'Flight of the Butterflies' tells the story of amazing insects and dedicated humans

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"Flight of the Butterflies" is the story of two amazing journeys.

It follows the migration of the monarch butterfly, whose annual flight through the length of North America is one of the longest of all species. It's also a natural history detective story about a dedicated group of scientists and volunteers who tracked down the monarchs' hidden wintering grounds high in the Mexican mountains in the 1970s.

The film opens today at Carnegie Science Center's Rangos Omnimax Theater. It was filmed in IMAX 3-D. The Omnimax will screen the 2-D version, but the domed screen surrounds the viewer's field of vision, delivering a different but equally immersive experience.

"Flight of the Butterflies" follows the butterflies' north-south migration route from Mexico to Canada and back, which takes three to four generations to complete: the great-grandchildren of the original butterflies that leave Mexico in spring return there as winter approaches. Their complex navigation system enables them to pinpoint the same small area in the remote Sierra Madre mountains.

The camera takes the viewer high up into mountains and treetops for a dazzling view of thousands of monarchs gathered in their winter home. Other segments simulate what it would be like to fly like a butterfly and view the countryside from above.

But the film also explores the butterfly's tiny world. "We went to both ends of the spectrum," said director Mike Slee, who's a veteran of several IMAX productions, including "Bugs! 3D," "Legend of Loch Lomond" and "Wildfire." Using MRIs and Micro CT scans and computer-generated images, they created an extreme close-up time-lapse view of a chrysalis developing into a mature butterfly.

The film tells the story of Fred Urquhart, a Canadian zoologist whose fascination with the insect world began when he was a child. He shared a keen interest in butterflies with his wife, Norah, and the couple's 40-year quest to find the monarchs' wintering grounds gives "Flight" a powerful human element.

Urquhart enlisted the help of thousands of volunteer citizen scientists around the country who tagged butterflies and sent him tagged specimens they found. This enabled Urquhart to trace the migration routes. But the mystery of where they spent the winter remained.

His luck changed in 1975, when a young couple in Mexico signed on as volunteers and located the butterflies' wintering grounds. Urquhart's visit there was capped with the discovery of one of "his" butterflies -- it had been tagged and released in Minnesota in August 1975.

Urquhart didn't live long enough to see the film about his life's work: He died in 2002.

"It's very unusual for a natural history movie to have such a strong human story embedded in it. That absolutely fascinated me," Mr. Slee said. "The parallel challenges that the scientists and the generations of insects go through make for a really good narrative. It's a perfect combination of human drama and animal determination."

Filming in 2011 and 2012, the "Flight" crew followed the same route the butterflies take, shooting footage in Texas, Toronto and points in between throughout the spring and summer. "We were rather like butterflies and caterpillars ourselves, in the way that we marched our way through North America," Mr. Slee said. "When it got cold, we all rushed back down to Mexico."

The journey is an extraordinary natural history epic, Mr. Slee said. "A creature the weight of a postage stamp can fly from Canada to these few hundred acres of forest in Mexico. They're at least two if not three or four generations from the ones that left the forest. The location is somehow embedded in the genetics of the animal."

Chasing butterflies over thousands of miles presented plenty of challenges. "One of the biggest was to be able to keep up with the butterflies with a giant 3-D camera," Mr. Slee said. "When you look at a butterfly in the real world, there's a real chaotic pattern to their flight. So filming them in real time was almost impossible." As a result, he said, many sequences are in slow motion. Transporting the heavy IMAX camera 10,000 feet high into the mountain tops required heavy labor on the crew's part. The filmmakers worked with conservation groups and the Mexican government to get permission to film in the butterfly sanctuaries, which are protected areas.

"Flight of the Butterflies" calls attention to threats that have reduced the monarch population, including climate change, crop dusting and deforestation. The film's companion website, www.flightofthebutterflies.com, and the Monarch Watch site, www.monarchwatch.org, offer suggestions on ways to help them survive. Monarch Watch, an organization devoted to conservation and education, grew out of Urquhart's Insect Migration Association, the group of volunteers who supported his efforts to track the butterflies' long journey home.

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Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.


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