The Life of Flowers

Wings of Life tells the story of flowers and the winged creatures that spread their pollen

Apr 12, 2013 | By Kelli Plasket
©2013 DISNEY

Orchid bees swarm a bucket orchid in a photo from the new Disneynature documentary Wings of Life. Bucket orchids rely on the bees to spread their pollen. Male bees use the flower to pick up a scent that attracts female bees.

Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg is encouraging people to stop and smell the flowers—and grow them—in his new Disneynature documentary, Wings of Life, available April 16 on Blu-Ray and DVD. Through breathtaking time-lapse and slow-motion photography, narrator Meryl Streep tells the story of pollen from the perspective of flowers. Schwartzberg filmed more than 200 hours of footage over a year and a half to make the movie, following hummingbirds, monarch butterflies and bees across forests, farmlands and deserts.

Wings of Life director Louie Schwartz has been filming time-lapse flowers for more than 30 years.
COURTNEY EARLYWINE
Wings of Life director Louie Schwartzberg has been filming time-lapse flowers for more than 30 years.

Schwartzberg says his mission is to get viewers to fall in love with the relationship between flowers and their pollinators and to help people understand the importance of pollination to our way of life. “Most of us don’t realize the flower becomes fruit or seeds or a nut,” he told TFK. “We have to find a way to reconnect back to nature.” Read on for more about the making of Wings of Life and Schwartzberg’s tips for kids.

TFK:

Why did you tell this story from the point of view of flowers?

LOUIE SCHWARTZBERG:

It makes it more relatable, instead of a documentary that has the human point of view. I think it’s important that we expand our awareness. Also, a benefit is that that you will fall in love with flowers, and if you fall in love with them, you’ll protect them, so by being in their shoes, you build an interesting connection.

TFK:

What sparked your interest in learning about pollinators?

SCHWARTZBERG:

I graduated from UCLA [Film School]. I got involved in shooting nature, but I couldn’t afford to shoot much film because it’s expensive. So I would shoot time-lapse flowers. I love the way they opened, that sense of wonder every time I would develop my film. I’ve been doing it for almost 35 years straight. I sort of got seduced by the flowers, by their beauty, and that turned me on to the idea of telling the bigger story when I heard that bees were disappearing. You can’t tell the story about bees unless you tell about flowers and how they co-evolved over 150 million years. What a beautiful relationship that is.

TFK:

You have been shooting time-lapse nature photography for a long time. What do these images tell us that we can’t learn anywhere else?

SCHWARTZBERG:

When you walk by a flower or plant, you don’t think it’s moving. It’s moving. So by compressing the timeframe, you realize it’s doing this beautiful dance. It’s alive. A lot of people have told me that after seeing my time-lapse flowers, they don’t look at flowers the same way anymore. And then on the other extreme, when you see the bees, hummingbirds and butterflies in ultra slow-motion, you are seeing all this stuff that you never saw before. You realize what an amazing acrobatic life they have.

TFK:

How did you choose locations for the movie, and which was the highlight for you?

Featured in Wings of Life, Monarch butterflies undergo a long-distance migration every year and rely on milkweeds for food.
©2013 DISNEY
Featured in Wings of Life, Monarch butterflies undergo a long-distance migration every year and rely on milkweeds for food.

SCHWARTZBERG:

I chose a story that I thought the viewers would be able to relate to. The monarch migration is the largest butterfly migration on the planet. I think it’s amazing that their grandchildren come back to the exact same spot, back in the highlands of Mexico, after flying to Canada. The worker bee, what an amazing story that was, the male kind of gets some perfume [from flowers] so he can find a mate. I thought that was a really compelling story. So the stories dictated the locations. But in all these stories, the crucial part is that the pollinators are declining. The monarch butterflies this year alone have been at the lowest level in the past 20 years. So indirectly, I do hope that your readers understand that it’s a serious environmental issue. One-third of the food we eat comes from a pollinated plant. If they go, it could seriously affect how we live on our planet. If we lose our food supply, life could be dramatically different.

TFK:

What was the most challenging footage to capture?

SCHWARTZBERG:

It was all challenging. I guess [most challenging was] doing all-nighters with the bats, just from a physical perspective of being exhausted. We actually had four nights in a row in the beginning where we didn’t get a single shot. You get a little frustrated and feel like giving up. After the fifth and sixth nights, we got more activity. Things like that challenge your patience. It takes a lot of patience to make a film like this. And the payoff is that eventually you have a finished film, and you get to show it to people and see their excitement.

TFK:

What are some green tips for kids who want to help flowers and connect with nature?

SCHWARTZBERG:

I think that no matter where you live, you can plant a flower on a windowsill or a back porch, or grow a tomato. You learn so much about botany and biology by watching and observing the pollination and learning where your food comes from. What could be more important? We need to be more self-sufficient, and you can grow your own food. It’s healthier, it’s pesticide-free and it also eliminates a big carbon footprint. You are not shipping a tomato from Mexico, [where] it goes on a truck, it has to be refrigerated, wrapped in plastic and sold in a supermarket before it eventually hits your table. If you grow your own food, you save a lot of money, you eat healthier, you learn about science and it tastes better.

TFK:

Every year, TFK holds an Earth Day Photo Contest. What advice would you give kids about photographing or filming nature?

SCHWARTZBERG:

Nature is my greatest teacher. It has taught me everything about lighting and composition. So I would say look at the symmetry and beauty of nature and try to use that as a guide. I would suggest that if you have a digital camera, shoot a lot of photos, find out what works. You don’t have to go to an exotic location. Go in your backyard, do close-ups, learn how to frame things so that they are beautiful compositions with symmetry and balance. Show them to your friends, see which ones they like the most, get feedback from your friends and family and then begin to develop a skill in the art of photography.

Wings of Life hits stores in Blu-Ray and DVD combo pack on April 16.
©2013 DISNEY
Wings of Life hits stores in Blu-Ray and DVD combo pack on April 16.

TFK:

What do you hope kids get out of watching Wings of Life?

SCHWARTZBERG:

Well, I think the future is theirs. If they don’t protect the foundation of life, then life will be different. I think we need to be aware of the choices we make. Support your local organic farmer or beekeeper. When you see a bee, don’t just immediately try to kill it or swat it; observe what it does and see what a miracle it is in terms of creating life and food for you to eat. And we need to be able to sustain that. In your backyard, plant some flowers. It’s such an easy thing to do. Try to create good habitats for butterflies. Milkweed needs to be planted throughout the entire Midwest so that the butterflies have food on their journey and have a place to lay their eggs. We have to be aware of the little guys. It’s a good lesson in life. We are always thinking about the things at the top of the food chain. We take for granted the little guys who make the world go round. For young people, it makes you more present to slow down and observe nature. It makes you kinder and more compassionate.