Whoever came up with that old adage - never work with kids or dogs - must not have known about crows or they surely would have added them to this list. Not that you'd get a chance to work with crows anyway as soon as you made your desire known, they'd be out of there!
Crows are found everywhere on the planet except Antarctica, but if you're intent on setting your camera lens on them know one thing: crows are camera shy. They are also highly intelligent, highly in-tune to changes in their environment and completely neophobic (ie. fearful of new things). As a nature filmmaker, these are all traits that make one of the most common creatures on the planet one of the hardest to film. When I first told my friend, renowned nature filmmaker John Foster, that I was going to make a film on crows he laughed and said "good luck with that". I had no idea just how much luck we would need. What I have learned in the last 385 days of filming crows is that sometimes luck rains down on you, and sometimes, it just rains.
We started out on our journey to film crows by following John Marzluff, a highly respected wildlife biologist who operates out of Seattle. Everything I know about Seattle I learned by watching Frasier. I knew it rained more than say, Toronto, but I didn't know that Seattle makes Vancouver look like the sunshine capital of Canada. During our first ten-day shoot in June of 2008, it rained for nine days straight. The crew and I got used to hunkering down under umbrellas as the water rose around our ankles. What we couldn't get used to was the cold.
Teeth chattering cold in bloody June! Since crows are so in-tune to their environment, we would stay huddled and shivering under those umbrellas with our rain hoods pulled down over our eyes and wait for hours - not moving, not talking - just waiting. Waiting for a mother crow to return to feed her young crow in the nest that we had our lenses fixed on. Waiting for a crow to return to feed in a small crack of good light on the grass. Waiting.
We soon learned that if we needed to get up and shake the water off or stretch, the wait time would start all over again. So it was best just to crouch down, umbrella on our shoulders and wait as motionless as possible while the hours ticked by until mama crow decided that the blob of fabric 120 feet away is perhaps not a threat and finally after guilt has almost made me abandon our cause returns to nourish her young, who sat shivering in the cold rain.
It was during this cold rainy shoot that I learned an important thing about crows. They live right beside us, we pass by them everyday without giving them a second thought but they, they are always watching us. Stare at them, turn your lens on them, pay them the least bit of attention and they vamoose. They are used to our benign neglect - in fact, they thrive on it.
To a crow, no good can come from human attention. That was when I figured out our Hail Mary - our pass to getting what we needed done for the shoot. After about four days of freezing in the rain and getting very little footage (admittedly it takes me a while - but if I have learned one thing that makes a good nature filmmaker, it is patience, although sometimes the line between patience and stupidity is a fine one), I abandoned the idea of hiding in blinds or under umbrellas, and we started to walk past the crows with the camera and grab shots on the fly. We became crow paparazzi and we started to get some amazing footage.
I threw out all the rules I knew about nature filmmaking. Forget trying to seamlessly blend into an animal's world, crows live in our world. And the way to not seem strange to them is to do what you normally would do. Once I figured that out, things started to fall into place. I can't say that the rain dried up, but once we weren't locked to the blind anymore the camera team and I started to move. Much to the chagrin of the soundman, we started to talk, we started to drink coffee and leave locations and come back ten minutes later if nothing was happening. And miracle of miracles, I gained some insight into how to film crows. That's when we started to truly make A Murder of Crows.
As for the dogs and children - I am still stymied on that front.