Articles

Dick Bird and his photogenic friends

ROBERT COLLINS April 2 1955
Articles

Dick Bird and his photogenic friends

ROBERT COLLINS April 2 1955

Dick Bird and his photogenic friends

Waiting a month for one shot of a duck doesn’t seem strange to this famous Regina photographer. He’s been bitten by snakes and chased by alligators but lie’s out this spring looking for more footage for Disney

ROBERT COLLINS

SEVEN YEARS AGO Walt Disney launched his True Life Adventure series, documentary films about wild creatures in their natural surroundings. To old Disney enthusiasts, it’s not surprising that he now has several new Academy Awards. Nor, considering the charm and drama of such True Life films as Beaver Valley, The Living Desert or The Vanishing Prairie, is it surprising that Disney has millions of new fans. The only astonishing thing is that after nine films in this new series Disney still has cameramen.

A True Life assignment is a grueling experience. Disney’s twenty to thirty cinematographers must spend months in the wilderness fraternizing with such subjects as bears, rattlesnakes, scorpions or tarantulas. In this way they get the world’s most intimate authentic nature movies but they also get chased, clawed, growled at, rained on, frozen, frustrated and frightened out of their wits. Often they wait weeks to put a few seconds of vital action on film. Then they wait years to see the sequence appear in a movie.

Yet, every spring, Disney cinematographers load their cameras, collect their shattered nerves and go back for more punishment. To understand how they do it, consider the happy but harrowing career of Regina’s Dick and Ada Bird.

Bird, a former newsreel cameraman and wildlife moviemaker in his own right, and Ada, his pretty brunette wife and assistant photographer, ave worked for Disney five months each summer since 1951 but still haven t seen their work in a Disney movie. Disney adventures take so long to make that the Birds’ first contributions won’t appear until 1956, in a film called Arctic Wilderness.

However, they have managed to produce four films of their own or winter lecture audiences which are so good that Harris B. Tuttle, an executive of the Eastman-Kodak company calls them, “probably the outstanding photographers of birds and wildlife in North America” and adds that “They’ve shot some of the finest motion pictures of birds ave ever seen.” In terms of experience the Birds are veterans with scars to prove it.

In 1945, for instance, while Bird was photographing a nest of black terns near Regina’s Wascana Country Club golf course, the indignant mother bird ripped his scalp open in three places.

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Dick Bird and His Photogenic Friends

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Four years ago in the Rockies a belligerent bull moose chased him up a tree and leered below for half an hour “daring me to come down and fight like a moose.”

On an earlier trip up a Brazilian river the Birds’ motor boat broke down. While Dick dived underwater to straighten a bent rudder, Ada held a family of hungry alligators at bay by pelting them with rusty nuts and bolts.

Once when they were photographing white pelicans on a northern Saskatchewan lake, a storm blew up and their leaky rowboat began to sink. While Ada bailed frantically, Dick saved both their lives and several thousand dollars worth of cameras by plugging the cracks with his undershirt.

During one jungle excursion Bird fell flat on a trail and looked up into the calculating eyes of a Crota/us terrificus, a South American rattlesnake which, he says, “strikes first and, if it thinks of it, rattles afterward.” The rattler

Early Spring

Oh, for an old-fashioned theatre seat

Without this mechanical voodoo—

A beat-up old brown one . . .

A nice weighted-down one

That doesn't pop up before you do!

PH I IE NE HAMMER

coiled, reared its head as if to strike, then relaxed and slid over his left arm into the jungle.

On still another Brazilian foray Bird was bitten, by a deadly jararaca snake. A companion saved his life by quickly slashing his arm and sucking out the poisoned blood.

Although most of these incidents occurred during his personal naturefilm career, which dates back to 1939. the same things happen in Disney photography. Bird, a short sun-tanned man with black hair and a light step, looks twenty years younger than his sixty-two—but no thanks to True Life Adventures.

