The Monarch butterfly makes one of the longest migrations on Earth, and it does with pinpoint accuracy despite never having flown the route before. Beginning in August every year, the North American Monarch populations head south for the winter–the only butterfly species to do so. By the time of the first frosts in late October, the butterflies that began their journey east of the Rocky Mountains have safely gathered in the mountains of Mexico. Come spring, the next generation of butterflies will make the return trip.
It’s a spectacular journey of more than 2,000 miles made by insects weighing less than a penny each. And now it’s been captured on 3-D film with the October release of Flight of the Butterflies at the Smithsonian’s IMAX theaters.
“The monarch symbolizes the beauty and fragility of nature but also embodies the strength and resilience needed for survival,” wrote the British film director and co-writer Mike Slee. In order to capture the tremendous journey, Slee and his team filmed for a total of two years. They were able to use the work of scientist Fred Urquhart, who spent almost 40 years trying to understand the Monarch butterfly’s migration and locate its secret winter sanctuary. Beginning with his childhood interest in the migration, the film follows the start of his research in 1937 to his discovery in Mexico.
Catalina Aguado was part of the initial team that discovered the mountainous winter retreat location with Urquhart in 1975. Aguado, along with her husband Kenneth Brugger, got involved in the project after answering Urquhart’s newspaper ad seeking volunteers in Mexico. Now Aguado, who is the only living member of that team, was able to help the documentary crew tell the story of the butterflies’ journey and her own part in discovering its mysteries.
The cinematics are nothing short of breathtaking. Even Slee found himself in awe of what he was capturing. “What you see, you can’t imagine nature ever being like this,” Slee told NPR. “Trees that are draped — that are made, almost, of butterflies. It’s got a surreal, supernatural feeling to it. It sends a sort of tingle up your spine when you see it in 3-D.”
“The whole project was pioneering natural history filmmaking,” wrote Slee, who has worked on more than 50 film projects, including David Attenborough’s Life on Earth and Living Planet series. Slee said it was a challenge to take so much motion and activity and adapt it to 3-D film. The team also used medical imaging techniques to get a new look at the insect’s early development. “Seeing the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly using micro CT scans and MRI scans from inside the chrysalis had never been before and it was mind-blowing.”
Even after enduring long days of inclement weather and filming from a 70-foot crane, the team still viewed the final product with a sense of wonder. Aguado told NPR, “I can say wonderful, fantastic and glorious — and whatever other words, but I cannot describe the feeling. It was magical.”
Below, scenes from the feature film: