Capturing “Beauty on the Wing”

August 26, 2020

“Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly” is a 56 minute narrated film, directed by FC member Kim Smith, that unfolds along the shores of Cape Ann and in the heart of Mexico’s forested volcanic mountains. Every stage of the butterfly’s life cycle is experienced in vibrant close-up, from mating to egg to caterpillar to adult, and set against the backdrop of sea and forest, sun and wind. “Beauty on the Wing” was recently screened as part of the 2020 New Haven Documentary Film Festival and will soon be distributed online and for educational use by American Public Television Worldwide.

Kim Smith is a documentary filmmaker, environmental conservationist, photojournalist, author, illustrator and an award winning landscape designer. We recently chatted with her about her path to becoming a filmmaker and her passion the natural beauty to be found on the northern coast of Massachusetts. 

How did you come be a filmmaker?

I love writing and telling stories about people and about the wildlife found in my Cape Ann community and have for many years through books, photography, blogging, and illustrating. Filmmaking was a natural progression in a way. I am also a landscape designer and specialize in creating wildlife habitats for butterflies and birds. Through daily observation I am fortunate to witness some of the most beautiful creatures imaginable and have become spellbound by the wildlife that is found right here in our own backyards and along the shoreline, at the edge of the of the Atlantic Ocean.

How did the idea for “Beauty on the Wing” come about?

In 2006 I was photographing Monarch butterflies for a children’s book I was writing and illustrating. It was a phenomenal migration that year. The Monarchs were pouring across Massachusetts Bay and because of the wind conditions, they stayed and stayed and stayed; the butterfly’s numbers multiplied daily.  I promised myself that if I were ever able to witness such an extraordinary event again, I was going to have the ability to document through film as well.

How did you go about teaching yourself to shoot and edit?

I purchased a Canon video camera and set about teaching myself how to operate the camera. I made many shorts, experimenting and learning along the way. I know how to compose shots from painting and photography and could write as well. Filmmaking combines all the things I care deeply about and love to do, which is conserving wildlife, protecting habitats, storytelling, cinematography, working with natural light, and then pulling it all together through editing.

Did you have any role models in the genre of nature documentary filmmakers?

Although not a filmmaker, I am very inspired by Rachel Carson. She was a true visionary and witness for nature. Despite great personal hardship, she wrote beautifully of our troubled environment and her work has profoundly influenced the environmental movement.

What were the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of making the film?

The most challenging aspect was fundraising. I find it very difficult to ask people and organizations for money. But I did learn that friends and followers want to be supportive and be a part of something beautiful and educational. People were very generous and gave what they could, from $5.00 to $10,000.00. I feel very fortunate to have had these kind, helping hands in making “Beauty on the Wing”.

The rewarding aspects are many. I love when the light is perfect and rich and you know you captured a scene beautifully. Or when you stand in a field for hours waiting for a butterfly to fly by in just the right direction, and it does (the opening scene, when a Monarch sails by the lighthouse). I loved especially the scenes with my ‘butterfly kids,’ and trying to capture their joy and excitement in seeing the butterflies emerge from their chrysalides. Traveling to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserves in Mexico, both trips, in 2014 and in 2019, each in their own way were memorable, rewarding, and made my film better beyond any expectation. I made life long connections and hope to return to the sanctuaries many times. Finishing Beauty on the Wing with Eric Masunaga at Modulus Studios was also deeply rewarding, to learn from his expertise, and to see the film coming together after years of documenting the Monarchs.

Do you have any particular plans for distribution?

Yes! I am very excited to share that I just signed an agreement with American Public Television World Wide for educational and online distribution, a dream come true for Beauty on the Wing!

How did you come to know about and work with FC and how has being a member benefited you as a filmmaker?

I learned about FC through my friend, fellow filmmaker, and FC member Nubar Alexanian.

Becoming a member of FC has probably been one of the greatest strokes of good fortune for my documentary. FC has handled the fiscal aspect of fundraising impeccably. I have called countless times asking Laura and Kathleen for advice and they always respond immediately. The workshops and webinars have been an invaluable aid in understanding filmmaking beyond creating the film and in learning how to launch a film out to your audience.