Endoscopes and Racing Drones: How a NatGeo Team Filmed A Real Bug’s Life
How do you film something that’s only about 2.5 millimeters long? What about thousands of those little somethings—pavement ants, in this case—all working together to dismantle a hot dog, perched amidst on a New York City sidewalk?
That’s a question Bill Markham and his team had to figure out when putting together National Geographic’s A Real Bug’s Life, available now on Disney+. Ostensibly a sort of “real life” tribute to A Bug’s Life, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, A Real Bug’s Life follows different bugs in their natural habitats, all in service of teaching viewers how they live and why they’re so important to our world at large.
For the insects, that meant using a medical endoscope which allowed the camera operators to get more intimate with an ant than ever before. “We were able to get down to their level with our modified endoscope,” Markham says. “We could actually look up at an ant, which, I mean… it’s barely a 40th of an inch high, yet you’re able to get your lens to look up at that hero animal. Suddenly, you can film it cinematically, too. Before, you’d always be looking down on it, but you should never look down on your heroes.”
Wildlife filmmakers have been benefiting from increasingly powerful 4K HDR cameras since their introduction into the market, but Markham says that in the case of A Real Bug’s Life, getting the right shot was also really about what lenses they used. “Macro lenses in the past would isolate the animal so that, if the focus was on the animal, the background would be completely out of focus,” he explains. “Bugs always looked like they were in a kind of mushy background. But now, with a new generation of probe lenses, which are these foot long lenses with a little tiny lens on the end, you can present your character in the context of its world and you can see the world from its point of view.”
That’s crucial with something like A Real Bug’s Life, not just because of the show’s tiny subjects but because of who the program is trying to reach and its cinematic inspiration. “If you think about a Pixar film,” Markham says, “they can engage the audience even with some pretty unattractive animals like ants and grasshoppers and beetles by getting down to their level, seeing their faces and making characters out of them. With these lenses and with our various techniques, we were able to do that as well. It was a real breakthrough.”
The Bug team also used various other tricks, like flying racing drones through dense jungle, to capture the world through an insect eye. They also benefited from advances in remote control technology, with Markham explaining, “When you’re filming with something like a probe lens at that scale, if you’re touching the camera to capture something that’s the size of half a grain of rice, you’d see your hand shake and whatever you did would wobble the shot. All of our cameras, pretty much, are remote controlled, so our operators were using almost like PlayStation joysticks to move and operate the cameras. That’s the only way you can get smooth movement.”
The show also reaped the fruit of advances in lighting technology. When Markham did his first insect shoot in 1996, crews would have to use huge lights to capture any sort of action. He was helping film pillbugs, and with cameras not being as light sensitive as they are now, they found that the lights they were using were getting too hot, changing pillbug behavior and causing the ground around the bugs to actually steam. “These days, with LED lights,” Markham says, “you can get your lights close and dim them right down so you’re able to film these animals beautifully, acting naturally, without affecting their behavior.”
While viewers at home might marvel at how whimsically and intricately A Real Bug’s Life captures things like a cockroach crawling across a sidewalk, into a crack and down into a “bugway” of animals underground, Markham and company—like other wildlife filmmakers—did have to rely on some tricks of the trade to make those shots look seamless. While great pains were taken to ensure that all behavior shown on screen is true to what the animals’ actions would be in real life, occasionally another “body double” or “stunt double” would be required for the hero insect. Entomologists were always on site with the camera crews, and the production used an overall bug consultant, Dr. Tim Cockerill, to help shape the stories they’d tell on screen.
Sometimes, getting the shot required a little more than just choosing another different ant to follow around for a bit. There’s a scene in one of the episodes where a cockroach egg hatches and a brand new six-legged friend is introduced to the world. Typically, from when an egg is laid to when it hatches takes about a month, so if the show were to find a clutch of cockroach eggs in the wild, say, they’d be hard-pressed to have the time or resources to sit there and film them for what could be days or weeks.
Instead, Markham says, cinematographer Nathan Small worked with Cockerill to get two brand new cockroach egg sacs from a local entomologist’s lab. One of the eggs was laid a day before the other, meaning that—since cockroach eggs hatch on a pretty regular cycle—they’d be able to predict within about a day when the second egg was going to hatch. Small took both egg sacs home and placed them in a highly secure reptile incubator, in which he could control the humidity and temperature, thus mimicking life underground. (The security was also for his benefit, since it meant the roaches wouldn’t hatch and get out into his home.)
Once Small saw the first sac open, he set up his gear to film the second hatch, which happened at about 4 a.m. the next day. “I think it was seven hours of filming to get something that happens in 20 seconds on the show,” says Markham. “There’s no way of doing that out in the wild, though. It had to be really carefully thought out and planned.”
While watching a baby roach emerge into the world won’t float everyone’s boat, Markham hopes that those who do watch the show can find a little bit of commonality with the insects, as well as some sympathy. “In the last 20 years,” Markham says, “something like 60 percent of Britain’s flying bugs have disappeared. It’s the same in Germany, too. 40 percent of the world’s insect species are declining and about a third are endangered. The rate of extinction in bugs is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds, and reptiles, too. Bugs are just in terrible trouble, really, and the important thing about this series is that we want people to fall in love with bugs so that, in turn, they’ll care for them and might even think about protecting them.”