Probably the best example of a Disney sequence in the making is the play-by-play account of Bird’s frustrating golden-eyed duck assignment of 1953. According to Erwin Verity, director of Walt Disney Productions, “This sequence is a gem and will be a real highlight of Arctic Wilderness.” But it took the Birds nearly a month to catch the sequence’s one-minute climax.

The golden-eyed duck spends its summers in cool wooded regions, nesting in hollow trees ten to fifty feet above ground. Arctic Wilderness includes some northern but not strictly Arctic subjectsgrizzly bears on Alaska’s Mount McKinley, for example— so the goldeneye, which sometimes nests as far north as Alaska or the Northwest Territories, qualifies for the movie. Actually, Bird filmed the sequence in Banff National Park, near the Jasper-Lake Louise highway.

On screen next year Arctic Wilderness audiences will see Bird’s subjects, a brood of three-day-old ducklings, perform the ritual of all baby goldeneyes: bail out of their tree nest like paratroopers, plummet twenty feet to the ground and waddle away uninjured to a nearby lake, never to return to their tree.

The sequence was Bird’s idea; he’s

allowed to choose all his Disney subjects. Both he and Ada are competent naturalists. She once taught nature study in Avonlea, Sask., and he is a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and an honorary member of conservation societies all over North America. Moreover, both are genuine nature lovers. They’re forever tramping around outdoors making pets of chipmunks, restoring fallen birds to their nests, spotting new birds or flowers and cataloguing them. Ideas come easily. For a Disney sequence they usually choose birds or animals with odd or entertaining habits.

Although they’ll film any promising subject that crops up, they concentrate on one topic all summer. One year it was mountain goats; last year it was the North American pika, a curious deadpan little rodent similar to the rabbit. Both species were filmed in the Rockies and may appear in Arctic Wilderness or possibly on Disney’s television series, which includes excerpts from his movies.

Usually a Disney producer in Burbank, Calif., telephones Bird in Regina each spring to discuss the summer’s assignment. The studio lets Bird treat the subject as he sees fit. The phone call, merely a pleasant formality, is apt to go like this:

“What would you like to do this year, Dick?”

“Thought we’d try golden-eyed ducks again.”

(By 1953 the Birds had already tried on four occasions to film goldeneyes, three times for themselves and once, the previous summer, for Disney. Each time they’d failed to catch the climax because the ducks left their nests in pouring rain.)

“Good. We still want that sequence. Do you need any special lenses?”

Bird doesn’t. They continue to gossip for twenty or thirty minutes, Bird glancing guiltily at his watch. He’s aware that the studio spends money liberally. Over the past four years his contract has netted him “a sum well into five figures.” Nevertheless he can’t help marveling at Disney’s disregard for phone bills. Finally the assignment is settled and the Birds point their station wagon toward the Rockies.

In May 1953, they camped in an empty park ranger’s cabin, in what they knew to be goldeneye country. Now they had to find a duck. Some subjects can bo scouted with field glasses but in this case they had to walk through the woods for a week, rattling sticks on the trunks of all likely looking trees. Finally they flushed a nesting goldeneye from a flicker’s abandoned hole.

Next they set up two Kodak Cine Special movie cameras on tripods about fifteen feet away, one with a normal lens for long shots, one with telescopic lens for close-ups. A third loaded camera was at hand in case of a breakdown or shortage of film at a crucial moment.

There were lighting problems to consider. Would neighboring branches cast shadows on the hollow, say in midmorning or afternoon? Fortunately the duck nest was in ample sunlight. The Birds didn’t have to move the tree, as they did once in Prince Alberi National Park. (That time, they wanted to photograph a flicker’s nest that faced north in deep shadows. They anchored the tree top with four guy ropes, sawed through the trunk and laboriously turned the entire tree to face the light. The move didn’t disturb the flicker but it nearly prostrated the Birds.)

Throughout their preparations in Banff they made little attempt to hide from the golden-eyed duck.

“Some photographers claim they sneak up on their wildlife with camouflage,” says Bird. “I think that’s more apt to frighten a subject away. After all, you can’t completely hide the camera.

