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Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds: Pre-CGI Ingenuity

The most remarkable thing about Alfred Hitchcock’s man (or woman, rather) versus nature thriller, The Birds, is that it was actually made. How did they make the birds do all that crazy stuff? There wasn’t any computer graphics technology back in 1963, you know. They were real birds… for the most part, anyway.

The most important player on Hitchcock’s team in chronicling the bird war on mankind was animal trainer Ray Berwick. Hitchcock didn’t quite know what he was getting into at first and quickly had to give up the idea of using mechanical birds if he wanted anything resembling realism (and, of course, being Alfred Hitchcock, he did). They had to use real live birds, and Berwick was the man who introduced the rest of the cast to their winged co-stars.

For almost a week, the cast — including Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Rod Taylor — were placed in large cages with the birds, and Berwick’s team basically just threw birds at them. The birds didn’t exactly “bite” the actors, but the experience proved to be overwhelming nonetheless with all that flapping and chirping and freaking out — Hedren would later go on to suffer a breakdown while shooting the famous “attic attack” scene.

After this week of intense “rehearsals,” production began on the difficult 75-day shoot, with Berwick and his team overseeing the shots involving the birds (of which there were, of course, a lot). The birds were trained to do certain actions but for many shots it was a case of “take what you can get.” The scenes of the bird attacks work mostly because of their sense of chaos and noise — two terms that summarize the making of the movie rather well.

After principal photography, two separate units continued the effects work, and the film would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Special Effects. The effect of the flapping of the birds’ wings was done in Disney Studios by animator Ub Iwerks, who used Disney’s sodium vapor process (also known as “yellow screen”).

The sodium vapor process (SVP) films the subject against a screen lit with narrow-spectrum sodium vapor lights. SVP shoots two separate elements of footage simultaneously with a beam-splitter — one reel is regular film stock and the other is film stock with emulsion sensitive to the sodium vapor wavelength. The result is very precise matte shots (much more than traditional blue screen effects), necessary due to the “fringing” of the image from the rapid flapping of the birds’ wings. So yeah, The Birds is part cartoon.

This was a painstaking process, and true movie artistry at work (though we bet it tried even Hitchcock’s patience more than once). Today it would be all done with computers. Back in 1963, we were the computers.

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