How do you get up close and personal with a threatened, delicate species that travels thousands of kilometres every year? The answer is Flight of the Butterflies, a new IMAX release by Toronto-based SK Films Inc., which strikes a balance between documentary and conservation.

The film follows the 4,400-kilometre journey of a family of monarchs from Texas to Toronto and then along their southbound migratory path to the majestic pine-oak forests high atop the peaks of Michoácan, Mexico. For one year, film crews took flight with the monarchs, filming four generations of a Canadian monarch family on its perilous adventure. The film also tells the story of Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart, who spent 40 years following these insects and discovered their overwintering grounds in Michoácan, now a conservation area.

Since the film was shot not just in Canada, but also extensively in the sanctuaries of Michoácan, the team had to be extremely conscious of the environment they were in. From creating a minimal amount of noise to using as little equipment as possible; the team was faced with a difficult task. “We have a long history of making natural history films,” says producer Jonathan Barker, “and we do know how to behave in terms of respecting the environment.”

In March, the World Wildlife Fund announced the monarch was near threatened with the overwintering population having dropped by one third in the past year. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has listed the butterfly as a species of 'Special Concern,' meaning it is on the brink of becoming threatened or endangered, since 1997.
“The Monarch, and all its magnificence, is the building block on which we (North Americans) can build a more sustainable future,” says Mexico’s Secretary of Environment, Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada. “If we can save the Monarch, we can save the environment.”

“I had not yet seen before a blend of the human element with nature and history,” says lead actor Gordon Pinsent, who plays Urquhart, “so that there would be a performer used to bring forth the same excitement and awe that the original Fred Urquhart must have felt.”

Aiming to promote a greater awareness of environmental and climate change concerns affecting the monarch population, and to encourage involvement in conservation efforts, the film is a landmark for both IMAX and conservation efforts alike.

“Suddenly you’re entering the world of the butterflies, and that magic kingdom was not yours,” says Pinsent. “You had no part in it other than to come in and be a voyeur of this incredible happening.”

Flight of the Butterflies will be shown at more than 150 cities in 40 countries in the next few years.

In Canada, the film is premiering this month at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and also at the Edmonton Science Centre. Flight of the Butterflies will travel across Canada in the next year, also scheduled for Giant Screens in Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria and Sudbury.