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Bird’s-Eye View: Penguin ‘Spy Cams’ Capture Colony Activities

When it comes to getting stealthy shots up close and personal, nothing beats a remote-controlled animatronic penguin outfitted with a hidden HD spy-cam. Of course, the effect is spoiled if you put him in any environment that’s not full of other penguins.

Emperor parents care for their chick in Antarctica. Photo by Frederique Olivier.

John Downer Productions deployed 50 spy-cams in various penguin configurations to shoot 1,000 hours of intimate behavior for Penguins: Waddle All the Way, a two-hour Discovery Channel/BBC documentary that premieres in the United States on Nov. 23. These full-size “penguin-cams” are a revolutionary concept: they walk, get back up when knocked over, have cameras in their eyes and can even lay their own “egg-cams.”

Series producer John Downer, whose production company is famous for capturing wildlife in all manner of natural settings using clandestine camera gear, now focuses his customized miniature 1080p cameras on three markedly different penguin species: the emperor of Antarctica, the rockhopper of the Falkland Islands and the Humboldt variety in the seemingly unlikely habitat of Peru’s Atacama Desert. (The Antarctic crew spent more than 330 consecutive days there in the longest continuous shoot of emperor penguins ever conducted.)

Among the varieties of remotely controlled cameras deployed were species-specific full-size models (rockhopper, Humboldt, emperor), as well as chick-cams, snow-cams, egg-cams and an underwater penguin-cam. All of these units were positioned strategically to allow the spy-cams to waddle and roll within inches of the real-life birds on both land and sea.

One of these emperor penguins is a camera. Photo by Frederique Olivier.

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.

“The aim here was to capture a unique view of their extraordinary behavior up close when they don’t know they’re being observed,” Downer says. “Of course, you can still get quite close to some types of penguins, like rockhoppers, but the birds will often stop doing anything when humans are close by. You can’t really approach the emperor penguin within about 40 meters, and the Humboldt type will run far away if they see a person, but what none of them is really afraid of is another penguin. So the idea was to disguise our tiny cameras. We had different types of ‘penguins,’ including some that simply turned their heads or waddled. One could even lay an egg, where the egg itself was also a camera. This provided some truly incredible aerial footage when one egg was scooped up by a petrel, and she flew it directly over the colony,” adds Downer.

Apart from the robotic elements of the spy-cam units, which were devised in the United States by a Japanese robotics engineer, the penguin mannequins and mini-cam bodies were constructed by a team of craftsmen in Bristol, England, where Downer’s company is based.

Rockhopper-cam in the rockhopper colony in the Falkland Islands. Photo by Philip Dalton.

Long-lens shots were captured primarily on RED cameras. “We love RED because of its higher resolution and its ability to shoot at high speeds. But I’d say maybe 60 percent of the final footage was from the [spy-cams],” Downer says.

Although the smarter penguins seemed to sense a difference between the penguin-cams and real birds, most were fooled. Downer says that at least one bird, upon not seeing his life-mate return after a six-month absence at sea, actually began to woo one of the animatronic penguins.

Things did not always go well socially for the artificial birds, according to producer Phil Dalton. “Some of the larger males among the rockhoppers saw one of our robotic penguins as competition. It became victim to a bit of violence on at least one occasion, and it was generally maltreated, having its head ripped off and slapped around. Penguins can be quite ferocious with one another.”

Other injurious events: a penguin-cam had its legs broken twice when knocked off a cliff by rockhoppers, one had a flipper ripped off by an albatross, and the underwater penguin-cam was attacked by sea lions and lost a flipper in the process. And there were fatalities as well. Three egg-cams were lost in a blizzard, two were taken by birds and one underwater rock-cam was washed away while filming rockhoppers.

Series producer John Downer with rockhoppers. Photo by Geoff Bell.

Dalton adds, “The rockhoppers were on the Falklands, which are often very windy, so our robotic birds had to be able to withstand very high winds and stay upright.”

Downer’s production company typically does not provide technical details (or specific brand names) about its miniature spy-cam systems, except to say they are custom-built, provide 1080p quality and relay footage to nearby monitors to allow operation of the animatronic creatures in real time. “The fantastic thing is it’s only been recently we can use these high-grade cameras small enough to fit into the eye of a penguin-cam. This was a big breakthrough for us,” Downer says.

The three-hour documentary that debuted in February on the BBC (called Penguins—Spy in the Huddle) was pared down to the two-hour U.S. version for Discovery Channel. An Americanized narration track was laid in by actor Jane Lynch of Glee. Both versions of the doc are expected to be available on Blu-ray in 2014.