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Sally Aitken smiles in front of a white 2024 Sundance Film Festival backdrop.

Hummingbird Acrobats Charm “EVERY LITTLE THING” Audience

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 21: Filmmaker Sally Aitken smiles at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “EVERY LITTLE THING” premiere at The Ray Theatre. (Photo by Haley Nord/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Annie Lyons

Meet Jimmy, the young performer behind a breakout debut performance in Sally Aitken’s EVERY LITTLE THING, which premiered on January 21 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. He’s a natural in front of the camera with his acrobatic skills. When he gets older, he has the “potential to be a real tyrant,” as his caretaker puts it. He weighs 2 grams, but if all goes according to plan, he’ll be 4 grams in no time at all. 

 Jimmy, of course, is a hummingbird. But don’t let his diminutive size fool you — the bright bird left a towering impression on the crowd at The Ray Theatre in Park City, Utah. 

Screening in the U.S. Documentary Competition, EVERY LITTLE THING spotlights the unique, compassionate work of Terry Masear, a Los Angeles–based hummingbird rehabber. In addition to fielding 5,000 calls per year from Angelenos who encounter hummingbirds in need, Masear nurtures orphaned chicks and wounded birds at her home. The documentary chronicles a busy season in her life and follows a group of hummingbirds as they progress through the “ICU” to the outside aviary and, finally, to release. Interpolating impressionistic archival footage and wondrous wildlife cinematography, writer-director Aitken connects Masear’s personal story with the birds she dedicates herself to, crafting an empathetic narrative of fragility, healing, and resilience. 

The Festival alum (Playing With Sharks, 2021 Sundance Film Festival) learned of the hummingbird hotliner when her producer, Bettina Dalton, sent her a review of Masear’s book Fastest Things on Wings. “As I read Terry’s work, which is metaphoric and beautiful and captures the last two decades of doing this work, I was hooked,” says Aitken during the post-premiere Q&A. “I was really captivated by the idea of this tiny, tiny little bird against this giant, sprawling, storied, mythologized Los Angeles.” But as Aitken puts it, before she started really delving into the story, she couldn’t help but wonder, “How much trouble can hummingbirds get into?”

Sally Aitken, Terry Masear, and Bettina Dalton stand in front of a white 2024 Sundance Film Festival backdrop.
(L–R) Writer-director Sally Aitken, subject Terry Masear, and producer Bettina Dalton attend the “EVERY LITTLE THING” premiere. (Photo by Haley Nord/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

Turns out, a lot. Cars, cactus spines, competitive other hummingbirds — as Masear constantly reminds the audience throughout the documentary, the wild birds live in a “war zone.” EVERY LITTLE THING covers their flitting triumphs with whimsy and their fluttering tragedies with gentleness. At The Ray, sniffles accompanied moments of heartbreak and resounding cheers broke out when a nerve-wracking session of flight training finally went right.

Part of the documentary’s magic is how Aitken captures the idiosyncratic characters of the birds. Along with Jimmy, audiences meet Wasabi, Mikhail, Alexa, Cactus (“a benevolent spirit”), Sugar Baby, and more. The filmmaker hoped to highlight hummingbirds who could represent certain parts of our personalities, with a particular thematic focus on resilience. “I think the birds actually had us wrapped around their tail feathers from the get-go,” she says. As one example, she explains, “I fell in love with Jimmy because Jimmy appeared on our first day of the shoot. I loved the way that Terry saw Jimmy as a character from the get-go, even in that baby stage. She was like, ‘He’s born for Hollywood. Oh, he’s gonna be asking for his agent now.’”

The stunning close-ups by Ann Prum, one of the film’s three directors of photography, also help create an emotional connection with the hummingbirds. “Ann is something of a hummingbird whisperer. And I’m not gonna lie, they’re not that easy to film. They’re that big” says Aitken, holding up her pinkie finger to laughter from the crowd. “If anyone knows anything about cameras, that’s not that conducive to a staged shot.” For those portions, the team decided to use a Phantom High-Speed camera, “meaning everything can be slowed down,” Aitken adds. “We thought and hoped that would just really allow you to see the birds up close.”

When asked whether she ever saw the cinematic potential of her book, Masear reflects how she rescued her first bird exactly 20 years ago next month. “When I took the bird to my mentor,  Jean Roper, she was already getting on and ready to pass the torch. The day I walked into her house, there were cages of hummingbirds all over and like in the film, that wing sound is constant,” she recalls, imitating the flapping sound. “Her whole house was like an engine, and she was making nests and making nectar. And I thought this would make a great book, and it would make it an even better film.” 

To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.