Hitchcock fans … this one's for you. Using the power of post-processing technology, a sinister remix of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" and a Hitchcockian eye for filming the local birdlife, British videographer Paul Parker managed to cram an hour's worth of bird flight into 55 seconds of eerie "timelapse" video. The results are mesmerising (if a little unsettling)…

To capture the seagulls, blackbirds and sparrows filling the sky in the clip, Parker started by pointing his camera out of his window, hitting record and filming for an hour. The real magic comes courtesy of visual-effects software. To create the clip, Parker used Adobe After Effects features like masking and chroma keying, which allowed him to clone the birds' movements at regular intervals.

As the birds swoop and dive across the frame, their movements are mirrored so they leave behind a ghost trail of their momentary former selves, turning one gliding bird into a straight-line flock of hundreds. The first avian wave you see in the clip is the original footage (squashed into a few seconds), while the rest is a surreal creation of copy and paste.

Parker isn't the first creative brain to explore videographic bird cloning. Dennis Hlynsky, who heads up the Rhode Island School of Design's Film, Animation and Video Department, is well versed in layering frames of birds in flight. Hlynsk's work may go one step further, though, by helping researchers figure out exactly how and why birds flock – a field of scientific study that Hlynsk was unaware of when he filmed his first flock of birds outside a Dunkin' Donuts in 2006.

Although, Parker's and Hlynsky's visualisations are more art than realistic portrayal of the natural world, the extruded time effect may just prove useful to ornithologists trying to understand how birds move within flocks. When analysing his footage, Hlynsky was surprised at the lack of organisation within a flock. Instead of a well-coordinated aerial ballet, the birds' movements were more frantic and random. "They'd all take off and kind of surrender their individuality en masse – sort of like a change of state," he told Wired magazine.

His observations made sense. Researchers studying flocking behaviour theorised that birds follow six or seven of their immediate neighbours instead of tracking the movement of the flock as a whole. So flocking, the theory goes, is not the phenomenon of an entire mass of birds moving in unison, but rather a series of smaller groups moving together to form a cohesive whole. If one individual dives to avoid a predator, the nearest neighbour takes the cue, creating a chain reaction that surges through the entire flock like a Mexican wave.

Of course, there is still much we do not know about how and why birds take to the skies en masse. Retired flocking expert Frank Heppner believes that with the help of modelling software similar to that used by Parker and Hlynsky, the answers will soon be revealed. Until then, we'll just enjoy the show.

h/t: Treehugger


Header image: Jason Samfield