THE MAKING OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S THE BIRDS
By Kyle B. Counts
In one test of the mechanical birds, they released these strange looking creatures that looked like model airplanes with wings that moved up and down. There was also a glider type of bird that was just about as laughable. — Assistant Editor Bud Hoffman
It was the fall of 1960. Executives at Paramount Studios were basking in the box office success of their latest Alfred Hitchcock production, PSYCHO. But Hitchcock was not prone to such feelings of complacency. He needed a suitable property for his next film, something befitting of his reputation as the “Master of Suspense.” He briefly considered Winston Graham’s novel, “Marnie”, but shelved it, concluding that his league of followers would expect something to top PSYCHO.
In the summer of 1961, while reading a copy of one of the short story collections published under the Alfred Hitchcock Presents banner, Hitchcock found what he was looking for: a story by Daphne du Maurier (author of REBECCA, which he had adapted to the screen in 1940) called “The Birds.” Essentially a mood piece, du Maurier’s story chronicles the struggles of a peasant farmer and his family when their quiet Cornish village suddenly comes under attack by murderous birds.
The story immediately suggested a myriad of cinematic possibilities that stirred Hitchcock’s creative instincts. Financed by the success of his television show, and filmed with equipment borrowed from the Revue Studio (where his television shows were shot), THE BIRDS became Hitchcock’s first — and only — horror/fantasy film. (Hitchcock had briefly toyed with filming H. G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS in the 1930s, but was dissuaded by Wells himself, who felt the book was dated.)
Though Hitchcock later maintained he gave no special consideration to the enormous technical problems the project would involve, late that summer he put in a call to art director Robert Boyle (the first crew person hired) to get Boyle’s assistance in determining just how — if at all — the film could be visually realized.
Hitchcock wanted Boyle, who served as art director for SHADOW OF A DOUBT and NORTH BY NORTHWEST, to determine what processes were available to realistically combine birds with actors. There was as yet no screenplay from which to work, so Boyle read the du Maurier story to get an idea of what might be required.
“We knew it was going to be difficult to put real birds into the situations suggested by the story because of certain problems involving traveling mattes,” said Boyle. “While I think that a space opera like STAR WARS is an extraordinary technical achievement, it had access to means that were not available to us in the early 1960s. Working around model ships is one thing, but in THE BIRDS, we were faced with superimposing living, moving things around our characters. Using the usual blue screen process, sometimes ‘fringing’ occurs — shadowy lines created when the two matrixes [the birds and their mattes] are not exactly aligned.”
In the beginning, Hitchcock was sold on the idea of using artificial birds — mechanical replicas with motorized wings. More than $200,000 was reportedly spent building and testing the models. Only a handful ever made it into the film.
“Some tests had been done at Universal using mechanical birds, but they were very phony looking,” said Bud Hoffman, a former member of the special effects department at 20th Century Fox, who was hired as an associate editor. “In one test, they put some young people on a treadmill to simulate the crow attack in the picture. Then they released these strange-looking creatures that looked like model airplanes with wings that moved up and down. There was also a glider type of bird which came down on wire that was just about as laughable.”
When cameraman Robert Burks saw the crude designs, he agreed with Hoffman that the mechanical birds would have to be abandoned. Ultimately, Hitchcock agreed, though a few automatic models were used in scenes where bird training was not possible, including the leaning lovebirds in Tippi Hedren’s car and the gull that pecks the little girl at Cathy’s birthday party.
Burks (working on his eleventh film with Hitchcock) and Hoffman thought real birds and optical effects were the answer, and tried various temporary methods to produce test footage to show Hitchcock. Working with Universal’s optical department, they modified existing footage to create a few shots of birds and people intermingled that looked “passable” according to Hoffman. Hitchcock was sufficiently convinced that the idea would work, but many refinements would clearly have to be made.
Meanwhile, in the course of his research, Boyle came upon the sodium vapor process, a system developed by the Motion Picture Council, an organization which had since disbanded. Sodium vapor was found to be superior to the conventional blue screen process because it utilized a prism that split off the yellow sodium beams to create an original negative (or first generation matte) at the same time the positive image was exposed, which meant that troublesome fringing problems could be virtually eliminated.
At the time, the prism was housed in Walt Disney’s Burbank studio under the care of Ub Iwerks, one of the founding fathers of the Disney empire. Ub and Walt met in Kansas City in the early 1920s and their combined efforts brought Mickey Mouse to life and skyrocketed Disney into the national limelight. According to Dave Iwerks, one of the two Iwerks sons employed at Disney, the original sodium vapor system did not work particularly well and was on the verge of being abandoned when Ub took possession of it, modified the basics and made it into a sophisticated, reliable process. (Iwerks was awarded a “special” Oscar in 1959 for “Improvements in Optical Printing.”)
Hitchcock personally contacted Ub (who died in 1971) to see if he would be interested in assuming responsibility for the film’s complex visual effects. Iwerks conferred with Disney, got the go-ahead and immediately went to work. Meetings between Hitchcock and Iwerks occurred on an almost daily basis. As it was outlined, all special effects and combination printing were to be executed under Iwerk’s supervision, with special design work and all the first generation optical printing his prime responsibilities.
We didn’t want it to be colorful. We weren’t making a ‘Bright Day at Malibu’ type picture. — Art Director Robert Boyle
Hitchcock decided early on to drop the Cornish village milieu of du Maurier’s story. What audiences wanted, he felt, was a movie featuring good-looking, city-bred types, not simple, inarticulate peasant characters. Thus the locale was moved to San Francisco, and at Hitchcock’s suggestion, 60 miles further north to Bodega Bay, a Pacific-front hamlet that Hitchcock had grown quite fond of while shooting SHADOW OF A DOUBT in nearby Santa Rosa.
“THE BIRDS needed a present day atmosphere,” Hitchcock said. “And in order to get the photography of the birds in the air, we needed an area with low land, not high mountains or a lot of trees. In a pictorial sense, it was vital to have nothing on the ground but sand so that we had the entire sky to play with. Bodega Bay had all of that.”
Boyle agreed that Bodega Bay had much that was required geographically, but there were two flaws. First, the existing community was very small, basically composed of a fishing pier, a motel and a few other structures. Eventually three neighboring areas — Bodega, Bodega Bay and Bodega Head — would be incorporated to make several villages into one.
Secondly, Bodega Bay and the surrounding environment was simply too sunny, too pretty, too nice to serve as a proper backdrop for the eerie series of events that comprise the film. “I remember some of the reviews criticized us for not playing up the beauty of Bodega Bay, but we didn’t want it to be colorful. We weren’t making a ‘Bright Day at Malibu’ type picture,” said Boyle.
“I wanted it to be gloomy,” Hitchcock remarked. “It was necessary to subdue the color of many of the scenes in the film lab to get the proper effect.”
While making a thorough study of the Bodega topography, Boyle found two existing buildings that lent themselves to use in the film; a schoolhouse in Bodega and the Tides restaurant, located in Bodega Bay. The schoolhouse was boarded up and had long been condemned as an unsafe structure. A crew repaired it and added a fence and playground equipment, which would figure in later in the crow attack. A facade was erected a short distance away to serve as Annie Hayworth’s home, and was dismantled once filming was complete. Only the exterior of the Tides was used in the film, as was the pet shop in San Francisco, located on Grant Street. Interiors were constructed on sound stages at Universal.
Finding a suitable property to represent the Brenner farm was the most difficult of all locations, as a house was needed that had an entrance road and that could be reached by boat. The ideal building turned out to be on Bodega Head, where an elderly lady named Rose Gaffney had recently made headlines by battling the local power company’s plans to build a power plant on her land. Rose won the battle, and was therefore a bit leery when she was approached about renting the property out to Universal. “But,” said Boyle, who was kiddingly referred to as ‘The Silver Fox’ by the crew because of his snow-white hair, “we charmed her into it.”
As ideal as the location was, the condition in which it was discovered made Boyle shudder. “The house was nothing but a shack when I first saw it,” he said. “Rose used it as extra property and hadn’t kept it up very well over the years. We had to literally make a new house out of it by building over it.” Additionally, the out buildings and barn in back were considered too far from the house for filming purposes, so an exterior barn was put up to group the reconstructed structures closer together. A small pier was added to the front of the property, a gazebo built for the party sequence and the overgrown grounds and trees generously trimmed.
Someone was needed not only to tie the multiple locations together, but to keep the look of the picture consistantly ominous. Hitchcock turned to matte painter Albert Whitlock.
Whitlock had previously worked with Hitchcock in their native England on THE 39 STEPS and THE LADY VANISHES, painting signs for street scenes and other artwork. He left England in 1954, eventually taking a job with Disney, where he did matte paintings for live action features. He left the studio in 1961 and moved to Universal, where he subsequently devastated Los Angeles in EARTHQUAKE, recreated old-time Chicago for THE STING and painted the mattes for HIGH ANXIETY, Mel Brooks’ hommage to Hitchcock (Whitlock also played a cameo role as a corpse at the end of the film).
“The first matte used,” Whitlock said, “was in the scene near the beginning where Tippi Hedren looks out from the post office to see the Brenner house across the bay. That was done above the hills, above the Tides restaurant. I painted the foreground in on a reverse angle. It was really just a hole in the middle of the shot with the Tides and the motorcars all around; the sides, bottom and top were painted into this along with the sky.”
