Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

‘Bird Watching’: Exploring Modern Issues Through Archival Footage


When NYC-based filmmaker and photographer Anne Hollowday started her short film “Bird Watching,” she envisioned it as more of a straightforward narrative. However, as the project took shape, the piece, which focuses on the personal experiences of women dealing with objectification in modern society, took on a more nuanced structure. It was when Hollowday realized that combining her insightful audio interviews with archival footage of birds — both real and animated — that everything clicked into place.


The Power of Metaphor in Film

“I had lots of different ideas about how it should come to life visually, but I wanted to start with the audio interviews, because I felt like that was the backbone of the project,” explains the British expat. “I do a lot of documentary, commercial-branding type work, and I love doing audio-only interviews. I think you can get a better presence in terms of connection with people when you work primarily audio-based, especially people who aren’t used to being on camera. Working in an audio medium at first is really good to get back to some greater truth.”

To realize her vision for the project, Hollowday attempted a number of approaches, before turning to archival footage as the perfect solution. “There were lots of different iterations. I was filming with people, making it more of a visual poem, but then it just came to me that this was the right thing,” she says. “It adds that layer of metaphor, especially coming from the UK, where ‘bird’ has different connotations. Just playing with that whole idea of bird-watching also being this specific pastime, where people observe and watch birds, and the multiple layers of meaning there.”

Close-Up Parrot Walking by retroklips

“I keep saying to people that I really want the metaphor to be both sincere and a provocation,” says Hollowday. “It’s there, designed to make you think, again, about what your experience is, but also to operate within the parameters of history, and our society, and the nature of viewing, and who’s doing the viewing, and who’s being seen.”

The Importance of Women in Filmmaking

With recent events and conversations spotlighting the underrepresentation of women in the filmmaking industry, Hollowday’s short visual meditation also takes on another layer, as a piece by a female director reflecting on the status of women not just today, but throughout history. “The world I’m in is kind of different from Hollywood, obviously,” says Hollowday, who also focuses on creative brand work in NYC. “New York is super different. But I do think the stats speak for themselves as far as representation of women in all roles across the industry. I think more is great, and if we can raise awareness of that and shine a spotlight on it, then that will hopefully show other people that they can do it.”

The historical aspect also came to light more as Hollowday explored her visual options, first attempting to film some present-day footage herself for the project. “It just didn’t feel right,” she explains. “It felt too obvious. That’s why I think archives really have a magic and a presence. You think that your work is the most important work ever in the whole world and it’s just totally not. It’s really important to think about what’s come before and all of those different threads. Your experience today is so connected to and defined by everything that has gone before and around you, and I felt like this is a way to reflect that.”

1960s Footage of Penguins at the Zoo by tbmpvideo

The Spark of an Idea

“The first person I interviewed is the first voice you hear in the film,” reveals Hollowday. “We met in a bar, and she was telling me about this experience she’d had at work, and it was one of those moments where one person is talking, then, suddenly, there’s ten people all nodding. There was so much resonance in that collective experience that I was very interested in doing multiple interviews and seeing where those moments of synergy were. I feel like this project is a conversation starter. I’d love to expand it and have more accounts in there.”

Another reason Hollowday was excited about the way the project developed is because she was already a big fan of working with archival footage, especially for the creative possibilities it provides. “I really love to work in lots of different ways, but my favorite type of shoot is really nimble, really small crews,” says the filmmaker, who also just premiered another short film, “Common Structure,” that captures that aesthetic. “You can do a lot with that, but there’s also a lot you can’t do. Sometimes I feel like I have the perfect shot in my mind, but if you don’t have 50 people on your crew, you can’t get every single thing right in order to get that shot.”

Swan Swimming in Oregon, 1957 by StockFilm

“When you’re working with archives, you can say, ‘What am I trying to say here? What exists in the world?’ And you’ve just got to keep searching until you find it. I find that really exciting,” says Hollowday. “Actually, the process of editing ‘Bird Watching’ was really, really quick for that reason. I’d done a lot of research and had a spreadsheet. It’s something I like to do in my spare time, too. I just look at archives, and see what footage there is. I don’t know what projects are going to come up in the future, and I want to get ahead of that and always be aware, because it’s something that I find endlessly inspiring.”

At the end of the day, regardless of her approach to an individual film, Hollowday has a very clear idea of her ultimate goal. “I think part of your job as a filmmaker, especially in a documentary, is to try and share some of the experience you feel being in the moment with that person when they’re sharing their story with you,” she says. “If you can share just a tiny, tiny percentage of what you feel or what you felt at that time, you’ve done a really good job, because that’s so rare.”

Explore all the Pond5 footage used in “Bird Watching” by Anne Hollowday »