Friday, September 26, 2014

PBS Shows Spy in the Huddle - Check local listings

Credit: Philip Dalton

Smile, You’re on Candid Camera: Penguin Edition

In a new PBS Nature series, filmmakers disguise cameras, tricking real penguins for the sake of never-before-seen footage.

By Emma Bryce
Published: 09/24/2014
Want to trick a penguin into letting you film its most intimate moments? Hide your camera in a fake penguin egg…or even a fake penguin.

That’s how filmmakers captured never-before-seen moments of the sea dwellers lives in Penguins: Spy in the Huddle, A Nature Special Presentation, PBS Nature’s new documentary airing September 24. The three-part series follows Humboldts in Peru’s Atacama Desert, rockhoppers in the Falklands, and emperors in Antarctica. Over the course of a year, filmmakers deployed 50 robotic cameras, some shaped like eggs, rocks, or ice, and others built to look, walk, swim and even interact like the penguins. With these special investigators, the team was able to capture the lifecycle across all three colonies: breeding, birth, and each new generation’s move towards independence and the sea.
Audubon spoke to documentary producer John Downer about the never-before-seen footage the series presents—and what happens when birds steal, destroy, and try to copulate with your hidden cameras.

Audubon: What can the spy cams accomplish that normal cameras can’t?

John Downer: I think the big turning point on Penguins was the idea that spy cameras can actually become the animals. They’re more like spy creatures than spy cameras, and the animals accepted the devices in their midst.
So as well as capturing incredible, intimate imagery, because they were accepted so well into the colony the birds also started to interact with them. Hardly anything happened in any of the colonies that wasn’t filmed. It gives real insight into what it’s like to be a penguin.

A: Were the birds ever suspicious of these imposters?

JD: They were always curious because though it was a penguin, it was not quite a penguin that they knew. So the tendency was for them to cluster around it, and have a look. Sometimes you’d get these moments when they really did think it was a penguin and get quite attached to it. But most of the time, the cam is there as an observer.

A emperor cam hangs out amongst the penguins. Credit: Frederique Olivier
A: How were you able to make the spy cams behave in a life-like way?

JD: Their movements were programmable on a computer, and there was a set repertoire of penguin behavior. Actually within one of the scenes, a male penguin takes a fancy to one of our penguin cams, and part of the reason was that its movements were replicating the same movements you’d expect to get in courtship. And uh, the result was a little bit unexpected: the male penguin’s mate returned and beat up our penguin! You can’t write that into script, it just happens, and it’s a moment of comedy and magic.

A: Which were your most successful cams?

JD: I think the egg cams were the surprise because they were the simplest of all. But because of the number we put out, the perspective they gave, and the fact that they were recording all the time, we have stories that were captured with them when no one was there. For instance, there was an invasion by king cormorants into the rockhoppers’ colony, and they created havoc. We didn’t even know that had happened until we were going through the footage and saw this little drama unfold. One of the other big surprises for us was what a revelation it was having a swimming rockhopper penguin cam going underwater in the Falklands.

A: Did you lose any of your spies?

JD: You have to be prepared to lose a camera. They are at the sharp end of everything; you put them where you wouldn’t put a person. A lot were taken out to sea and dropped—and that’s just what happens.

A: Did you encounter any thieves amongst the penguins? 

JD: If they’d lost their own egg or a chick, or failed to breed, then the egg cams became quite attractive to birds, so they would take them into the nest. This wouldn’t last long as they’d soon get the idea—but it did create some extraordinary imagery of what it’s like to be a chick.

A: Did you manage to capture anything that had never been witnessed before?

JD: With the emperor penguins, it was the actual moment of laying the egg. Of course they haven’t got a nest, so they have to catch the egg on their tails. The tail slips under, captures it, and stops it dropping onto the cold ice. A few moments of contact would destroy this egg that they’ve spent a year’s investment on. That was captured for the first time, and I was astounded to see it.
In another scene one of the emperor penguins had lost a chick in the cold blizzards—the weather was unbelievably severe—and went to try and revive this frozen chick. I think it’s probably the most touching scene. To see the penguins, if you put into human terms, mourning over this chick, was unbelievably emotional.

A: So what’s to become of the ‘spies’?

JD: I’ve got two looking at me now! Some others have gone on tour; there are various public engagements that they have, because they’re so popular. In the future, we may even use them in another mission.


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