“Sure, we get down out of sight if it’s convenient but we don’t use camouflage and we don’t coax the subjects with food. We just go about our business as close as possible, with no abrupt frightening movements. Birds and animals soon learn we’re not going to harm them and they get used to us. The summer we did mountain goats, we lived around them five months. After the fourth month we began to think like goats; after the fifth we began to smell like them.”

Since the duck eggs were liable to hatch any time (the incubation period is twenty days but the Birds had no idea how long the nest had been there) they could only crouch at their cameras every day from dawn to dusk. As usual Ada calmly knitted socks. Off duty, she’s equally serene; she knits, says little and smiles often while Dick, a gifted and relaxed raconteur, regales their friends with yarns.

But behind his camera Bird is serious and tense, keyed to catch the impromptu action that makes awardwinning Disney movies. During the goldeneye vigil he fidgeted impatiently and tried in vain to relax with pocketbook detective stories. There’d be one brief chance to film the jump; rain at the vital moment could make this their fifth failure.

Two weeks passed. A neighboring party of entomologists began to stop by each morning to ask solicitously, “Are you a daddy yet?”

In the third week the rain came and so did the ducklings. Just twenty-eight days from the time the Birds began nest hunting the mother called her brood and the ducklings poked their heads out into a driving rainstorm. Color photography was out of the question. Anxiously Bird shooed the little ducks back in. They peered out again; Bird waved them back.

Just as the determined brood peeked out again the rain broke momentarily. The light was still poor for Bird’s color film hut it wasn’t likely to improve. 'I'iie cameras whirred and the ducklings ju mped.

He Found Acting Dangerous

Disney was delighted with the result hut Bird wasn’t. He’s never happy with anything less than perfection. Like most Disney cinematographers— and this is the secret of True Life’s success—he’ll suffer any amount of discomfort to achieve the perfect sequence. If anything, Bird enjoys working under difficulties. He’s been carrying a camera in and out of trouble all his life.

Son of a leatherworker at Leamington Spa, England, he was christened Dick instead of Richard. (This encourages masters of ceremonies on his lecture tours to introduce him with “Dickie Bird” jokes while Bird stands by with a tired fixed smile.)

His first glimpse of movies was an amateurish silent film about British Boer War soldiers who, in the story, were poisoned by the enemy, clutched their throats, staggered in wide circles and died dramatically. Young Bird concluded that if this was a sample, anybody could get into movies. Accordingly at fifteen he became assistant to a cameraman in England. He carried the camera.

1’his was about 1907. (Bird is not a great hand at remembering dates.) He subsequently worked with the Gaumont and Pathe companies, emigrated to North America and became a

cameraman, assistant director and, one day in New Orleans, an actor. Cameraman Bird was drafted to act as the villain in a saloon fight. The hero struck him with such enthusiasm that Bird was unconscious a half hour. Later he took up newsreel photography, which was almost as dangerous as acting.

While filming a steelworkers’ riot in Gary, Ind., he was clipped on the head by a stray bullet. In a South American jungle, a Jivaro native sent poison darts from a blowgun whizzing past his ear. Bird and two companions fired back with rifles, the native called a truce and they spent an uneasy night as his guest in a hut decorated with shrunken heads.

Bird’s narrowest escape was in 1916. That year, Mexican bandit Pancho Villa raided the state of New Mexico, killing sixteen Americans. The United States sent a punitive force to Mexico under General John J. Pershing. Bird rushed to the scene and wangled official permits from both the bandits and the Mexican government.

One day he mistook Villa’s ragged bandits for Mexico’s ragged army, produced the wrong pass and was lined up for execution. At the last moment he pulled from his pocket a silk handkerchief stamped with the Union Jack, dangled it over his chest and said, “Go ahead —shoot that.”

Since no one cared to trifle with Britain in those days, the firing squad consulted the boss. Villa chuckled at Bird’s audacity and turned him loose.

