In a 1969 interview with Roger Ebert, Alfred Hitchcock described how he and his team achieved one of the most famous shots in The Birds. At a glance a bird’s-eye view of Bodega Bay, the aerial image depicts gulls swooping into frame and down towards the site of a fire which has broken out by the town’s waterfront restaurant, the result of a gasoline explosion caused by a bird attack. Hitchcock noted:
‘Still, there are challenges. In ‘The Birds,’ for example, we solved some delightful technical problems. Remember that scene where the gulls swoop down on the town? That was actually three separate elements of film, brought together.
First we shot a parking lot with people hurrying across it. Then we had an artist paint an aerial view of the town, which we superimposed over the people. Then we went out to a cliff and threw a lot of garbage off it, and pointed our camera straight down to catch the gulls swooping down for it. Then two women went to work for three months, copying the gulls from the rest of those pictures, frame by frame. Then we added them to our other pictures, and we had gulls swooping down on the town – or so it seemed. It used to enrage me when people suggested those were mechanical birds.’
It is possible to visually trace this process from the storyboard stage through to the final shot. As described in ‘The Birds (1963): Storyboarding the Scene at the Schoolhouse’, for The Birds Hitchcock first devised storyboards with his production designer Robert Boyle. Working together through the script, Boyle would make quick charcoal sketches, eventually covering three aspects of each prospective shot: its tone and atmosphere, the size of the image, and the placement of the camera.
Boyle would then hand over to Harold Michelson, Hitchcock’s storyboard artist. From Boyle’s scribbles Michelson was tasked with working up detailed compositions, his drawings the final storyboards in this multi-stage process, which could then be used to direct the action on set.
The following storyboards, juxtaposed with stills from the film, depict the buildup to the gasoline explosion, as Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) anxiously watches on from inside the restaurant:
And this sketch suggests the bird’s-eye view over Bodega Bay:
Matte paintings were the cinema’s traditional way of integrating elaborate, static backgrounds – too large, too elaborate, too expensive to actually build – with live-action footage. Artists typically used oil paints or pastels on large sheets of glass.
Hitchcock had made extensive use of matte painting before The Birds. In Saboteur (1942), for instance, matte paintings were used for shots featuring the Stewart Aircraft Works, which catches fire in the opening sequence; for the ghost town of Soda City; and for the film’s climax atop the Statue of Liberty.
In Vertigo (1958), exterior shots of the bell tower which Scottie and Madeleine/Judy climb inside the Mission San Juan Bautista used matte painting: the bell tower does not really exist. And in North by Northwest (1959), matte paintings were used for the climactic scramble and chase on top of Mount Rushmore, but also for shots of the United Nations General Assembly building in New York City, and for the exterior of Vandamm’s house: not a real building, with its facade a matte painting, and its interior set constructed at MGM’s Culver City studios to resemble the architectural style of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Albert Whitlock was responsible for all of the matte painting on The Birds. Having worked for Hitchcock in the 1930s, in uncredited sign painting and miniature effects roles on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938), he returned for The Birds and would remain with Hitchcock across his final five films, from Marnie (1964) to Family Plot (1976).
For The Birds Whitlock researched locations with Robert Boyle, and from a series of preparatory sketches, over the course of a year he produced twelve matte paintings. From Melanie’s first look across the bay towards the Brenner household, to her journey across the bay via motorboat, to the visual of neighbouring farmer Dan Fawcett’s empty eyesockets, Whitlock contributed matte paintings which significantly defined the visual look of the film.
The visual effects artist Syd Dutton recounted in the making-of documentary All About The Birds (2000):
‘One of the stories that Al [Whitlock] related to me was when he showed a test of one of his background paintings of Bodega Bay to Hitchcock. It was a beautiful scene of Bodega Bay in the background. Hitch thought it looked very beautiful. Without Al being there, he showed it to Peggy Robertson, his assistant. And he said, “What do you think?” And she said, “Oh, that looks like a painting.” And Hitch stiffened and thought, “Oh.” Then he said, “You know, of course, it’s real.” And she said, “Oh, I know it’s real, but it’s so beautiful it could be a painting.” And so it was a compliment to Al’s extraordinary painting skills that it fooled everybody but was still bigger than life.’
The image below shows Al Whitlock’s matte painting looking down over Bodega Bay, before the addition of any live-action footage:
A black and white still shows something of the line of fire before the gulls have begun to circle:
And here is a still from the finished picture, a view over Bodega Bay as multiple gulls begin their descent:
Again, we can see how the initial storyboard sketch provided the structure for the final shot:
In fact, Robert Boyle suggested that this ‘balloon shot’ had a purpose quite different from presenting the perspective of the massing gulls. Boyle stated:
‘Hitchcock likes to put actors into situations he identifies with. He himself suffers from acrophobia, so he takes the audience high above the town in a ‘balloon’ shot, which he called ‘God’s point of view.’ Many people thought that it was supposed to represent a bird’s eye view, but it was not intended to be from any particular point of view. It was supposed to take you away from all the confusion below and re-establish the audience.’
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