It is the story of how the curiosity of a young boy grew into a dedicated scientific search that eventually resulted in the uncovering of a thousand-year-old mystery. Jonathan Barker and Wendy MacKeigan have produced an IMAX film about the discovery, by Beacher Dr. Fred Urquhart, of the secret wintering-over location of monarch butterflies. The film, Flight of the Butterflies, tells Urquhart’s story as he traces the annual migration of the beautiful insect to its mysterious winter resting spot deep in the mountainous jungles of west-central Mexico. The film stars renowned Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent as Dr. Urquhart and Patricia Phillips as his wife, Norah.
As a young boy Urquhart always wondered where the monarch butterflies that flitted around his family’s Toronto garden went in the winter. His childhood wonder grew into a lifelong pursuit.
He became a professor of entomology at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus and established a tagging system to try and track the butterflies when they left in the fall. He recruited hundreds of volunteers to keep track of the butterflies along their route, tagging and recording them as they flew by.
The tracking went on for years until one day he received a letter from Ken Brugger and his wife Catalina Aguado, who lived in Mexico. Brugger had come across thousands of dead monarchs in the mountainous region where they were living. The couple were as intrigued by the project as Urquhart, and their two-year search yielded the amazing discovery of the butterflies’ wintering grounds in 1976.
A photo of Aguado graced the cover of the August 1976 National Geographic surrounded by hundreds of the butterflies. The reserve has since been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Over the years Dr. Urquhart determined that the monarch butterfly makes one of the longest yearly migrations of any creature. What makes this even more fascinating is that it takes several generations of the monarch to reach its summer living area in Canada and the northern US states, while the generation – nicknamed a super generation – that hatches here each summer flies all the way back to the same place in Mexico, having never seen the place before. It is one of those marvellous mysteries that still baffles scientists.
Barker, one of the co-creators of the film, and partner MacKeigan said they were drawn to the story of Dr. Urquhart and the monarch butterfly following the success of their film BUGS!
“We thought, wouldn’t it be great to do a film about a tiny insect … on a giant screen?” Barker said. “But it is the interweaving of the migration story with the human story that made it so compelling.”
The movie took several years to make it to the big screen. A couple of years were spent researching the story and lining up funding. Barker said it was serendipitous that SK Films found support from then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón who was, himself, from the Michoacán region of Mexico where the over-wintering site is located. Filming took just over a year, with another year and a half spent in post-production.
“Filming was a very big challenge,” said Barker, as he recalled hauling the heavy IMAX equipment 10,000 feet into the mountains. Fifty men were required to carry and manoeuvre one crane apparatus alone.
Pinsent recalled how he came to be involved in the film.
“I was sitting at home deciding whether or not to go to Loblaws, when the phone rang,” he said. “It was Jonathan offering me a trip to Mexico. I thought to myself: Mexico, or Loblaws?”
Pinsent said he related to Dr. Urquhart’s passion and his desire to close the book on his life’s work. But it was the experience of actually seeing the monarchs themselves in their winter location that has left an indelible mark on him.
“The thing that captured me were the trees laden with millions and millions of butterflies,” he said. “They were like Christmas trees all colourfully decorated. It was such a powerful thing to see.”
Lately there has been a dramatic drop in the monarch population, caused mainly by the pesticide destruction of its major food source, the milkweed plant. Efforts are now underway to encourage farmers and those living in urban areas to plant milkweed.
“The call to action is embedded in the story,” said director Mike Slee. “Plant more milkweed!”
Barker echoed his sentiments, saying that it presents itself as a simple solution. Using the same technique of enlisting the help of hundreds of volunteer taggers, the makers of Flight of the Butterflies are hoping to encourage people to get involved in doing more to preserve these amazing, beautiful intrepid insects. It seems to be meeting with some success.
“We are quite amazed with the large number of people who have seen the film and who are asking how they can help,” said co-executive producer MacKeigan.
Flight of the Butterflies has been brought to the IMAX screen by SK Films, the same people responsible for BUGS!, Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta and The Water Brothers. It will be part of the regular rotation of IMAX films at the Ontario Science Centre on Don Mills Rd. Call 416-696-3127, or visit ontariosciencecentre.ca for schedules and costs. For more information on Flight of the Butterflies visit flightofthebutterflies.com.