Traditionally, Whitlock renders his impressionistic paintings from photographs, but for THE BIRDS he researched locations with Boyle and made a series of sketches from which to work. His 12 mattes, painted without the help of an assistant, took more than a year to complete.
“When the girl is going across the bay in a motorboat,” Whitlock continued, “the sky was repainted in a couple of different angles to give it mood; the weather that day of shooting was clear, and the sky was bald. When you see her coming in the boat towards the house, the background — the hills and sky — is a matte shot, grouping it all together in one piece and making a township around the Tides where previously there was none.”
I don’t think Hitchcock was fair to my script. Robert Altman to the contrary, I still feel writers should write and actors should act and directors should direct. — Screenwriter Evan Hunter
While Hitchcock was still at Paramount, he had obtained the services of author Evan Hunter to fashion the screenplay for THE BIRDS. Hitchcock was well acquainted with Hunter’s work, as Hunter had previously adapted another short story, “Appointment at Eleven” for one of the half-hour segments of Hitchcock’s television show. Hunter was first contacted late in the summer of 1961.
“My agent called one day and said, ‘How would you like to do the screenplay for THE BIRDS?’ I asked my agent, ‘Why me?’ I later asked Hitch that same question. Actually, I think Hitch may have known when he hired me that he would need something more than birds coming down a Cornish chimney for a feature length film. I guess I was hired to be the plot man,” Hunter said.
Hunter, a successful writer of short stories and novels (including THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and LAST SUMMER), discussed various plot ideas with Hitchcock over the phone before leaving his East Coast home in September, 1961, to meet with the director to finalize the script.
“I spent about a month just talking the screenplay,” said Hunter, “nine-to-five, lunch in the office, talk, talk, talk about THE BIRDS. Those day-long discussions, frequently carried over into dinner at night, and brandies following that at Hitch’s home in Bel Air, were the most rewarding part of the experience. Hitchcock is a most attentive and appreciative audience and an astute critic.”
The actual screen writing began in October of that year. Hunter moved his family out to the coast and wrote the script in about 10 weeks, without any supervision from Hitchcock. The director asked for only minor changes after it was handed in shortly before Christmas, 1961. Upon returning east, Hunter was asked to write one additional sequence, and then wrote what he felt was his best scene (as opposed to Hitchcock’s best scene) where patrons of the Tides restaurant — a drunk, Mrs. Bundy, the ornithologist, Mitch Brenner and Melanie Daniels, among others — debate the bird crisis. “Good writing, solid dramaturgy, and splendid acting when it was finally shot,” said Hunter.
Some scenes in Hunter’s final script, dated January 26, 1962, show the influence of du Maurier’s novella: birds invade the farmer’s house (similar to the finch-down-the-chimney scene), a neighbor is found dead after a bird assault (the farmer with his eyes pecked out in the film) and the conclusion which finds the protagonist and his family barricaded inside the house as the birds group to converge upon them. But with the exception of adhering to the Bodega locations, Hunter was given wide latitude in creating the characters and situations.
“Hitchcock gave me a free hand in the conception,” Hunter said. “Nothing would be too difficult to shoot, he assured me — hence scenes like the gull swooping down on the gas station attendant and the following fire and havoc. I never again gave a thought to the technical problems that might lie ahead. I understand there were plenty. But while I was on the set during the shooting, everything seemed to be going along quite smoothly. Hitch was in complete and affable control of any and all problems — including technical ones — that came up. I think the special effects were terrific, by the way.”
Although Hunter was not aware of it at the time, Hitchcock was not entirely satisfied with elements of his storyline. Critics echoed the sentiment, calling the film’s plot nothing more than a “pretext” for the bird attacks.
“It seems indigenous to all genre stories like THE BIRDS to put the personal story in second place,” Hitchcock said. “It’s the event that takes over. True, I wasn’t too keen on the girl’s [Melanie Daniels’] story. The personalities of those that were involved, and their fates, it was not all that effective. But I didn’t worry about it too much, because I had devised the basic shape of the film far in advance — making the birds gradually increase in number.
“I think it was Fellini who remarked about THE BIRDS, ‘I don’t know why Hitchcock made us wait so long before the first bird attacked.’ That was deliberate, of course.”
Hitchcock felt most “catastrophe” films, like ON THE BEACH, failed to touch upon the stories of the central characters, to show that they are still living and emoting while involved in bigger-than-life situations. He was careful to bring this quality to THE BIRDS. “That’s why I stalled with a very light beginning, for purposes of audience identification,” Hitchcock said. “I felt it was vital to get to know the people first, to take the time to get absorbed in the atmosphere before the birds came. That’s why I gave the audience a sock now and then — the bird against Annie Hayworth’s front door, the birds up on the telephone wires. The attack on Melanie in the boat was the first drop of rain before the storm.
But Hitchcock said he did not get everything he wanted from the screenplay. “Like all pictures of this nature, its personality didn’t carry,” he said. “If the picture [he always said “picture,” never “film”] seems less powerful today than it did in 1963, that’s the main reason, that the personal story was weak. But don’t tell that to Evan Hunter.
“Hunter wasn’t the ideal screenwriter,” Hitchcock later admitted to us. “You look around, you pick a writer, Hoping for the best.”
But Hunter feels the blame for the film’s shortcomings should be shared by Hitchcock and the actors, and not placed solely on him. “If there were weaknesses in my screenplay,” Hunter said, “they should have been pointed out to me before shooting began, and they would have been corrected. I feel the weaknesses were manifold, but only some of them were in the script. The concept of the film was to turn a light love story into a story of blind, unreasoning hatred. Since Hedren and Taylor could not handle the comedy at the top of the film, the audience became bored. They had come to see birds attacking people, so what was all this nonsense with these two people, one who can’t act and the other who’s so full of machismo you expect him to have a steer thrown over his shoulder? Bad acting and — for Hitchcock — incredibly bad directing.
“I don’t think Hitchcock was fair to my script,” Hunter added. “Robert Altman to the contrary, I still feel writers should write and actors should act and directors should direct. I think Hitch allowed his actors outrageous liberties with what I had written, and he juggled scenes and cut scenes and even added one scene — the writer of which still remains unknown to me.”
The scene in question preceeds the gull attack at the birthday party. Melanie and Mitch wander up to the dunes with a bottle and two glasses whereupon Mitch pours drinks and they proceed to psychoanalyze Melanie. The purpose, apparently, was to add substance to Melanie’s character through melodramatic disclosures about her broken home and well-intentioned efforts to put a Korean child through school.
“I have the feeling Tippi Hedren ad libbed her way through this one, because I can’t believe anyone actually wrote such inane dialogue,” Hunter said. “Someone did write it, however. I saw the script. When I got there to discuss MARNIE [Hunter wrote two drafts, but was dropped by Hitchcock due to creative differences], Rod Taylor took me aside and asked me if I knew anything about the scene. I read it and told him I’d never seen it before. He said, ‘We’re shooting it tomorrow morning.’ I called Hitch at home and told him I thought it would be a bad mistake to include this scene in the film. Hitch said, Are you going to trust me or a two-bit actor?'”
Another of Hunter’s missing scenes helped explain possible motivations for the bird attacks. “In the screenplay, on the morning after the finch attack, Mrs. Brenner yells to Mitch that she’s going over to Dan Fawcett’s farm, and Melanie in her nightgown looks through the window and sees Mitch burning the finches in the backyard,” Hunter explained. “She throws on a mink over the nightgown, a humorous poor-little-rich-girl touch, and goes down to talk to him. They begin speculating on the cause of the attacks, making jokes about a bird leader egging the other birds to rebel, and then suddenly they realize that the finches came down that chimney in fury. There is nothing funny about this; the birds are attacking in hatred. Like frightened children, they cling to each other — and they kiss. And that’s when Mrs. Brenner races back and spots them in embrace through the windshield. “In the film, all you see is Mrs. Brenner (Jessica Tandy) racing back from the farmhouse where the farmer had his eyes pecked out,” Hunter added. “As she approaches the Brenner house, we see Melanie and Mitch embrace through the windshield of the pickup truck. Until this point, they’ve been snarling at each other and we have no indication that they even like each other. In the scene that follows, where Mitch goes off to check things out at the farm, he and Melanie are exchanging ‘darlings’ about each other. Like the embrace, this is unfathomable in terms of their previous behavior. That’s because this scene is missing from the film.”
For Hunter, the changes meant a movie he could no longer call his own. “I saw the film at an invitational screening at the Four Seasons in New York. That very hip and sophisticated theatrical audience was, to say the least, somewhat glacially polite in its reception. Later I saw it during its second release, on a double bill with PSYCHO. The audience laughed throughout. I was so embarrassed, I nearly burst into tears. The last time I saw it was on television, with the script in my lap. I felt a little better after that. It wasn’t, after all, what I had written.”
However, Hitchcock denied that another writer worked on the picture or that dialogue was ad-libbed. “No,” Hitchcock said. “Hunter wrote the whole thing. Don’t forget, he was suffering a little from a bad story notice. He came up to me the night we showed the film in New York and said he’d read that Variety had called the story the weakest thing in the picture. He said to me, ‘You’ll have to help me through this.'”
