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PBS' "Spy in the Wild" Gives a Close-Up Look at Animal Kingdom

If you've seen that viral video of a Langur monkey-shaped camera that caused a troop of monkeys to go into mourning, be sure to catch the new PBS Nature miniseries, "Spy in the Wild" that begins on February 1.

The series is produced by the British John Downer Productions Ltd., the same company that brought the 2013 miniseries "Spy in the Huddle" to BBC and later PBS. Downer began his exploration of oddly shaped cameras with his bouldercam, a remote camera made to resemble a boulder. Using the bouldercam, Downer wrote and directed the 2000 miniseries, "Lions: Spy in the Den," with David Attenborough providing the narration.

Series producer Philip Dalton commented that being able to see the tender exchanges between a lioness and her cubs was "irresistible. We couldn’t just stop there.” 

Downer followed that with "Trek: Spy on the Wildebeest," a TV movie in 2007 which used rock, skull and dung cameras. Then there was "Tiger: Spy in the Jungle,” a 2008 three-episode miniseries, and the 2011 project "Polar Bears: Spy on the Ice."

Dalton recounted that the snowball cam was supposedly “polar bear-proof” but the engineer hadn’t estimated the exact force of a bear on the ball. When it split in half, the engineer was in tears, but others were ecstatic over the footage. 

"Penguins: Spy in the Huddle" is the miniseries that followed, which changed the direction of this spy game. The 2013 "Spy in the Huddle," like all of the series, employs a variety of cameras so you get to see the cameras themselves being observed as well as the view point of the hidden "spy" camera. Yet this time, one of the spies is a penguin-like animatronic device.  

Dalton explained, “When we brainstorm, we come up with ridiculous ideas.” One of them was the penguin-cam, and by teaming up with roboticist in America, they were able to get a camera right into the heart of the penguin colony. Yet the camera caught the attention of a lonely emperor penguin who began affectionately preening the penguin-cam. “While he was preening, his partner turned up. It was a love triangle and we got it all on camera. She got very jealous and it looked like she was telling him off.” After capturing that remarkable footage the team wondered just how far they could go. 

From there, Downer directed the 2014 "Dolphins: Spy in the Pod." But this new series is more ambitious, as it's organized thematically with a variety of 12-15 animatronics in each show, explained executive producer Fred Kaufman. "Spy in the Wild" has an expanded focus. Episodes do not focus on one particular species, but look at a variety of animals within a broad theme. The first episode (airing February 1) looks at "Love," from love lost between two Adelie penguins due to a nesting issue to an unexpected amorous overture from a tortoise to an awareness of death. Old technology such as bouldercams and pebblecams are used as well as animatronics including an Adelie penguincam, tortoise cams, animal-in-eggs cams and bush baby cams.

The next episode (airing February 8) looks at "Intelligence." This is the first episode that features the orangutan animatronic camera that was a hit at the PBS Winter showcase, where members of the press were able to pose with the robotic cameras as well as play with the controls. "Friendship" is the topic of the episode airing February 15. We plunge into the murky waters with a hippo cam; simulated snake cameras (a rattlesnake amongst a prairie dog colony and a cobra amongst meercats) make their debut. 

“Spy in the Wild” involves many scientists, researchers, engineers and photographers. These aren’t robotics that are likely to make money, but Dalton notes that the challenge to innovate “fires up” scientists and artists from as close as London to as far away as Japan or Switzerland.

Once made, the animatronic cameras are placed near groups of animals already under observation. The researchers will have noted the regular movements of the animals. When the animals go out to forage, the spy creature is set in place. 

Often, Kaufman noted, “The immediate encounter is magical because you can see this little bit of confusion and curiosity. All of that you can see in the bodies of these creatures as they slowly approach. At some point it clicks in that its not harmful … You can almost see the wheels turning (in their heads).” 

For the crocodile camera, Dalton noted, “It took a year to finally getting the shots” from concept to development and then several trips to Africa, but it was worth it to get footage, The crocodile camera had to walk on land and be able to swim. Besides a full-size croc cam, there’s also a baby hatchling croc. You get to see how tender this ferocious predator can be from the inside of its mouth, and, in one episode, how it forms a friendship with a pair of birds. 

Downer noted about the orangutan that the press got to meet: “The orangutan has the most amount of moving parts. It required a lot of time and money.” The animatronics have each hair individually placed. Down explains, “We were keen to get as much expression in the face.” To that end, the production team went to John Nolan who has worked on feature films and commercials.

With animatronics, looks aren’t everything. The animatronics must also smell right. That might involve rubbing a bit of fecal matter on the camera so it smells like it’s a part of the pack as was the case with the African wild dog and the wolf animatronic pups. Those pups might not fool you, but they did well enough to avoid being torn up by the pack.

In the series you won’t see every single camera used and this time there’s one you won’t see. Downer stated, “We didn’t use the spy caterpillar. There was a great sequence but it just didn’t fit. The films have a direction and they sometimes take you somewhere you don’t expect.” The producers hope that by showing intimate studies of wild animals, people will have greater empathy for animals great and small. 

"Spy in the Wild" premieres Wednesdays on PBS, beginning 1 Feb. to 1 March 2017, 8-9 p.m. ET (Check local listings). After the initial screening each episode should be available online for streaming by clicking here

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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