When I first saw the headline for this video, I thought it was a spoof. I’ve reported on cameras used for scientific observation of wildlife, but somehow spy animal cams just seemed a little too Bladerunner to be believable. However, in a few minutes I quickly learned that John Downer Productions has indeed created animatronic cams for their 4 part miniseries Spy in the Wild for public television. Want to find our what life is like as a lookout for a clan of meerkats or curious about hatching as a baby alligator? This might just be the way to see the real deal. Here’s detail from the production company:
These robotic look-alikes make all the right moves to not only be accepted by animals but also interact with them, providing revelatory insights into their world.
In this four part series, each episode is packed with a menagerie of animatronic Spy Creatures exploring the different aspects of animal behaviour: Love, Intelligence, Friendships and Mischief.
On a clip from ITV’s This Morning Show, I learned that one of the challenges for researchers is observing a specific behavior of alligators where the mother takes an egg in her mouth and rotates it in order to coax the baby to come out. Supposedly this has been impossible to capture on film, but thanks to the animatronic cameras, not only is the behavior captured, but the camera actually ends up in the gator’s mouth! The footage is not only captivating, but it also keeps its promise to explore the emotional aspects of wildlife. Check out this scene where an animatronic monkey is believed to be dead by a group of Langur monkeys.
Certainly the spy cams are the stars in this show, and you can tell by the details of fur and fingernails that these are meant to be believable in the wild. I was able to track down a podcast interview with animatronic designer, John Nolan, who created the undercover cameras. John first studied at London College of Fashion for hair and makeup, but also got exposure to sculpture and prosthetic. Later he learned about the engineering side of animatronics as a trainee on a film set. His company has created creatures for Harry Potter and other large films, but never had to build something that could pass in nature 24/7 before. So, it has been exciting for them to take on the special challenges that were required. For instance, one of the giveaways of robots is the sound of their motors. The team was able to use “captive pulleys” for movement, so the motors for their bots could be tethered at a distance and hidden from the body of the faux animal. Another issue was the control of the animatronics. More and more movements were required making it difficult to translate on a typical remote with joysticks and buttons. So, control systems were developed that could handle the more complex scenarios. This process reminds me of the Dykstraflex camera that was developed for Star Wars–a situation where the product was developed to solve a particular challenge. It seems Nolan has found another niche, and I see a future of saving species in the wild using animatronics, beyond the work done with genetics in zoos.
Spy in the Wild has a team of scientists, filmmakers and designers, making it an intriguing collaboration. I’ve heard that one of their segments will be dedicated to the making of the animatronics, as well— I can’t wait for that show! Would you like to build a squirmy bot? Check out our learning guide for a Silicone Robo-Tentacle. This is the skinny on making a single skin robot with cool movement. Amaze your friends or plan your next scary Halloween decoration. Don’t forget to send us a video of your creation.