The scene on the dunes was flawed not only by the mawkish dialogue, but also by the glaringly artificial set. Explained Robert Boyle, “There’s no way you can do a set like that and make it look real. You’re talking about trying to get sunlight from arc lamps. Sunlight is a single source and impossible to recreate.”
Then why try, especially when the scene could have easily been filmed on location? “There may have been numerous reasons,” Boyle said. “Was the actual hill too steep to climb? Did Hitchcock want to get back to Hollywood? I have been on many locations with Hitch where he gets very impatient. He’d rather work on a sound stage.”
In Hunter’s opinion, such unauthorized changes in his screenplay considerably weakened its overall impact. “The thing is THE BIRDS just misses,” he said. “It comes that close. It could have been great, but in my opinion, it’s only barely good. I believe JAWS is the film THE BIRDS might have been. Steven Spielberg might have made a very good film of it.” [Hitchcock acknowledged the comparison between the two films, adding that “JAWS was well made, but a bit oversized as far as the shark was concerned.”]
“‘There are no stars in this picture, Evan,’ Hitch used to say when I was writing the screenplay. ‘The birds are the stars. I’m the star.’ And as an afterthought, ‘You’re the star.’ He was right. But in a grimmer sense than I think he intended. There were no stars in that film. Given Grace Kellyand Cary Grant, we might have pulled it off — even with all the changes.
“But as Hitch was fond of saying [about the impermanency of film], ‘A hundred years from now, it’ll all have turned to cornflakes in the can.’ I was very fond of that man, and I enjoyed working with him immensely. I’m sorry the picture we made together could not have been a great one.”
Pound for pound, I think the raven and the cockatoo are the most intelligent beings on Earth. — Bird trainer Ray Berwick
Aside from his meetings with Hunter on the script, okaying Boyle’s locations and discussing optical problems with Ub Iwerks, Al Whitlock and Bob Burks, another preproduction problem was gnawing at Hitchcock — the birds themselves. Hitchcock was anxiously awaiting word from animal trainer Ray Berwick, a former writer for the LASSIE TV series and bird trainer for BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, who was on location scouting birds. Berwick, who was hired after the mechanical birds proved unusable, was forced to round up birds when attempts to gather various species locally proved largely unsuccessful.
“We used dummy birds and opticals for the mass scenes and background stuff, but all the stuff in the foreground with the birds was the real thing,” said Berwick, who recently trained the ravens in DAMIEN — OMEN II. “The ideal way would have been to get babies and raise them from birth, but there simply wasn’t enough time for that for all the birds. Except for a few young ravens, we had to trap and gather adult birds. The problem was catching ravens and crows. We devised various kinds of traps, but once we caught one or two, the flocks would invariably post a sentry and that would be the end of it.”
A distress call was put out to professional trappers across the country, with an offer to pay $10 for every bird brought in. “They all told me, ‘Better get your checkbook ready, cause we’ll be bringing them back by the truckload,'” said Berwick. “Not one trapper came up with a single bird!”
The biggest bird-trapping success came in Arizona, where Berwick and an assistant located a rookery of some 20,000 crows. “We followed this flock until we discovered where they roosted at night,” said Berwick. “By then we were pretty desperate to catch some birds, so we were very quiet and very careful. First, we made some nets and put on blackface and black clothing. Then we’d literally crawl on our hands and knees across the field to where the tree was — it would sometimes take half an hour or more — and I’d grab the sentry and put my hand over his beak so he couldn’t squawk and alert the others.”
Berwick would wait until a group of birds would fly up and back down again. “When they would land, we would throw the nets over them,” he said. “We got to know the leaders of the flock well and learned to respect their intelligence. Pound for pound, I think the raven and cockatoo are the most intelligent beings on Earth.”
All told, Berwick spent four months in preproduction, followed by four additional months of on the set training, from March through June of 1962. Hitchcock arranged for Berwick to have a set a minimum of three weeks before shooting began to rehearse the birds and get them conditioned to the enclosed environment and bright lights. Extras were even brought in to simulate the movements of the actors. “It was unquestionably the best working conditions I ever had on a film,” Berwick said.
Lunches for the film’s “stars,” who were housed in more than 40 large pens on the lot, cost an estimated $1,000 — the tab for 100 pounds of bird seed and 200 pounds of shrimp, anchovies and ground meat. The latter was smeared on the hands of the actors to entice the birds to come at them, an illustration of which can be seen in the final reel, where Rod Taylor gets his hand nipped by a crow (named Nosey and Berwick’s pet during production) as he creeps outside to Melanie’s car.
“Rod fed him little pieces of meat to give him the idea, and though I had my doubts, Nosey bit his empty hand on the first take very well,” Berwick said. “Almost too well.”
Few of Berwick’s birds needed encouragement to bite an actor or a crew member. “We had about 12 or 13 crew members in the hospital in one day from bites and scratches,” Berwick recalled. “Some of them were absolutely terrified of the birds and with good reason. They always talk about the danger to your eyes when birds are involved. The seagulls would deliberately go for your eyes. I got bitten in the eye region at least three times, and Tippi got a pretty nasty gash when one of the birds hit her right above the eye.”
Although it seemed that the cast and crew were the ones most in need of protection, the birds were looked out for too. Paul Ridge, a representative from the American Humane Association, was always on the set to see that the birds had enough air and water, and didn’t work themselves into a heart attack.
“There was never any dispute or conflict as far as the treatment of the birds, nor was there any censoring from the A.H.A,” said Berwick — this despite the fact that some birds’ beaks were wired shut for safety reasons, and others were tied in place or tranquilized to prevent them from flying away during outdoor shooting.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was not so forgiving. During the third week of shooting in Bodega Bay, Berwick was caught for exceeding his legal limit of trapped birds. The fine: $400.
I had no idea that I would be associated with THE BIRDS. I thought perhaps there would be a couple of years of acting on Hitchcock’s TV shows.— Tippi Hedren
Tippi Hedren, born Nathalie Hedren in Lafayette, Minnesota, came to California from New York, where she had established herself as a successful model. Tippi, an affectionate Swedish nickname given by her father meaning “little girl,” was cast in THE BIRDS largely on the basis of a commercial she made for a dietary product which Hitchcock saw on the TODAY show. In the ad, Tippi turns to acknowledge a young boy’s wolfish whistle (the same expression she would use in the opening scene of THE BIRDS). The look caught Hitchcock’s eye.
Like many of Hitchcock’s previous leading ladies — Madeleine Carroll, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak — Hedren was a statuesque blonde with a cool, sophisticated manner. “Hitch always liked women who behaved like well-bred ladies,” explained Robert Boyle. “Tippi generated that quality. He was quite taken by the way she walked.”
So taken, in fact, that Hitchcock arranged for the model to take a screen test. “I think it was October the thirteenth, Friday the thirteenth , that I first heard that a producer was interested in seeing me,” recalled Hedren. “They didn’t tell me who the producer was, even when I got to Universal.” Hedren went through several meetings with high-level executives before finding out it was Hitchcock who was interested in her. Even so, she wasn’t told why the director was so anxious to meet with her.
“I had no idea that I would be associated with THE BIRDS,” Hedren said. “I knew that it was being made, but it never occurred to me that I would be in it. I thought perhaps there would be a couple of years of acting on Hitchcock’s TV shows or some kind of dramatic training.”
“I felt that one should have anonymous people,” Hitchcock replied when asked why he chose to cast an unknown as the lead in THE BIRDS, “because the subject matter was not as facetious as some of my other films. Anyway, the stars of the film were the birds; anyone else was secondary.”
Hedren was given an extensive color screen test that lasted two to three days and cost $25,000. Martin Balsam was flown in from New York to play her leading man and Edith Head designed her lavish costumes. Afterwards, Hitchcock and his wife invited Tippi to join them and Lou Wasserman, now head of Universal, for dinner at one of Hitchcock’s favorite restaurants, Chasen’s. There she was presented with a small gold pin with three birds in flight, adorned by three tiny seed pearls. It was then that Hitchcock asked her to play Melanie in THE BIRDS.
“Well, I cried, and Alma, Hitch’s wife, cried — even Lou Wasserman had tears rolling down his face,” Hedren said. “It was a lovely moment.”
THE BIRDS’ lengthy shooting schedule was especially grueling for Hedren, who was required to be in almost every scene. During the six months of principal photography — two months on location around Bodega Bay in March and April 1962, followed by four more at the studio — she was given only one afternoon off, which she used to go to the dentist.
“I probably learned in three years what it would have taken me 15 years to learn otherwise,” said Hedren, who sat in on meetings concerning all phases of the production. “I learned so much from Hitchcock. He’s an absolutely fascinating person. He has a mind like an IBM computer. He can pull from his past any number of things he has learned and apply it to a particular scene or character. He’s a very psychological director. He works on you like putty.”
Critics complained that Hedren’s glacial exterior made it impossible to relate to her, but Hedren said the development of her character demanded that the audience initially view her as “cold and aloof.” Hitchcock saw a parallel between Melanie and the Tallulah Bankhead character in LIFEBOAT as “starting out as a jaded sophisticate and becoming more natural and humane in the course of her physical ordeal.”
Hedren agreed that her character was perhaps a bit jaded, but added, “There’s a great need in people like Melanie. She was a very hurt girl and therefore did things to cover up that hurt, like practical jokes.”
