Hitchcock, a perfectionist genius (that's a polite way of saying "control freak"), hated to shoot on location—too many uncontrollable variables like weather, traffic, and annoying local residents. So, The Birds was shot partly on location in San Francisco and Bodega Bay, California, with most of the interior shots (and some exteriors) done on the studio lots.
Check out the film's very first shot: Melanie strolls across the street in San Francisco en route to the pet store. The first part of that shot was actually on the street; as soon as she passes behind a sign, the rest of the scene was shot in the studio. (It's seamless—you can't tell.) Some of the scenic shots of Bodega Bay were shot on location, and some were created in the studio using matte painting backgrounds. Those, you can tell. (Source) The scene where Melanie and Mitch are having their heart-to-heart at Cathy's party? Totally fake.
Hitchcock wanted to create an atmosphere of gloom at Bodega Bay, but the place was just too darn sunny. That's one of the reasons he used matte paintings as backgrounds; he could make the sky overcast to create an ominous atmosphere. "I remember some of the reviews criticized us for not playing up the beauty of Bodega Bay, but we didn't want it to be colorful. We weren't making a 'Bright Day at Malibu' type picture," said art director Robert Boyle. (Source)
The crew built facades around some old run-down buildings on location for exterior shots of the Brenner and Hayworth homes. They refurbished the old schoolhouse, which was due to be torn down.
All of these scenes were hugely complicated to construct. For example, the bird's-eye view shot of the gas station explosion started with a matte painting of an aerial view of Bodega Bay. A gasoline fire filmed on an asphalt stage at Universal Studios was superimposed on that. The crew then filmed gulls in another location, and animators traced them and inserted them into the scene to make it look like they were about to swoop down on the town. (Source) Talk about an expensive shot.
The Hitchcock Touch
Hitchcock made most of his films within the big-budget studio system, but he was famous for pushing the boundaries of filmmaking technique. Unique camera angles, cutting-edge special effects, long tracking shots, and short choppy shots: he was a master at using cinematic techniques to get exactly the audience reaction he wanted. Even the opening titles are unsettling, with the flapping wings and the shattered letters of the credits.
In The Birds, the most impressive technical accomplishment, is, well, the birds. It wasn't easy to get live bird actors—they refused to work for chicken feed.
Seriously, though, the trainers had to put out ads promising cash for anyone who could produce a crow or raven. The camera crew shot about 20,000 feet of film just at the San Francisco city dump, churning up the garbage to attract gulls, then filming them diving and hovering. In the end, Berwick and associates had to hunt birds themselves, finding some large roosts of crows and trapping them. It took four months or so of pre-production to get the birds, live and otherwise, ready for the shoot.
Hitchcock used a whole range of methods to get those frightening fliers to menace the townsfolk. There are live trained birds, puppet birds, mechanical birds, and animated birds—often all in the same scene. The effects guys would go back to the footage from the city dump, for example, and painstakingly add them back into the scenes.
Take the scene where the birds fly down the chimney of the Brenner house. At first, Hitchcock tried to use all live birds—but the birds just flew down the chimney and sat around, occasionally pooping, because that's what birds do when they're not acting.
Instead, they used a yellow screen technique which allowed them to combine live avian actors with fake backgrounds. The animated bird elements were provided by Disney animator Ub Iwerks, who got The Birds' sole Oscar nomination for his work. Some real birds were released down the chimney, and the animators turned them into a squawk flock.
The jungle gym scene with the birds did use some real, actual crows … but only a few. Most of the birds were cardboard cut-outs or dummies. A few live birds made the scene look realistic, so they didn't have to find several hundred crows willing to sit still for an extended shot. (Finches won't fly; crows won't sit—it's tough directing birds.)
Hitchcock called the final scene "the most difficult single shot I've ever done." (Source) It involved live, animated, and puppet birds, with a real car driving toward a painted background.
The overall effect? Stunning.
Master of Suspense
After Melanie first gets slammed by a gull, we spend the rest of the film waiting for the next attack. That's what we came to see, right?
After the birds arrive uninvited at Cathy's birthday party and pop the balloons—a nice touch—Hitchcock builds the suspense by showing us a few birds just minding their own business. Then, we see them massing on the schoolyard as Melanie waits for class to end. It takes forever for class to end, and meanwhile, more and more birds arrive as the schoolchildren sing an innocent nursery rhyme in the background. The buildup of tension is unbearable, as we see the birds long before Melanie does and we dread what's coming.
The gas station incineration scene is another great example of using long shots and reaction shots to build suspense. A single bird attack injures a guy filling his gas tank. The gasoline nozzle is knocked loose, and gas pours out on the ground, heading straight for some cars. A man gets out of one of the cars and starts to light a cigar. We see the gasoline flowing to his feet; he doesn't. The gasoline ignites and whooshes back towards the pump.
Melanie watches as the action unfolds, and the camera cuts back and forth between her horrified expression and the flames. Hitchcock shortens each cut by just a little, giving you a rush toward the inevitable big boom. That's followed by a very high-angle shot from a bird's-eye view, looking down on the explosion. It's as if Hitchcock pulled way back to tell you, "I am Alfred Hitchcock, and we are the birds and we will rain chaos down upon all of you."
Finally, the director definitely rained chaos all over his leading lady in the climactic attic scene. The attack leaves Melanie in a catatonic state; it landed Tippi Hedren on the disabled list for a week at her doctor's insistence. Hitchcock had assured her he'd use fake birds in the scene. Instead, he had live birds attached by nylon wire to her clothes and had the camera crew throw more birds at her. Even though their beaks were tied shut, she was wounded and traumatized.
She probably didn't have to do a heckuva lot of acting in that scene.
And, just in case you weren't planning on sleeping tonight anyway, we'll briefly mention those three quick jump cuts zooming in on the face of the dead farmer with nothing left of his eyes but bloody sockets.
Yeah … that.