Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Spy in the Wild

(UK, 2017)

I figure Walt Disney was the father of the modern wildlife documentary. I remember features like White Wilderness, which famously faked footage of lemmings hurling themselves over a cliff. (The photographers were throwing them!) There was The Vanishing Prairie and The Living Desert. There were also short subjects which we were sometimes shown in my elementary school, films like Nature’s Half Acre and Bear Country. Back then, time-lapse photography of flowers opening was like a miracle. We knew flowers moved, but it was too slow to actually see. I remember the sense of wonder.

These days we have come a long, long way from those old films. The BBC is now showing their first series shot in 4K Hi-Def. Daring filmmakers have explored the ends of the Earth, endured incredible hardship to bring back the film. High speed cameras can slow things down so much that I sometimes wish we saw a little less of it, to see how things actually happen in real time. Camera drones and extremely long lenses can bring animals up so close to us that you can see the veins on the wings of a fly walking around on a lion’s nose. But nothing has brought us quite as close as this series.

The producers built thirty different disguised cameras designed to blend in with wild animals. There was a dolphin, a nautilus, two hippos (one for surface shooting and one for underwater), and an otter. All of them could swim pretty well. Then on land there was a wolf cub, a meerkat, a crocodile, an orangutan, a turtle, and several others. Some were more realistic than others, but the best ones could fool you until you got close. They could walk, and move their heads. If you knocked them over they could get back on their feet. The orang had quite a few facial expressions.

Then there were the elephants. Making an animatronic elephant to go into the herd was never going to be a viable option, so they used a turtle … and a pile of elephant turds! No kidding, it looked pretty real, but there was a camera inside it. The poop-cam.

Mostly the animals would explore these intruders and then ignore them. The producers got some really good footage from deep inside social groups that normally would be almost impossible to get. The last episode shows how the creatures were made, and how they were placed, which was often the most difficult thing to do. They had a bushbaby in a hollow stump, and they had to try to anticipate where a mobile troop of chimps would go. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

My only objection was something a bit like the lemmings con job. They would try to construct stories to go along with the footage, and I’m sure most of it was artificial. For example, when the wolf mother is moving her cubs to a new den, they made up a story that one of them had wandered away and almost been abandoned … until the mom counted the cubs and realized she was one short. And I’m sorry, I know for a fact that canines can’t count. When a dog of mine, Fuchsia, had a litter of five, one was born with a hole in his side. Fuchsia instinctively licked it and licked it, and the intestines came out. The pup was dead. So I did a fast shuffle, picking up a few at a time and returning different numbers, until I had the dead one out of sight. She never tumbled to the trick. Neither would the wolf mother. She just remembered that one was still back at the old burrow. I don’t like stuff like that. Other than that, though, it’s a damn good series.