Hitchcock kept tight reins on his actress and denied rumors (and charges by screenwriter Hunter) that Hedren ad-libbed her lines. “She wasn’t what you’d call a regular commercial actress at all,” Hitchcock said. “She was a girl out of a TV commercial!”
Hedren acknowledged Hitchcock’s control over her Characterization and her contribution as a creative actress. “Melanie Daniels is his character,” she explained. “He gives his actors very little leeway. He’ll listen, but he has a very definite plan in mind as to how he wants his characters to act. With me, it was understandable, because I was not an actress of stature. I welcomed his guidance.”
Hitchcock’s “guidance” even extended to personally selecting the jewelry Hedren wears in the film: one good bracelet, a ring and a single strand of baby pearls. “Hitchcock has a fondness for simple and elegant things like scarves and mink coats,” said Oscar-winning designer Edith Head, “so these things also became a part of her wardrobe.”
Hitchcock felt there was something about Tippi that suggested a certain withdrawal, a chaste, cool quality, thus Head created the soft green suit Melanie wears throughout most of the film. Hitchcock has a very psychological approach to costumes,” Head added.
The movie makes a darkly humorous point about Melanie’s materialist nature when, after suffering her traumatic attic attack, she is led outside with her mink coat — now a hollow reminder of her status, a privileged position which has failed to protect her from the wrath of the birds — wrapped protectively about her shoulders.
With 412 outstanding shots to be kept track of, I’m amazed the damn thing ever pulled together. — Ass’t Editor Bud Hoffman
Ub Iwerks was known as a meticulous craftsman who did not like to be rushed in the course of his work. He spent several weeks experimenting with his optical printer in his office at Disney before he was satisfied with what was to be his first major contribution to THE BIRDS — the scene where sparrows (actually a combination of swallows, finches and buntings) fly down the Brenner chimney.
The living room set was enclosed by a polyethylene wall (used so that lights could penetrate it to illuminate the set) to prevent the birds from escaping Berwick’s protective custody. The birds were then placed in opaque cages which rested atop the prop chimney. On cue, trapdoors were opened in the cages and, spotting the light below, the birds flew down the chimney. Air hoses handled by grips kept them from roosting.
Iwerks had previously engineered sodium vapor process photography of a large group of the tiny birds flying about a glass-enclosed booth, making it possible for him to optically multiply the number of birds in the living room through double, triple and quadruple printing.
As seemingly harmless as the birds appeared to be, they created a wealth of headaches for the cast and crew. The birds were infested with lice, and before long, everyone was contaminated by the parasitic insects. Many of the birds flew up into the rafters on the set and could not be coaxed down or caught. According to Bud Hoffman, tiny chirps can still be heard on the same Universal sound stage.
With a relatively short sequence such as this requiring weeks to realize, there was little doubt that the 412 planned optical effects shots would take more time than originally anticipated. A projected Thanksgiving release date in 1962 was immediately pushed back to spring of 1963, then moved forward by Universal executives, who wanted to meet the April 1st tax deadline date (the time by which a film negative must be transported out of state or face taxation).
The accelerated release date would prove more costly, but Universal anticipated a healthy Easter box office to offset the expense. Looking for help to complete the special effects work, Iwerks turned to some of Hollywood’s optical experts: Bob Hoag, at that time in charge of photo effects at MGM; Linwood Dunn, founder of Film Effects of Hollywood, recruited to work on the film’s final action sequence, Melanie’s encounter with birds in the Brenner attic; and L. B. Abbot. A.S.C., head of special effects at 20th Century Fox, to work on the opticals for the crow attack on the school.
Lawrence Hampton, given sole screen credit for the film’s special effects (Iwerks was credited as Special Photographic Advisor), built the prop birds, generally made from papier-mache, used in some sequences. Hampton, who died in 1972, may have also helped build the electronically-controlled mechanical birds which were largely scranned.
Hoag and his crew of 30 did many of the dissolves, blue backing and sodium matte shots. He also orchestrated the photographic effects for the scene where Tippi Hedren is trapped in a telephone booth that comes under attack by sea gulls, which many, including assistant editor Bud Hoffman, felt was the best special effects work done in the film.
“At that time, Fox had a developer called Solution Q or something equally as secret sounding,” Hoffman said. “It was a very fine grain developer, and they were able to put together a series of matte shots with an excellent matching quality.”
Not all the independent houses’ work met with such resounding approval. Hoffman and photographer Robert Burks spent almost four months after the picture had wrapped production early in December, 1962, submitting the completed footage to various optical houses for final printing. Burks, a brilliant technician who demanded perfection, continually rejected much of the work for not looking “real” enough. His contribution prompted Hoffman to say, “In my opinion, this picture could never have been made without Bob. It was his persistence in doing these shots over and over that made THE BIRDS the classic it is today.”
Added Hitchcock: “If Bob Burks and the rest of us hadn’t been technicians ourselves, THE BIRDS could have cost five million dollars rather than three million.”
Just keeping track of the thousands of shots contained in the film was a job in itself. “Bob and I tried keeping track of all the shots on paper,” explained Hoffman, “but that got totally out of hand, so we put a big slate up on the wall. There was so much erasing that we had to drop that idea, too.”
Eventually the pair settled on what Hoffman calls a “coloring book” method. For every shot requiring birds, Hoffman made a black and white dupe. When the shot was completed, a color shot was substituted for the one in black and white. When the sequence was all in color, they knew it was complete. “With 412 outstanding shots to be kept track of, I’m amazed that the damn thing ever pulled together,” Hoffman said.
One of Hoffman’s most arduous duties was sifting through bird footage shot at the San Francisco city dump. In February 1962, a crew spent three days at the dump stockpiling miles of footage for use by the special effects department.
“The crew went to the dump area and raked together all the garbage they could,” Hoffman recalled. “There were a large number of gulls that regularly scavenged there, and when they saw what had been laid out for them, they dove right in for it. The camera crew photographed reel after reel of birds: individual birds, birds flying in the air, sitting on the garbage, and so on. I think it would be safe to say that some 20,000 feet of film was shot.
“I went through this film a foot at a time and categorized it according to the action it contained: single bird flying in from left to right and right to left, birds milling about, two birds flying off, that kind of thing. It took a long time to run through it all, but it was rewarding in the long run because we were able to find a lot of good footage without any land in it, and some with birds looking as if they might be ferocious.”
Al Whitlock also assisted in reviewing the available footage, as one of his crucial matte paintings used in the picture required gulls to drop into the frame. “I recall that we sat through what seemed to be miles and miles of bird footage to get something we could use,” he said. “The fundamental problem with getting any bird activity on film was getting close to them. The only thing that induces them toward you is food, and even their hunger is overruled by their fear of man.”
Ray Berwick decided to go along with the crew to the garbage dump to catch gulls and experiment with teaching them simple tricks. “I found the gulls on the whole to be vicious and ornery, not very intelligent at all. I never came across one in all the time we were shooting that was affectionate, either towards another sea gull or a human being. But they could be quite easy to trap and in some ways easy to train. They responded quite quickly to the food reward system, and the rest was patience on my part. I could trap a bunch down at the San Francisco garbage dump and by the end of the day have them doing stunts.”
As associate editor, Hoffman was in charge of the editing of the effects sequences, whereas George Tomasini principally handled cutting chores on dailies and principal photography — though he closely collaborated with Hoffman throughout the production. All the effects scenes were cut in advance of any matte work or print-overs. It was necessary to go through all the footage shot at the garbage dump and select the right birds to be added optically — as many as seven different layers at a time to create depth. Unlike the average Hitchcock movie, where only scant remains of unused footage could be found on the cutting room floor, there was a good deal of excess film shot for THE BIRDS that never made it into the final print.
Bird’s eye view
Al Whitlock’s matte painting of an aerial view of Bodega Bay was composited with live action footage of a gasoline fire filmed on a newly asphalted parking lot at Universal. To add gulls swooping into the frame, Whitlock had gulls filmed from atop the cliffs of Santa Cruz Island, then rotoscoped them one by one into the shot.
Hitchcock also used Whitlock’s talent in subtle ways. For two shots of Melanie crossing the bay to the Brenner house in a motorboat (shown above), Whitlock painted in the sky and far shore, to add mood and suggest a town where none existed. Explained Whitlock, “The weather that day was clear and the sky was bald.”
Al Whitlock’s matte painting for the film’s ambiguous finale suggests hope — sunlight streaming through the clouds. The painting was used in three shots: top right, Mitch’s point of view as he opens the door — the bird flying in from above was rotoscoped into the scene from gull footage shot at the San Francisco city dump; bottom left, Melanie’s point of view as she is escorted to the car by Mitch and Lydia — the camera trucks-in on this shot, a move simulated on the composite with the optical printer; bottom right, the film’s final image as the car drives away, a composite requiring 32 separate exposures. Hitchcock called this “the most difficult shot I’ve ever done.”
