PBS Nature: ‘Spy in the Wild’ Amuses and Enlightens

If you’ve seen that viral video of a Langur monkey-shaped camera that caused a troop of monkeys to go into mourning or if you’ve been a fan of the camera spy series, be sure to catch the new PBS Nature miniseries, “Spy in the Wild” that begins on 1 February.

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.  “Spy in the Huddle” was about emperor penguins with 50 spy cameras deployed.

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, “Lion Spy–In the Den” (Amazon Video for $1.99)  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, “It 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 “Polar Bears: Spy on the Ice.”

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

What followed, “Penguins: Spy in the Huddle,” is the miniseries that 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.” Penguin-cam was one of them 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 yet because it is 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 (1 Feb. 2017) 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 croc didn’t make the press presentation, but the orangutan did. Downer noted, “The orangutan has the most amount of moving parts. It required a lot of time and money.” The animatronics have each hair individually place. 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.

While the croc and the orangutan are probably the most expensive spies in this menagerie, the one that probably “won’t break the bank” according to Dalton is the grub cam. “He hasn’t got a great deal of movement.” The spy grub is used to show a different view of the crows that make sticks to fish out grubs.

There are also variations of the bouldercam, the smaller nut cam that gets stolen from a spy squirrel and one that Downer particularly liked was a rock cam. Like the boulder came, it doesn’t move, but there’s a scene that gives the viewer “the perspective of the monkey and is just like the movie ‘2001,’”

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 it should be available online for streaming at PBS Nature

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