John Downer’s ‘Wings 3D’ takes you flying with the birds

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 13, 2014 

You can almost stroke the gorgeous feathers.

In theaters for the first time June 17, the world premiere of the documentary “Wings 3D” will give humans a bird’s eye view of the world.

“The 3-D experience is the closest I’ve had of realizing the dream I had many years ago when I wanted to go into the animals’ world,” says wildlife documentary filmmaker John Downer. “In 3-D, you are up there with them.”

Downer created the award-winning BBC documentary TV series “Earthflight.”

“While we were making the program (‘Earthflight’),” he says, “there were three or four sequences that we knew we’d never ever be able to repeat, such as flying out with birds, flying over Venice or whatever.” So while he shot it in 2-D, he also “shot the sequence in 3-D.”

“In 3-D the birds just come out of the screen and you become one of them,” he says, “and, that was the dream to me.”

Downer started his career in wildlife photography around 25 years ago at the BBC. His first film was “In Flight,” about bird flight. He thought, “If I want to tell animal stories, I want to be in their world.”

He set about learning how to create a way for humans to “see what it was like to fly like a bird rather than learn about it.”

In those days the technical limitations held him back, so he put the idea on a shelf. The first documentaries were done with film, which was frustrating because he estimates that they’d miss about “3/4 of what we saw just because the film’s run out.”

Now, he uses digital cameras and just lets them run. “I think it’s very rare that we see something that we don’t get on video,” he says. He used two cameras for “Wings 3D.”

His teams are people who worked with him often for “years and years. “The filming style, the editing style, the music style; they’ve all grown together to complement each other.” He uses two editors working on the “thousands upon thousands of hours of footage that’s recorded” in the rushes.

Narrator David Tennant (“Doctor Who,” “Broadchurch”) started working with him around five years ago. “He’s got a certain style of delivery and a certain way of expressing himself. It’s very paced, very carefully delivery of the lines,” Downer says with enthusiasm. “Because we’re trying to get this experience of taking you into another world you have to have a voice that doesn’t intrude, that guides you … His voice with the Scottish lilt and everything just fits so beautifully with pictures, I find.”

Filming for “Earthflight” and “Wings 3D” took roughly six years. He reshot the scenes created in 2-D for “Earthflight” in 3-D for “Wings” and added additional material.

He’s now moved on to a program called “Spy” which uses hidden cameras to get close to animals around the world, “all shot from their perspective.”

“Wings 3D” is teamed in a two-night event with a “Doctor Who” two-part episode “Rise of the Cyberman” / “The Age of Steel.” On the Fathom Events website,, is a list of theaters participating

What Downer wanted was “to take audience on this incredible journey into the bird’s world and travel across the continents. And while we were making it, we were deciding, ‘Well, to really, really get to the ultimate closeness perspective we’ve got to do it in 3-D.’”

Email:; Twitter: @TishWells1.

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