I think Hitch is putting the world on when he pretends there is anything meaningful about THE BIRDS. We were trying to scare the hell out of people. Period. — Screenwriter Evan Hunter
“Even the most extraordinary events in our story have a basis in fact,” Hitchcock boasted to the press while filming THE BIRDS. In fact, there had been numerous reports of unusual bird behavior in the media, and future irregularities would inevitably be tied in with the film. In 1961, a La Jolla, California family was shaken when hundreds of sparrows, apparently nesting in the living room chimney, flew out into the house, upsetting furniture and smashing windows. Residents in a quiet Midwestern town — the quintessential American Hitchcock setting — suddenly found themselves under invasion by a covey of barn swallows, who seemed to delight in dive-bombing newsboys on their paper routes. (Children, usually spared violence out of sentiment for their helplessness, are also victims in THE BIRDS.) Flocks of screeching sea gulls were reported to be terrorizing fishing ports along Germany’s North Sea coast, pilfering piles of fresh fish and attacking fishermen and chimneysweeps. And a Bodega Bay farmer approached Hitchcock during filming to report that he was having trouble with birds pecking out the eyes of his young lambs.
Ornithology experts say that such deviant bird behavior can usually be attributed to natural causes: the quest for food, a recent lack of enemies to battle with, or a form of rabies (Hitchcock’s personal theory). Faced with such rational explanations, Hunter and Hitchcock decided from the outset not to offer a specific reason for the bird attacks.
Hunter does, however, playfully bat about a few possibilities in the scene in the Tides where customers expound their own personal theories. The drunk (rendered in the style of Sean O’Casey, an Irish playwright whose JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was filmed by Hitchcock in 1930) sees it in biblical terms, crying, “It’s the end of the world!” Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies, in her 101st motion picture), an ornithologist conveniently present, firmly rejects the notion that birds could mastermind a mass attack (“Their brain pans, aren’t large enough”). Melanie Daniels proposes the most unsettling — and irrational — reason of all: the birds are acting with the intent to kill.
Clearly, the adults in the cafe are more alarmed by what is happening than the two children present, who merely express fascination that they might become lunch for the preying birds. (“Are the birds going to eat us, mommy?” one asks with wonder in his eyes.) Like toddler Gary in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, they are perfectly willing to accept the reality of the situation, whereas the reactions of the adults — panic, skepticism and a diminishing sense of well-being — are filtered through debate and Bloody Marys. In a world where “seeing is believing,” they are ill-equipped to surrender to circumstances so abstract.
Whatever the actual reason, THE BIRDS’ refusal to force a pseudo-scientific explanation on the audience is indicative of its admirable attempt to reject commercial conventions. Hitchcock allows the narrative to advance under the assumption that we will accept the film’s basic premise. “We figured that we would offer possible reasons,” said Hunter, “but we would never tell the audience why. We did not want this to become a science fiction film. We were both a little nervous about this, even given Hitch’s stature. We did not want this scene where the guys are all peering into microscopes examining a bird feather and they decide the movement of the Polar Cap or an underground explosion or a low flying saucer has caused a change in metabolism, thereby causing our feathered friends to desire human *FLESH* instead of chicken feed and bugs.”
Explained Hitchcock: “I was interested in making the film because it was a horror film — horror coming from a different quarter. It wasn’t science fiction at all. I treated the subject naturally and quite straightforwardly.”
Were Hitchcock and Hunter trying to make a statement in THE BIRDS? It depends on whom you ask. Hunter scoffs at the idea that the film represents the classical furies or is intended to be a vision of Judgement Day. “I think Hitch is putting on the world when he pretends there is anything meaningful about THE BIRDS,” said Hunter. “We were trying to scare the hell out of people. Period.”
But Hitchcock did feel the film had a message to offer. In a trade ad he wrote, “There is a terrifying menace lurking right underneath the surface shock and suspense of THE BIRDS. When you discover it, your pleasure will be more than doubled.”
Hitchcock may have been aiming a bit over the heads of his audience when he — penned this profundity, since the “terrifying menace” he speaks of is complacency, not something likely to be discovered in a cursory viewing of the picture.
“Generally speaking,” Hitchcock said, “I believe that people are too complacent. People like Melanie Daniels tend to behave without any kind of responsibility, and to ignore the more serious aspects of life. Such people are unaware that catastrophe surrounds us all. But I believe that when catastrophe does come, when people rise to the occasion, they are all right. Melanie shows that people can be strong when they face up to the situation, like the people in London during the wartime air raids. The birds basically symbolized the more serious aspects of life.”
The opening of the film establishes Hitchcock’s view of our complacent society. It is midday in downtown San Francisco. Tourists are enjoying a cable car ride, and shoppers and businessmen line the busy sidewalks. As Melanie Daniels stops to vainly acknowledge a passerby’s whistle, she notices a flock of sea gulls circling ominously overhead. Hitchcock introduces the anxious presence of birds before a single word of dialogue is spoken.
Tippi Hedren’s entrance into the pet shop affords Hitchcock a choice cameo, as he walks out with his two prize Sealyham poodles, Stanley and Geoffry. For this location shot, a camera was placed in a van disguised as a furniture delivery truck with a built-in glass partition used for the filming.
The prologue of THE BIRDS corresponds almost exactly to the first part of KING KONG. Nothing much appears to happen, yet significant groundwork is laid in the area of characterization. When Melanie Daniels — at once a well-to-do woman who appears to have nothing better to do than spend the day browsing for gifts for her Aunt Tessa — and Mitch Brenner, a solidly middle-class man (well-played by Rod Taylor) meet in the pet shop, the film engages in a little light comedy of the “boy meets girl” tradition. What may seem to be mere fluffy exposition is more correctly an expression of the duality Hitchcock sees as a particular element of life. The brightly lit, antiseptic setting of the pet shop — the birds chirping melodically, as if their very existence depended upon it — foreshadows the sinister forces that will soon befall the characters. By the film’s end, the innocuous bill and coo of the birds has been transformed into a war cry; their human oppressors are now prisoners inside industrial cages while they maintain omnipotent rule outside. Melanie Daniels finds herself a victim of her own “gilded cage” of luxury and frivolity, a metaphor brilliantly visualized by Hitchcock by showing her trapped in a telephone booth during a gull attack on Bodega Bay.
As Hitchcock kiddingly put it, “Birds make excellent heavies. After all, they’ve been put in cages, shot at and shoved in ovens for centuries. It’s only natural that they should fight back.”
But though the birds fight back, the audience is spared the full fury of their power. Hitchcock, the master of psychological — unseen — violence places little emphasis on bloodletting. Howard Smit, a former make-up artist at Republic Studios (known for its violent westerns) who had worked on episodes of Hitchcock’s TV show, was hired to handle make-up duties on the film, with supplementary work done by Bob Dawn. Smit agreed with Hitchcock that the makeup should look realistic, yet not repulsive.
“Up until the last 10 years or so, you were quite restricted as to the things you could get away with on screen,” Smit recalled. “Violence had to be toned down to be acceptable to the general audience. Studios were also worried about losing a subsequent sale to television if you showed too much in the way of blood and guts.”
Over a period of weeks, Smit and Dawn devised a series of tests using different types of makeup to show Hitchcock how human skin would look and photograph after being pecked at by bird beaks. Prosthetic pieces made of latex and cast from molds were attached to models’ bodies to create the illusion that their flesh had been punctured. Smit also used his own brand of home-made coagulated blood. “If you can’t make blood look real in my profession,” he added, “you’d better get the hell out. Believe me, if you didn’t do it realistically, you weren’t with Hitchcock more than 24 hours.”
One outstanding example of Smit’s makeup in the film can be seen in the Dan Fawcett sequence, where Mrs. Brenner (Jessica Tandy) stumbles upon his mutilated corpse as she opens his bedroom door. A stunt man played the role of the dead farmer and sat for ninety minutes as Smit applied his bloody makeup. His pajamas were shredded and strips of coagulated blood added to his legs and upper body. To make it appear as if his eyes had been gouged out, dumold, an undertaker’s wax, was added around his eye sockets and the area heavily blackened with makeup.
Smit worked directly with Hedren on her makeup, since she would be transformed from glamorous to gory during the film’s climax. Smit applied her preliminary makeup at the Santa Rosa Motel (located an hour’s drive from Bodega Bay, the motel was taken over by the cast and crew during location shooting) and added touch-ups on the set, as in the scene where she is hit by a gull as she coasts across the bay in a motorboat, the first bird attack in the picture.
According to Hedren, “I did the reaction shot of the gull hitting me in the boat on location in Bodega Bay. Back in the studio, they put up a bright blue background to later print in rear projection of the bay. Up in the rafters they had a wire on a slope and, on top of it, a dummy sea gull. [For long shots, Berwick trained a live gull to land on Hedren’s head]. A tube was run from a sort of bicycle pump through my dress. The hairdresser then did my hair, spraying it very tightly except for one little piece in front, which is where the end of the tube came. They synchronized it with footage of a gull shot at the San Francisco garbage dump so that when they let go of the dummy bird to swoop down at me, they hit the pump, which blew my hair up, and it looked as if the gull had actually hit me. At the same time a trickle of blood was released to create the illusion that I’d been cut. I thought it was very clever.”
More than being merely clever, the execution of the scene is representative of Hitchcock’s stylized approach to the film’s violence: doing the minimum on screen to get the maximum audience effect. Thus, when the gulls attack the children at Cathy’s birthday party, the only resulting injury is a scratch on a little girl’s face (not shown). As crows besiege the school children, we are treated to various views of the birds pecking and biting them, yet no noticeable blood is drawn; the child who must be later hospitalized is given medical aid for facial lacerations caused by falling down and breaking her glasses.
