New TVO doc Tripping The Niagara simulates hawk-eye view during flight with drones

Imagine soaring like a red-tailed hawk over the Niagara River, its aquamarine waters churning endlessly as you rise through the air.

Executive producer Mitch Azaria says that’s the idea behind Tripping The Niagara, a three-hour documentary showcasing the Niagara Region by using drones to simulate the flight of a hawk.

“When you see this film either as a Canadian or someone from Ontario, I think you leave it with more of a sense of pride of a place that you think you know, but then you realize [it’s] so much more,” Azaria said. 

He said the immersive documentary follows the pattern of a curious hawk, and explores historic forts, vineyards, botanical gardens and orchards off the river, but also the powerful White Water Walk and falls.

It premieres on TVO on Friday at 7 p.m. ET, and will be available for streaming on the TVO website or its YouTube channel.

Tripping the Niagara airs on TVO in April 0:54

This is the second “tripping” episode by production company Good Earth Productions. The first explored the Rideau Canal, allowing viewers to board a 1948 mahogany boat and float for four hours along the waterway. A media release says it was viewed by 1.2 million people in Ontario.

“It gave people an opportunity to take a vacation while still at home,” said Azaria. “No narration, no music. You were seeing it just as we saw it.”

With viewers seemingly taking to the sky in this documentary, Azaria — a Hot Docs award winner and seven-time Gemini nominee — said the creative team thought there was no better place than Niagara. 

“This mesmerizing journey is the only tour of its kind, and a unique way to visit the Niagara Region, especially during the pandemic,” Jane Jankovic, TVO’s executive producer of documentaries, said in the release.

A hawk named Striker

Since red-tail hawks are abundant and native to the Niagara area, Azaria said, the team was drawn to working with the prolific raptor.

The crew studied a hawk with the show name Striker — his real name is Stickers due to his habit of taking a subtle false start. The hawk’s wrangler tackled the precarious job of giving a food reward — enough to fly back, but not so much as to make it lethargic. 

A still from the documentary shows Brock’s Monument in Queenston Heights Park. (Tripping the Niagara/TVO)

Replicating Striker’s flight with drones was an extreme challenge, Azaria said, since they needed to fly for 18 minutes straight without any “hiccups” along the way. 

While the normal process to run a drone that way would include two operators — a dance between a pilot charting the way and a photographer capturing the shots — it wouldn’t take long for some mistake to be made. 

Shooting from the rapids

Azaria credits Peter Warren, director of photography and a recreational pilot himself, as the only person who could achieve that seamless, blip-less effect alone.

The journey found the crew shooting aboard a jet boat on one of the fastest-moving rivers in the world, flying the drones from roaring rapids in the 17-storey narrow gorge between Niagara-on-the-Lake and the falls. 

The gorge’s depth would cause the drone to lose its bearings, and it didn’t have a hard surface to land on, Azaria said. As the drone returned, they would have to hand-catch it. 

“There’s no other way to do it,” he said. “There were moments there where we all kind of looked at each other and thought, ‘What the heck are we really doing?'”

‘There’s so much more to Niagara’

The film also includes animated sequences of historic events, as well as about 160 information board pop-ups that give bites of knowledge. 

There’s probably no Canadian site that’s more famous around the world than Niagara Falls, Azaria said.

But for people from Ontario, he said, a trip to Niagara is often thought of as checking out the falls — Horseshoe Falls, the U.S. side of the Falls and Bridal Veil Falls — and popping over to the attraction-heavy Clifton Hill. 

He said the documentary shows the sheer variety of the region. He also hopes behind-the-scenes stories enrich the audience’s experience and result viewers leaving with a little more knowledge than they had before, even for those who call Niagara home. 

The documentary’s executive producer, Mitch Azaria, hopes the variety of shots in the film and educational pop-ups show there’s more to Niagara than the falls. Pictured above is Two Sisters Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Tripping the Niagara/TVO)

He talked about viewers flying above the vineyards, seeing something planted for as far as they can see, and learning that it was once the lake bed of a mineral-rich Lake Iroquois. 

Throw in the bird’s-eye view of the region, he said, and it allows people to have a perspective with “no limits.”

“There’s so much more to Niagara,” said Azaria.