However, as a British citizen trying to join the American World War I forces, Bird encountered endless red tape. Finally he went to Canada and in 1918 became government photographer with the expeditionary force to Siberia. In the years immediately after the war he worked at assorted newsreel jobs in Canada, was married (his first wife died in the 1930s) and roamed through the Orient as a free lance.

In Japan, while photographing street scenes, he was mistaken for an American and stoned by angry mobs. (AntiAmerican feeling was high against a law preventing Japanese from holding property in California.)

In Korea he provoked the Japanese again. Japan annexed Korea in 1910 but after World War I the Koreans peacefully submitted a proposal for self-government. Japan responded with a secret wave of atrocities.

Bird prowled through back-country villages, indignantly rescuing Koreans from police beatings, berating Japanese officers and getting away with it because he was British. Then a friendly young Korean revolutionary smuggled Bird into Japanese prisons for exclusive photographs of “whipping stools” and maimed, tortured Koreans.

Naturally the Japanese police were eager to destroy the pictures and Bird too, if they could catch him conspiring with the underground. His citizenship wouldn’t save him then. First they assigned a singularly naïve private detective to shadow him. Each morning the private eye lurked outside Bird’s door dressed in black kimono and black howler. Bird gravely tipped his hat, the Japanese raised his and they set off in single file.

Sometimes for laughs Bird stepped into a doorway and when his pursuer came abreast, sprang out and raised his hat. The Japanese invariably doffed his. On important errands Bird simply walked into the nearest shop, out the back door and on to his mission. Hours later he’d find the private eye still watching the front door.

Obviously, this was getting the Japanese nowhere so they jailed Bird and searched him for documents and

photographs. Finally, when he left for China, the Japanese police held his train for a fruitless four-hour search.

At Shanghai Bird checked into a hotel. Five minutes later an Oriental in European dress was at his door. The conversation conformed to the best cloak-and-dagger trad it ion:

“You have something for me.” “Have I?”

“My name is Wong.”

“There are many Wongs in Shanghai.”

The stranger, a member of the Korean provisional government, re-

cited names and information that proved his identity. Bird dismantled his camera tripod, dug into a recess and handed over a code message and the long-sought atrocity negatives.

Bird thinks the Koreans published some of the photographs to gain public sympathy but he’s not sure.

Being no longer welcome in Korea he went to China to photograph a postwar famine. Typically, he gave away all his rations, traveled without food for eight days and finally fell unconscious on the steps of a Protestant mission.

The ordeal left him physically and

emotionally exhausted and he returned to North America. He liked Canadians and since his parents had emigrated to Fort William, Ont., he decided to make Canada his home. He settled in Regina with his first wife and two small daughters, became partner in a photographic business and later opened his own Regina shop which his sons-in-law now operate for him.

In the Thirties Bird (♦lived his adventures in Camera Trails, a quarterhour weekly radio drama. The program also advertised his shop and sponsored a children’s nature club. Club members promised to practice conservation and were given a badge, pledge and secret code. Each week Bird gave a nature message in code; the child who unscrambled it received a colored nature picture.

Thousands of prairie children and adults—including a man of eighty— were ardent Camera Trailers. Soon Bird was showing films and giving nature talks to Trailers in schools all over Saskatchewan. His conservation campaign was so effective that one small hoy tearfully resigned from the club when he accidentally shot a bird. Bird reinstated him.

Unhappily for Bird and his fans, air time cost ten dollars a week, postage for answering bushels of fan mail cost thirty to forty dollars more, the Depression was on and he had to abandon the show.

He continued his lectures and at one engagement south of Regina received a phone call from nearby Avonlea. Would he talk to the Avonlea Canadian Girls In Training? Bird was heavily hooked but the telephone voice was pleasant and persuasive. Thus he met Ada Bovee, nature teacher, amateur ornithologist and a Camera Trails fan.

Then he hurried off to Europe to make newsreels of the Spanish Civil War, the Hitler Youth rallies and the Führer himself. Shortly after he returned to Canada, World War II broke out, casual travel was restricted and younger men were filming the battles. Anyway, Bird, then a widower of forty-seven, was tiredmf wars.