As testimony to his belief that an audience should “work” while watching a movie, the deaths of Annie Hayworth and Dan Fawcett occur off screen. When Mitch covers Annie’s mangled face with his hand, he is not only shielding Melanie from the horrific sight, but the audience as well. It is obvious that she has met the same bloody fate as Fawcett did earlier, but as we have already been witness to the aftermath of one death, Hitchcock encourages us to use our imaginations to complete the picture.
Certainly, it would have been easy for Hitchcock to capitalize on the “squeezed grapes hanging on the cheeks” concept he kidded Time magazine about using, but self-mockery could not override his desire to see screen murder handled delicately. Why else would Melanie’s attic ordeal leave her with only assorted cuts and a chic bandage about her brow?
He cuts the film before the first frame is exposed, sketching shots in detail. For Hitchcock, once the storyboards are done, the film is finished.
Creating the film before the camera even rolls
Unlike other directors who would shoot a sequence different ways and decide which shot to use in the editing room, Hitchcock invariably walked on the set knowing basically what he wanted. For THE BIRDS, every sequence that required special effects, opticals, birds or special camera moves was pre-planned and storyboarded in detail. Hitchcock and art director Robert Boyle would sit down with the script and break down each of the sequences involved. The director would verbalize how he envisioned the scene — shot for shot — and Boyle would make quick charcoal sketches, or “scribbles,” as he termed them. Hitchcock, himself an artist, would occasionally take his own piece of paper and create his own “scribbles” if Boyle wasn’t quite drawing what Hitchcock wanted.
First came the “key sketch,” a detailed illustration which set the general mood of the scene, and established the lighting, time of day and color. Next came sketches for “form” and “angle,” which were concerned with image size and camera placement.
Boyle’s roughs were then turned over to Harold Michaelson (now a major art director in his own right whose credits include STAR TREK — THE MOTION PICTURE), who actually drew the final storyboards for Hitchcock’s approval. Michaelson would occasionally consult Boyle on changes he felt would improve the shot and add them into the finished panels for Hitchcock’s approval.
Sequences were often storyboarded more than once to get the feel Hitchcock was after, but when the director was finally satisfied, the drawings became the blueprints for the film. All that remained, Hitchcock liked to say, was the technical process of transferring the storyboards to celluloid.
In the sequence shown at right (the beginning of the mass attack on Bodega Bay that ends with the famous “balloon” shot of the town in flames), it can be seen how the drawings were used as a guide: the gull knocking out the gas station attendant, the gas flowing down the street, cries of alarm from Melanie Daniels and the unfortunate fellow with the matches.
Crow attack storyboards
These storyboards, covering just a few seconds of screen time, show how carefully Hitchcock preplanned his film. The sequence begins with a medium shot of Melanie waiting for Cathy to come out of school, then alternates between Melanie and the crows gathering silently on the jungle gym, with the camera moving closer to her with each shot.
Finally, when the audience knows the jungle gym is covered with crows, there’s a long close-up of Melanie’s face (417h). “We will hold that close-up,” Hitchcock told art director Robert Boyle, “until the audience can’t stand it” [20 to 30 feet of film as indicated would be be tween 15 and 22 seconds!] “However, the way Hitch described it in our sketch session,” Boyle said, “was more chilling than the way it finally came out”
In the actual film, Hitchcock framed the scene so that you could see Melanie and the jungle gym together, then picked up the action as storyboarded by 418, as Melanie’s eye follows a flying crow to its perch on the crowded gym bars. (Boards 426-437a, showing Melanie alerting schoolteacher Annie, are omitted.) For the climax of the sequence, it was planned to move in and hold on successively closer shots of the roosting birds (437b), then pan up as they fly away to attack (437c), an idea that was also abandoned. But while details changed, Hitchcock never varied the storyboard’s master plan.
When you put music to film, it’s really sound, it isn’t music per se. — Alfred Hitchcock
“Conventional music usually serves either as a counterpoint or a comment on whatever scene is being played. I decided to use a more abstract approach,” Hitchcock told us, explaining his unusual decision not to use a conventional score for THE BIRDS. “After all,” he said, “when you put music to film, it’s really sound, it isn’t music per se.”
The soundtrack for the film was created on a machine called the Studio Trautonium, a keyboard instrument named after its inventor, Dr. Frederick Trautwein, and designed by Remi Gassman and Oscar Sala for creating atonal sound compositions, first used commercially by the New York City Ballet. Late in 1961, Hitchcock spent a month in West Berlin with long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann, who supervised the film’s final soundtrack.
Through the use of the Trautonium, natural sounds were stylized to give them greater resonance and power. Bird caws are used to underscore the action on screen with the same effect a crescendo of violins might produce, or introduced like musical cues to contrast screen images.
To emphasize the starkness of the soundtrack when Lydia runs out of the Fawcett house, a faint echo was added to Jessica Tandy’s footsteps. Hitchcock has her run from a long shot to a close-up and open her mouth to scream, but where we logically expect sound, he offsets the cliche by having her emit only gutteral noises — silence, in effect. A similar contrapuntal use of sound occurs when the birds lash out at Melanie in the attic but do not cry out. Hitchcock said he wanted a “silent murder.”
For the last scene, when Mitch opens the door of the house and sees the incredible array of birds covering the area, Hitchcock asked his sound technician for an electronic silence, a sound which might suggest the birds’ thoughts as they rest before preparing to attack again.
Hitchcock’s manipulation of the soundtrack gives additional shading and irony to THE BIRDS. As Melanie waits for Cathy’s class to recess, children sing a nonsensical song — a favorite of Evan Hunter’s own children — as the crows gather silently behind her. Later in the sequence, while we wait to see the children run out of the school, Hitchcock disregards obvious cross-cutting and holds the shot of the jungle gym, not allowing us to hear the sound of the children’s running footsteps. What follows is a cut-away, with the children already halfway down the road. The vibrations of flapping wings are intertwined with the screams of the children for greater emotional impact.
Certainly the film’s definitive use of sound is the attack on the Brenner house. In his lengthy interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock said that this scene was largely improvised, a statement his assistant Peggy Robertson later told us was a “mistranslation”. The sequence leads off with shots of Melanie, Mitch, Lydia and Cathy seated quietly, waiting for a lull between attacks to end. Hitchcock’s pacing of the action — Lydia carrying out the coffee tray, Cathy rushing to the bathroom to throw up — conveys their vulnerability and heightens our anticipation of the birds’ arrival.
“It was one of the most satisfying scenes for me personally,” said Hitchcock. “You have a boarded up room with four people in it, sitting there in silence, just waiting for the birds to come. I kept the silence going quite a bit.”
Eventually, the stillness gives way to distant bird noises: first only a peep, then muffled chirps, then a frenzied crescendo of screams and abstract noises as the birds hurl themselves against the house, cutting off the lights, pecking holes in the front door with their beaks and breaking through a window shutter, the only birds seen throughout the entire sequence, since Hitchcock is again relying on the audience to use their imaginations. To simulate the birds breaking through the window, candy glass — made from spun sugar — was inserted in the window frame. What appears to be Rod Taylor’s hand being gnawed at by a gull is really Ray Berwick’s hand, devoid of makeup since the gull’s razor-sharp beak drew real blood on the take. And to simulate the birds pecking through the door, hammers and chisels were used on a balsa wood prop.
As suddenly as they have come, the birds retreat, their cries fading in the distance. We see Mitch step into a low-angle closeup, the ceiling framed oppressively over his head (“home sweet home” becomes the ultimate cage). Then, similar shots of Melanie and Lydia, each entering from opposite sides of the frame for visual symmetry. Finally, a masterful truck back for a shot of all three (Cathy is seated nearby), standing motionless, listening to the birds trail off, hoping that the danger has passed.
To set the mood of this sequence, Hitchcock brought in a musician to play for his actors. “When we arrived on the set,” recalled Tippi Hedren, “we saw this drummer sitting there with a huge drum. We didn’t know Hitch had planned this. In the scene, the tension is supposed to slowly build as the birds start to attack the house. Even Hitchcock, as fine a director as he is, couldn’t get a bunch of birds to act that way, so he got the idea of using the drum roll to help us react and to build up the tension. For me, it was the most effective scene in the film.”
Hitch is willing to stretch the limits of possibility in order to get a gut feeling in a film. If it doesn’t always quite come off technically, it doesn’t disturb him. — Art Director Robert Boyle
“There are many things in a Hitchcock film that will not stand up over the years if you’re going to criticize it from a standpoint of technical perfection,” said Robert Boyle, responding to the criticism that time has dated the impact of much of THE BIRDS’ special effects. “Hitch is willing to stretch the limits of possibility in order to get a gut feeling in a film. If it doesn’t always quite come off technically, it doesn’t disturb him.”
It is clear that THE BIRDS has been surpassed in the area of optical effects. It is not difficult for today’s sophisticated audiences to spot the process shots or the optically inserted birds. The film’s subtle and restrained texture looks almost old-fashioned beside the bloody excesses of current genre films like ALIEN, THE FURY and DAWN OF THE DEAD. But there are sequences in the film that are still technically remarkable today, a testament to the skill of Hitchcock and the technicians he brought together.
