Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Monster Bug Wars

The TV series we worked on from October to the end of January has recently started going to air in the US on the Discovery Science channel. We were contracted by Beyond Productions as invertebrate specialists and wranglers. The program is quite educational and examines the upper echelon of invertebrate predators, and reveals their adaptations and abilities within their various natural habitats.

Our role was to recreate the habits (sets) for the camera, and of course supply and wrangle around 60 species of invertebrates in order to film a wide range of natural behaviours. Each segment culminates in the pinnacle - the predation sequences where two predators meet. All the match-ups are those which would naturally occur in nature, but getting natural behaviour to occur on cue in front of the camera isn’t as easy as it sounds. It was a painstaking and patience-testing job, 10 hours a day for 3 months. For the most part there were just three of us on set; the DoP (Director of Photography) Malcolm Ludgate, camera assistant Mylene Ludgate, and myself (Alan). It was shot in full HD, and for some sequences we used two cameras - a specialised high speed camera which we cranked up to 2000 frames per second at times. (This camera was from the Myth Busters set, and came complete with shrapnel holes in the back of it). Some of the sequences we recorded with this camera gave us incredible insights into the behaviour and tactics used by some of the predators - things you would simply miss or misinterpret watching them at real speed.

The final product includes amazing imagery, some stunning CGI, music and an array of sound effects. Although the program style may not appeal to everyone, it is already gaining a substantial following in the US, and hopefully not only raising the profile of these often overlooked animals, but also providing the audience with a sense of appreciation for them through admiration of the incredible abilities these minute predators have.

One of the rainforest sets, surrounded by lights and two HD cameras.
Malcolm operates 'the probe' while I get the stars in place. The probe was  $100K lens kit which allowed us to get amazing up close imagery with holywood style tracking moves.

Preparing a White-tailed Spider to meet up with a Black House Spider.

One of the complete segments - a Bullant meeting up with a Redback.


  1. FROM
    To A Mouse
    By Robert Burns

    I'm truly sorry man's dominion
    Has broken Nature's social union,
    An' justifies that ill opinion
    Which makes thee startle
    At me, thy poor, earth born companion
    An' fellow mortal!

  2. I agree. It's pretty lame you guys have to stage the situations. Do it the natural way or don't do it at all.

  3. "natural habitats"............. I lol'd.

  4. Oh come on, listen to all you guys crying! This show is fantstic, and I don't see how its anything like dogfighting. For one, dogs don't usually eat eachother in the wild. And second, we kill billions of bugs every day with insecticide, (maybe you should be complaining about that?) And finally, you don't see people curling up with their centipedes at night. I feed crickets and fish to my pet turtle and watch while he eats them, is that cruel? No, its nature, and like watching a lion eat a wildebeast, its facinating.

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  5. Interesting points of view. I'm not about to judge anyone on their opinion - just point out a few facts.

    Nearly all nature documentaries featuring invertebrates are staged in this way. If you think that they are captured on camera 'the natural way' you are gravely mistaken. Whether it be BBC or any other producer of nature programs and documentaries, hard to witness sequences are more often than not shot under controlled conditions in the studio.

    All these animals are natural predators of one another in the wild. These interactions occur on a daily basis whether we humans like the barbarity of it or not. In most situations they occur in places very difficult to observe and capture on camera. I have spent hundreds of hours immersed in the rainforest and various other habitats observing and photographing these animals. The chance of stumbling across these predators at the right moments is quite slim. Seeing the animals feeding on one another however is very common, which is one way we are able to ensure that featured species are those which naturally interact.

    The title of this program (which I personally do not like) certainly polarises opinion on it. I'm sure if it had a more positive name, people would not judge it the same way. We spent quite a bit of time thinking about the ethics of such a program before we got involved to assist with the animals. We believe that the educational content of the program is considerable, and it is not just purely for the entertainment of viewers. Programs such as ‘Japanese bug wars’ on the other hand are pure exploitation of these animals for entertainment. Animal species that would never naturally meet are thrust into unnatural contact with each other. That is not at all what the program we are working on is about; unfortunately the name gives that impression.

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  6. I have to say I understand both sides of this discussion. I am fascinated by little creatures of all kinds. I am also an amateur photography and video enthusiast. I've made a few short videos of various critters, and although my videos were "staged" to varying degrees, I am grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed and filmed these interactions.

    I also use a slow motion camera, as well as a variety of super macro techniques.

    For reference, feel free to view these (amateur) videos on YouTube on my SloMoHolic channel. Here is a description of the extent of staging on each critter video:

    Slow Motion Bird videos, with audio:
    Staged only because I set up my camera on my bird feeder. It is outdoors, and I certainly didn't catch birds and release them into the "set." These are probably the most "unstaged" of my videos. Same story for dogs jumping in water at the dog park.

    The squirrel videos are the same way. I set up for hours on each shot, and waited for the squirrel to "attack" the bird feeder.

    The Tarantula Hawk vs Tarantula video was definitely not staged during filming, but I did take a few liberties in post. I rearranged some of the sequences to balance between slow motion and HD, and to try to "tell a story" with the footage I was able to capture. Other than occasionally positioning the camera very close (including one stationary shot that ended with the wasp crawling over the camera), there was no contact or other "influence" involved.

    The lizard was totally filmed in captivity. There would be no way to get that close in the wild. It wasn't tied down or anything, just laying on a rock while I filmed.

    The Centipede was a mixed bag. Obviously, some shots were filmed in a totally staged (and certainly not "natural") habitat. However, I felt that the sand provided an extra bit of definition and contrast that enhanced the viewing experience. I felt conflicted about feeding it crickets, but it was munching on one when I found it, so I felt that at least it was a natural interaction. In the parts where the centipede is crawling along the grass, I simply let it loose, filmed it, then recaptured it for another "take."

    The Tarantula feeding video was the most unnatural of all. I did keep the tarantula in a critter creeper and let it build it's burrow before stressing it with any prey.

    All of the creatures were not harmed, and were released where I found them (except the crickets). I did tons of research on how to keep them healthy during captivity, and I hope they are still thriving out there. The only thing I felt was a little oppressive (other than temporary captivity itself) was the bright lighting required for slow motion filming. I made sure all sessions were very short.

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about these videos and my treatment of the critters and their "stages." Although I didn't add sound effects, I did choose music that I felt contributed to each "story."

    Lastly, I did film several mantids, but found the resulting footage a bit too gory for my tastes, so did not post any of that footage. Incidentally, I found the mantids to be VERY inquisitive about me, and let them crawl all over my clothes, skin, and hair. They typically did not try to escape, but instead, stuck around, just "checking me out."

    Great job on the series and sets. I truly enjoy the shows, even if the sound effects are a bit over the top. I personally enjoy them, but could understand some folks' distaste. Keep up the good work!

  7. I was mad after they killed a hooded mantis.