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Natural Habitat: Camouflaged Cameras Capture Animal Behavior Covertly for 'Spy in the Wild'

Producer John Downer says the aim of the series is “to capture these elusive moments where animals do something so extraordinary that it makes us consider our own connection with the natural world. 3/01/2017 12:45 PM Eastern
Menagerie of animatronic spycams. Photo by Stephen J. Downer/John Downer Productions.

In perhaps Nature’s most innovative production to date, the five-part series Spy in the Wild employs more than 30 animatronic spy cameras disguised as various animal species to covertly record their behavior in natural environments.

Among the featured spy creatures are Spy Orangutan, Spy Croc Hatchling, Spy Meerkat, Spy Egret, Spy Tortoise, Spy Prairie Dog, Spy Macaw, Spy Sloth, Spy Cobra, Spy Bushbaby, Spy Squirrel, Spy Adelie (penguin) and Spy Baby Hippo. These robotic, uncanny look-alikes infiltrate the natural world to film surprising behavior from wildlife around the world.

The first episode of the five-part Spy in the Wild, A NATURE Miniseries debuted Feb. 1. After episodes air, they are available for limited online streaming at pbs.org/nature.

Langur monkey pulling Spy Langur’s tail. Photo by Michael W. Richards/John Downer Productions.

Miniseries producer and director John Downer, whose previous productions include Earthflight and Penguins—Spy in the Huddle, says this is the first spycam series to be shot in ultra-high definition (UHD). He adds that this latest venture is “the most ambitious and biggest Spy series yet.”

A History of Covert Surveillance

For John Downer Production’s Penguins—Spy in the Huddle (2013), which recorded more than 1,000 hours of intimate penguin behavior, the production deployed more than 50 animatronic cameras disguised as life-size penguins to assist in shooting footage. Each camera shot 1080p video. Different penguin-cams had different capabilities, including walking and swimming. As well as resembling the three penguin species tracked in the show (emperor, rockhopper and Humboldt), penguin-cams were configured as penguin chicks, eggs and rocks.

Pulled out of retirement from 2010’s Polar Bears: Spy on the Ice, snowball-cam fit perfectly into the Antarctic environment. With no visible moving parts, it was able to roll across most terrain, even uphill. It could also film on the roll thanks to a self-leveling HD camera.

Digital Video profiled this production in December 2013.

After being dropped, the Spy Langur is treated by its troop as though it is dead.

Downer says the aim of the Spy series is “to capture these elusive moments where animals do something so extraordinary that it makes us consider our own connection with the natural world. Inevitably those moments are rare, but by deploying a menagerie of lifelike spy creatures and other remote cameras over long periods of time and filming thousands of hours of footage, it was possible to capture many never-seen-before moments.”

“This series is a big step up from how we currently view and understand animals,” says Nature executive producer Fred Kaufman. “It is surprising in every way.”

The State of Animatronic Cameras Today

The exceptional sequences recorded by the spy creatures’ built-in cameras for Spy in the Wild are numerous. Spy Croc Hatchlings were able to record for the first time a female Nile crocodile gathering her babies in her mouth for travel. As the robotic look-alikes were picked up with the real baby crocodiles, their cameras captured what it was like as the mother croc carried them all underwater.

Spy Tortoise caught the attention of a young chimpanzee, who became uncharacteristically possessive of this newfound toy or pet, unwilling to share it with other chimps.

Spy Wild Dog Pup. Photo by Stephen J. Downer/John Downer Productions.

Spy Langur, embedded with a group of 120 langur monkeys in India, was grabbed and accidentally dropped by a teenage langur, prompting a gathering of the monkeys around the motionless langur facsimile in a display, perhaps, of empathy and mourning.

Spy Bushbaby was present with other conventional cameras to help document a filming first as a young chimp befriends an abandoned genet kitten and tries to gently comfort it, arguably showing compassion for another species.

Spy Chick revealed life inside a tree nest, where a female red-billed hornbill is confined with her chicks for more than two months and dependent on her mate to feed them.

To be successful, these realistic robotic cameras needed to gain acceptance among their real-life counterparts, which they did by mimicking characteristic body language and behaviors. Spy Wild Dog Pup mimicked the body language of the African savannah’s wild dog pack with submissive postures, tail wagging and play bows to win them over. Likewise, Spy Prairie Dog was designed to perform a jump yip, a leap on two legs, which is a visual signal to unite the prairie dog colony in Colorado, as well as a sign of vigilance.

Wild dog pups inspect Spy Wild Dog Pup in Botswana. Photo by Richard Jones/John Downer Productions.

Although 34 new spy creatures were created for the miniseries, most of them had to have backups, given mishaps in the wild. In total, around 60 different spy cameras, including the spy creatures, were deployed to film the production. Logistically, up to 10 spy and conventional long-lens cameras could be used at any one time. Filming the episodes in 21 countries took three years, with more than 8,000 hours of footage shot.

The final episode of the series, which airs March 1, explains how the concept of spy creatures evolved at John Downer Productions—from the original boulder-cam to the penguin-cams that inspired the next-generation spycams featured in this series. It shows the painstaking work that goes into building the lifelike models and reveals how the team deploys and operates the robotic cameras on location all over the world. It contains funny and unexpected moments, much of which is experienced from the viewpoint of the spycams themselves.

Spy in the Wild, A NATURE Miniseries is a John Downer Production for BBC, PBS and THIRTEEN Productions. It is presented as part of a multi-title co-production deal among PBS, BBC and BBC Worldwide North America.  
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