L. B. Abbott recalled that coordinating the special effects for the crow attack was a “tedious chore,” requiring five to six weeks of round the clock labor. He and his crew had to literally bridge reality and fantasy by taking Iwerks’ footage of crows shot in a wind tunnel and optically adding them to Bob Burks’ completed photography of children running on a treadmill. “If my memory is anywhere near correct, there were about 60 cuts in that one sequence,” Abbott recalled “The first thing we had to do was look at the film as it was put together by the editorial department for ideas on how to move the birds in, how to time each shot and how to match the angles dictated by the cuts. Our two biggest problems were perspective and size-ratio; we had to optically make the birds appear to be swooping down at the kids by moving them into the frame at the same time adding a slight zoom to bring them in closer. We had to play around a lot with increasing and decreasing the size of the birds to make them look right in relation to the children. They also had to be optically multiplied, to make the mass appear larger than it was.”
Real birds, trained to land on the necks and shoulders of the children, were used in the foreground of the shots, with a hand-puppet standing in for shots of birds biting the children in close-ups. Shots of the children running down the road (actually located miles away from the school house) were skillfully intercut with the completed studio photography of children running on a treadmill with dummy birds overhead on wires.
To add to the effects nightmare for Abbott, Iwerks’ footage of the crows was slightly underexposed. To bring out the full shape of the birds in order to get a solid matte outline meant losing all detail in the birds’ bodies. Short of re-shooting the bird footage (unrealistic, considering the pressure to complete the opticals) these “silhouette crows” were the best that could be managed.
For the sequence of the crows massing on the jungle gym, Berwick trained about two dozen birds to land on the bars. Later, working on a Universal stage, he trained an additional 125 crows to roost on a duplicate jungle gym. Opticals and matte work combined the two shooting locations and seemingly multiplied the number of birds. There’s a slight jump cut just before the birds take off, caused when a couple of eager birds missed their cue and flew off ahead of the others. To make it look as though all the birds had flown away together, 15 feet of film was removed from the sequence.
However, there were no such problems (though there were plenty of others) shooting the film’s most spectacular effects sequence: the mass attack on Bodega Bay, featuring the stunning aerial view of the town in flames as more gulls swoop in.
The sequence begins immediately after the crow attack on the school. Melanie’s alarmed state instigates a round of discussion between customers in the Tides as to what should be done to deal with the birds. A testy traveling salesman (Joe Mantell) suggests that everyone get guns and “wipe them off the face of the earth,” an idea scoffed at by Mrs. Bundy, who reports that there are more than a hundred billion birds in the world.
The conversation ends as another avian assault commences. An approaching gull knocks the gas station attendant unconscious — achieved by training the bird to fly closely over the head of a stuntman, who faked the blow just as a fighter might react to a deliberately mistimed punch. As men from the restaurant rush out to the attendant’s aid, Hitchcock uses the expanded time to show the spilled gasoline advancing towards a man who is lighting up a cigarette. Melanie and the others attempt to shout him a warning through the window (unfortunately, their overlapping dialogue is not well timed) but he drops the match, igniting the gasoline and setting off a series of fiery explosions.
High above, a squadron of sea gulls is watching. Attracted by the activity below, they begin to descend upon the town for purposes of destruction.
This so-called “balloon shot” allows us for the first time to experience a viewpoint that is other than human in form. Bodega Bay now seems but a tiny, desolate waste-land, wide open to the ravages of an out of synch physical universe.
“Hitchcock likes to put actors into situations he identifies with,” said Robert Boyle. “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.”
Aside from the burning cars and buildings and the running people, the entire shot is a matte. At the time of production, a new parking lot had been asphalted on the studio back-lot, making it ideal for filming purposes. Al Whitlock laid out the matte by putting a camera on a hill overlooking the parking area and did a sketch, delineating it so that it could be fit into the live action.
To obtain this particular bird footage, Whitlock sent two cameramen, Ross Hoffman (a relative of Bud) and Jon Hall (the former actor), and a non-union crew to Santa Cruz Island. “I knew there were gulls nesting in the cliffs there,” Whitlock recalled. “The crew charmed them out of their nests by throwing fish out to them. Back in the lab, we lifted the bird images off the black and white film it was shot on and rotoscoped them one by one into the matte.”
The rotoscoping took two female assistants three months to paint the birds frame by frame in order to get a matte of the birds for the required black and white traveling matte. A print and a negative of the birds on a clear cell provided the “male” matte to allow the birds to be lifted off the film and all extraneous background (water and cliffs) eliminated. The birds would then be put in the new scene with a “female” matte — blacked out film with clear areas representing the birds. Finally, the traveling matte of the birds was printed in over the matte painting of the town. First, a single gull comes in from right to left. Then, by optically flopping the shot over, the gull moves from left to right into the frame, appearing as if it is another bird.
I said, “Oh, well, what are we going to use?” He answered, “There’s a bunch of ravens and crows.” – Tippi Hedren
One could interpret the extraordinary attic sequence as a showdown between humanity and the violent external forces which threaten to overthrow it. Melanie’s decision to venture into the room alone — she decides to let the exhausted Mitch sleep — may be part naivete, part death-wish, but her courage is undeniable. According to Evan Hunter, Hitchcock originally intended to show Melanie opening several doors in the house, but abandoned the idea somewhere along the line.
“Contrary to what he sometime says, Hitchcock is very concerned about the logic of a character’s actions,” said Hunter, commenting upon Hitchcock’s statement to Truffaut that he finds logic “boring.”
“I had her going up to the attic after she heard a bird peeping,” Hunter said. “Hitch asked, ‘If she hears birds in the house, why doesn’t she wake Mitch?’ I said, ‘Because she’s not sure there are birds in the house.’ Hitch persisted. ‘But if she thinks there are birds in that room, why would she open the door?’ I had no answer. He said, ‘All right, it’s a good scene, but let’s take the curse off it. Let’s have her open a lot of doors and find no birds anyplace and therefore opens the last door believing it’s safe to do so.’ In the filmed version, even though the opening of the doors was added to the script, Melanie opens just that one door after all.”
Hitchcock has been quoted as saying that, at one point, the script called for Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) to be attacked in the attic, not Tippi Hedren. Hunter, however, stated that no such plot change ever took place.
“Never, in any version of the script, was a supporting character even considered for such an important scene,” Hunter said. “I can, in fact, remember him asking me for a line of dialogue to explain why Annie was not present during the finch-down-the-chimney attack whereas she was present during the earlier birthday party attack. When Hitch asked me for this line, I told him no one would ever question her absence. But he’s a stickler for detail and wanted it explained. [Rod Taylor mutters something about Annie having gone home to take a call from her sister in San Francisco.] Never, I repeat, never was she to remain at the Brenner house throughout the film. Why, this would have necessitated a major rewrite after the first draft, and no such major overhaul ever took place. Besides, the scenes following it are all predicated on Tippi Hedren being attacked.”
Until the day of filming the attic scene, Hedren assumed that most of the birds she’d be facing in the attack would be mechanical. After all, she must have reasoned, the bulk of the birds could be added optically, as they had been for many of the scenes. But for the effect Hitchcock was looking for, fake birds wouldn’t do, so unbeknownst to Hedren, birds were trained and a special set constructed for the sequence.
“The morning we were to start the scene,” said Hedren, “the assistant director, Jim Brown, came into my dressing room and seemed to be avoiding looking at me. I said, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ and he mumbled, ‘We can’t use the mechanical birds.’
“I said, ‘Uh, well, what are we going to use?’ He answered, ‘There’s a bunch of ravens and crows.’
“When I walked out on the set, I saw that they had built a huge cage around it — to keep the birds from flying up into the rafters — and inside the set were prop men with big, thick leather gloves up to their elbows to protect themselves from being bitten when they held the birds and hurled them at me.”
What adds up to less than a minute of screen time required seven days of rigorous shooting. Ray Berwick related how he trained the birds for the scene: “For the first few days, we trained the birds to land on Tippi and she would push them away. We finally exhausted that, since the birds began to get the idea and wouldn’t go near her anymore. Then we’d have to hold the birds at a distance of maybe eight or ten feet and just sail them right at her. In that close-up where she’s bitten, we put a little rubber tip on the bird’s beak.” Air jets were used to keep the birds from flying into the camera lens, and grips kept them back and forth with food. Some dummy birds were also used, specifically when Melanie swats a gull away with a flashlight.
After two days of shooting, the strain began to show. “By Wednesday of the shooting week, I was tired,” Hedren sighed. “By Thursday, I was noticeably nervous. On Friday they had me down on the floor with the birds tied loosely to me with elastic bands, which were attached through the peck-holes in my dress. Well, one of the birds clawed my eye and that did it; I just sat and cried. It was an incredible physical ordeal. It was very hard for Hitch at this time, too. He wouldn’t come out of his office until we were absolutely ready to shoot because he couldn’t stand to watch it.
“I’ll never forget the day Cary Grant came on the set during a break from shooting THAT TOUCH OF MINK. He was stunned by what I was going through and said to me, “You’re one brave lady.” I then considered the possibility that maybe this was one of the reasons why Hitchcock had chosen an unknown for the part — there was an element of danger in it, since the birds were not all nice guys.”
As complicated as this short sequence was to shoot, the film’s final shot, showing the Brenners and Melanie slowly making their way across the bird-littered landscape in her sportscar as the skies of morning break overhead, was even more complicated to realize.