Until then he’d considered wildlife photography a pastime for old men or Girl Guides. But now it seemed like a pleasant hobby until the world righted itself again.

One day he attempted a picture story of a chestnut-collared longspur feeding her young. The bird led Bird around the Saskatchewan prairie for a half day. He never did get the picture story but went home with a new respect for birds and wildlife photography.

The new field intrigued him. He talked it over with Ada Bovee, pooled his photographic skill with her nature lore, and wildlife photography has monopolized their lives ever since. In time, each learned the other’s specialty. They were married in 1947 and spent their honeymoon taking wildlife pictures in a Mexican jungle.

They never take a conventional holiday and have never completed a golf game; halfway round the course they see something to photograph and break up the game.

Their summers are spent in photography, their winters on lecture tours, mostly in the United States. A Chicago agent keeps them booked solidly from October to April. Already they’re dated up for most of the 1955-56 season, including five lectures in Hawaii. They give film talks to such organizations as the Pittsburgh Academy of Arts and Science, the National Geographic Society of Washington, D.C., and Columbia University, for fees ranging up to six hundred and fifty dollars a night.

They give occasional Canadian talks

but there is less demand here. Generall\ the Canadian attitude is that of a Winnipeg showman who, when seeking talent for a western Canada tour, was told about Dick Bird.

“Great! Where’s he from?” “Regina.”

“REGINA?” said the showman, aghast. “Oh, he won’t do. We’d never fill a house for a man from Regina!”

On tour, Dick provides the running commentary while Ada projects one of their silent films: Newfoundland, British Guiana, Camera Trails or Alphabet of the Outdoors. The result is not unlike a True Life movie. The photography is equally good, Bird’s narrative is entertaining and some audiences think the absence of a noLsy Disney-type musical background is a distinct advantage. It was one of these films, in fact, that attracted the attention of Disney Productions in 1951 and led to a job offer. (The Birds and Toronto’s William Carrick are now the only Canadian cinematographers on Disney nature films.)

The Birds could turn lectures and television into a twelve-month proposition if they wished. Dick has successfully shown their films on TV in both Chicago and Detroit. But when the snow melts and the spring sap flows they eagerly get out their cameras. For all its frustration, photography is their first love. Fortunately, they’ve adopter! a good-natured “What’ll happen this year?” attitude, because something always happens to the Birds.

He Hates Rehearsed Shots

One year they huddled two days beside a Saskatchewan slough to photograph a horned grebe. At the critical moment a long shadow fell over their camera, the grebe darted away in fright and a farm boy lumbered up to (mquire, “Whateha doin’, mister, takin’ pitchers?”

Another time they waited through sixteen days of rain beside a North Dakota lake for rare films of the nuptial dance of the western grebe—a peculiar rite in which the birds furiously drum their wings and skim along the water surface on their toes like ballet dancers. Late on the sixteenth day the sun shone briefly, Dick made a few sighting shots and went to bed full of hope for the morrow. That night a thunderstorm washed away every nest and the grebes left in disgust. So did the Birds.

Of course they could avoid many such fruitless vigils by taking “controlled” shots of semi-tame animals in bird sanctuaries. Many wildlife photographers do this; it has even happened once or twice in Disney films. In The Living Desert, for example, a rattlesnake pursues a kangaroo rat through an underground burrow. As might he expected, the photograph was made in a specially built burrow with a glass side.

Controlled sequences are usually factual enough and the average layman can’t tell them from the real thing. But Dick Bird hates to influence his subjects in any way.

“For me the real thrill in this job is getting a completely unrehearsed sequence to my complete satisfaction,” he says.

That’s why he’s considered the best in the business—and why, perhaps, even a little thing like detaining a nest of ducklings until the rain’s over still nags at his conscience. A few weeks ago, for instance, he was asked about his 1955 Disney assignment.

“Haven’t decided on it yet,” he said. “It’ll be a new subject, of course, but I’ll tell you what I’d like to do. I’d go back for another shot of those damn golden-eyed ducks!” if