.”

These gasp-inducing scenes help to remind us that “we are a part of nature — not apart from it.”

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Schwartzberg, who was raised in Brooklyn, began shooting time-lapse wildlife footage over three decades ago at UCLA. He quips, “Thirty-five years boils down to roughly 12 hours of material. That’s a lot of patience.”

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What can we do right now to halt the disappearance of essential pollinators? “Plant a garden. Put a tomato plant in a pot on the back of your porch. Plant a pollinator-friendly habitat on your windowsill.”