1962 Tech: Alfred Hitchcock and His Angry Birds

Written by Russ Johnson

On the eve of the release of two movies about flawed genius Alfred Hitchcock, our editor Russ Johnson went to Bodega Bay, CA to investigate the story and technology behind some really angry birds. They were “The Birds.” The year was 1962. Spooky.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s chiller “The Birds” and, within the next few weeks, two movies will be released about the strange, flawed genius that was “Hitch.” I revisited Bodega and Bodega Bay, Calif. That’s where Hitchcock filmed “The Birds” in 1962. I did some digging into the special effects and themes that were common not only in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also in today’s zombie movies, where things unseen screech, slither or go bump outside of our windows.

The tiny village of Bodega was mashed up with Bodega Bay, a fishing port a few miles away on the coast, which, in the movie, was ravaged by seagulls and some would say, still is. I lived there briefly in the 80s and remember renting “The Birds” on a terrifying night when the wind howled off of the ocean and rain pummeled my house.

Hitchcock, despite his amoral reputation, was a devout Catholic and worshiped at St. Theresa of Avila in Bodega, seen in the film. The church is a California Historical Landmark and was built in 1859 by New England shipbuilders when Irish and Italian immigrants swarmed into the area, many taking up dairy farming. It still looks the same, even though everything except the plumbing has been upgraded. Parishioners must make use of an outhouse should The Lord or something else move them.

The notion of being trapped in a room or, in the case of “The Birds,” a schoolhouse while danger lurks unseen outside. That was a common theme of cold war era Sci-Fi films and modern zombie movies. Behind the church you can see the Potter Schoolhouse from which a teacher played by Suzanne Pleshette herded children screaming, pursued by a murder of crows.

The crows chase the children from the schoolhouse down a road. The reverse shot shows the kids running in the direction of Tides Wharf in Bodega Bay about five miles away. It is now a popular seafood restaurant.

Most of “The Birds” were stuffed. My wife, as a child, visited Bodega Bay during the filming and saw hundreds of them fastened to rooftops. Enormous fans pointed their way. According to an editor who worked on the film, effects designers built about $200 thousand worth of mechanical birds that looked like model airplanes that flapped their wings. Few of the contraptions were used.

Then there was the real thing. My wife saw crates and crates of real seagulls. Hitchcock unleashed some very angry birds in an enclosed telephone booth with star Tippi Hedren.  It doesn’t show it in the film, where she emerges from the booth with perfect makeup and every hair in place, but she was bloodied by the incident. Just one of the prices (there were others) of stardom.

Birds were combined with human action using the “sodium vapor process,” nicknamed “yellow screen,” which required lighting a scene with narrow spectrum sodium vapor lamps, filming two separate images through a beam splitter and combining them. The madly flapping wings created too much distortion for the traditional blue screen process. Effects were directed by an animator/technician named Ub Iwerks (his last name spelled backwards is Skrewi) who, with Walt Disney, earlier created Mickey Mouse.

“The Birds” had no traditional musical score. The creepy bird sounds were created on a distant cousin of the Moog Synthesizer called the Mixtur-Trautonium, invented by Friedrich Trautwein and physicist-composer Oskar Sala in the late 1920s. It incorporates resistor wires and something called a relaxation oscillator … 

Trautonium, 1933

HBO will screen “The Girl” on Saturday October 20. Hitchcock, played by Toby Jones, becomes obsessed with his leading lady, played by Sienna Miller. It dramatizes an era when directors could barter stardom for sex and even destroy their careers. Hedren, who says she didn’t fall for his advances, claims Hitchcock ruined her career by not letting her out of her contract and telling other producers that she “isn’t available.”

“Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson arrives in theaters November 23, 2012. It is about Hitchcock’s battle to make “Psycho.”

Bodega and Bodega Bay are about 65 miles north of San Francisco.