This breathtaking image, a combination of 32 different exposures and Albert Whitlock’s stunning matte painting, has been referred to by Hitchcock as, “the most difficult single shot I’ve ever done.” Approximately a third of the birds in the shot were dummies, mostly used in the background and on the barn roof for atmospheric purposes. A few were chickens and ducks which had been purchased from a local slaughterhouse, and dyed to mask their natural color. The foreground was shot in three panel sections; the few live sea gulls available were shot and re-shot for each piece. Just above the heads of the crows was a long, slender middle section with more of the same gulls spread apart. The car going down the driveway, with the birds on each side of it, was another piece of film, as was the barn, and so on.
Many of the birds seen as Mitch pulls the car out of the garage were tranquilized to temporarily suspend their flying abilities. The crows could be taught to perch (or would stay in place, thanks to the miniature binders they wore, which were designed by Bob Dawn), but the gulls had to be tied in place atop the house and barn to prevent them from flying away. Stagehands were often required to rescue birds when they lost their footing and fell over the sides, leaving them hanging upside down by elastic bands.
Excuse me Mr. Hitchcock, sir. You mean, “The Birds are Coming,” don’t you sir? — A ‘Young Turk’ at Universal
Universal’s backing insured that THE BIRDS would have a costly and well-orchestrated media campaign. Substantial word of mouth was generated by the Hitchcock-derived catch-phrase, “The Birds is Coming,” a line which, at the very least, made grammarians bristle with fear. As Evan Hunter recalled, “When Hitch told the assembled Universal advertising masterminds that the headline on the ads would be ‘The Birds is Coming,’ surely a goddamn stroke of genius, one of the young Turks cleared his throat and said, ‘Uh, excuse me Mr. Hitchcock, sir. You mean, ‘The Birds are Coming,’ don’t you sir?'”
To launch the film, Hitchcock participated in a coast-to-coast pigeon relay, with prizes awarded to the first pigeon arriving in New York, where the movie was scheduled to open March 28th at the RKO Palace. A less successful media event took place in New York’s Central Park, where a model was dressed up as an ornate bird and paid to toss bread and fish to the local bird populace. Her outlandish costume only succeeded in scaring them away. Ray Berwick was also heavily involved in promoting the film with Hitchcock, traveling with several of his trained crows to theaters set to open the film.
Theatrical trailers and short, punchy radio commercials, written and narrated by the portly director himself, helped ignite public enthusiasm. “If you have ever eaten a turkey drumstick, caged a canary or gone duck hunting, THE BIRDS will give you something to think about,” Hitchcock says in one radio spot. “If you are the type of person who goes to a bull fight and roots for the bull, you’ll love THE BIRDS.”
THE BIRDS was selected to lead off the 1963 Cannes Film Festival and went on to enjoy a healthy but unspectacular, box office. But save for a handful of raves from such noted critics as Andrew Sarris and Vincent Canby, the press gave the film a decidedly frostly reception. Comments ranged from “dull and plotless” (Judith Crist) to “pointless and incomprehensible” (Pauline Kael). To add injury to insult, THE BIRDS lost its single Oscar nomination — for Best Optical Effects — to CLEOPATRA, Joseph Mankiewicz’s overblown historical spectacle.
When the film was first previewed, audiences reacted negatively to the ending, which shows the sportscar with Melanie and the Brenners inside driving off in the distance. Originally, there was just a fade to black, with no end title. But audiences, expecting answers to the questions posed by the film, misinterpreted the blank screen as a break in the reel. To avoid confusion come release-time, Bud Hoffman had Technicolor do an overlay clearly announcing that it was, in fact, “THE END.” As it was too late to add the title to the original negative, the title had to be overlay printed on every existing copy of the film.
But something of far greater importance than an end title was missing when the film premiered: Evan Hunter’s original ending.
“I don’t know why Hitch did not shoot the ending as we’d discussed it and I wrote it,” said Hunter. “At least 10 pages, and perhaps more, of the screenplay were not shot. In those ten pages, the Brenners and Melanie leave the house and drive through the town, where we see absolute chaos and realize the bird attacks are not a personal vendetta on Melanie and the Brenners but a widespread calamity (a possible uprising, as explored earlier in the romantic scene between Melanie and Mitch that was cut). “They are about to leave Bodega Bay when they come to a police department roadblock. A patrolman is draped over it, dead. Birds are perched on the telephone wires overhead, watching. Mitch gets out of the car, moves the roadblock aside, gets back in, starts the car forward again. The birds take flight, attacking the car. You’ll remember that Melanie is driving a convertible throughout the picture — and for good reason. As Mitch maneuvers the car out of town on winding roads, we cut to a helicopter shot, and the birds — as is their nature — are taking the “as the crow flies” route, going in a straight line while the car makes all those hairpin turns. Result: they are upon the car in an instant, tearing apart the canvas top with their beaks. As the top rips back at last, we see all these damn crows hovering over the people huddled inside crying — suddenly the road straightens out, Mitch steps on the gas and the car outdistances the birds.
“The road ahead is clear. Cathy asks Mitch if he thinks the love birds can breathe. Mitch replies, ‘I think they’ll be all right, honey.’ They stare ahead through the windshield at the magnificent sunrise over the hills beyond and Mitch says, ‘It looks… it looks clear up ahead.’ That was the end of the film.
“I think this was a much stronger ending than that mosaic of three thousand four hundred and seven pieces of film that ended the actual movie. When I saw it for the first time in a theater, people turned to each other and mumbled, ‘Is it over?’ ‘Is that it?’ ‘Huh?’ and words to that effect. I hastily departed before they realized I was the man who had written the screenplay and mistakenly assumed the ending they had just seen had been concocted by me.
“The Hitchcock ending,” Hunter maintained, “conveyed the impression, except for a brief news report on thecar radio, that what happened at the Brenner farm may have been an isolated experience brought on by God knows what — Melanie’s flighty earlier days? Lydia’s rejection of her? Who knows? By extending the screenplay to show havoc wreaked in town, we dismiss any possibility of this having been a personal bird vendetta against a small group of people.”
Early in production, Hitchcock told reporters that the birds would win the battle with the humans. “Our main characters manage to escape,” Hitchcock was quoted, “but nothing is said about what dangers they face.”
But when we spoke to Hitchcock, he told us his intent was to depict the attacks as an isolated phenomenon. “It seemed more real to me that it occur in one locale,” said Hitchcock. “I toyed with the idea of lap dissolving them in the car, looking, and there is the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds. Later when someone asked me if I was really going to doit, I said, ‘Look, if you go that far, where do you end? Los Angeles? New York?’ I would say that ending was more an element of the du Maurier concept; that birds had taken over the world.”
Hunter insists that a massive attack was what he and Hitchcock had in mind all along (though he said the concept of birds lining the Golden Gate Bridge was never even discussed with Hitchcock), and that the eliminated pages of his screenplay changes the entire tone of the film.
“By ending the film on a shot of the birds after the car has moved away from them, it seems clear that they are being left behind,” said Hunter. “This was not the original intention. I don’t feel the new ending is ambiguous. I feel it is simply puzzling. With such a large question looming, it seems to me the end of the film should have at least been decisive.”
Hitchcock explained why he did not find it necessary to film Hunter’s final pages. “I excluded those scenes because I felt they were superfluous,” he said. “Emotionally speaking, the movie was already over for the audience. The additional scenes would have been playing while everyone was leaving their seats and walking up the aisles. We used to call these hat-feeling scenes.”
Actually, it is only after you have seen the film a few times that Hitchcock’s ending seems, if not complete, then at least artistically correct. While certainly puzzling, the ambiguity of the final shot may be seen as a thematic element of the film, that facile endings are often misleading in their attempts to pacify audiences. Perhaps more birds will be waiting in San Francisco; or we may assume that what is happening in Bodega Bay — with reports of scattered attacks in the nearby communities of Santa Rosa and Sebastopol — is part of an isolated occurrence, rather than one of world-wide proportions, as du Maurier’s story seems to indicate.
Infinitely more valuable than any pellucid denouement THE BIRDS might have offered is the thought that lingers after its final images have faded. Mitch verbalizes it in one scene when he weighs the risk in dealing with an upcoming attack, saying, “It’s just a chance we’ll have to take.” If THE BIRDS has anything life-affirming to tell us, maybe it is that taking this chance, gambling on the less than absolute, and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds through our faith and love, is a fundamental step toward understanding life: its compulsions, its punishments, its true value.
And what became of the “stars” of the picture, the birds? As Ray Berwick told me, “I realized that if the really vicious birds, the ones who did the biting in the film, like the gulls, were returned to their flock, they would revert to being wild, so that’s what we did with a lot of them. I later heard reports that gulls were landing on people’s heads at the beach! The ravens we took back to Arizona and the finches we sold to a local pet store.”
Bud Hoffman offered this slightly more colorful explanation: “Some of the birds escaped and are now populating the San Fernando Valley. About 50 of the crows decided they liked it at Universal and made a perch on the tree outside Hitchcock’s bungalow, where they proceeded to go to the bathroom all over his car. We sent a crew out there to spray repellent, but they liked the stuff and wouldn’t leave, They threw rocks at them and even considered getting guns to shoot them down. They finally solved the problem non-violently by cutting off the tree limbs they were roosting on.”