Pihar’s 1998 movie, An Insect’s Life, brought the tiny CGI ants to the world’s biggest screens. National Geographic’s new documentary series, Real Bug Life reverses this, turning bugs into giants in our homes. The only thing digital about the animated Disney+ series is their filming technology. But like its animated counterpart, the show explores the world they live in and their adventures in ways we’ve never seen before.
Focusing on insects, Real Bug Life not limited to specific remote residences. Over the course of the series, you’ll visit arid desert planes, tropical jungles, concrete jungles, UK agriculture and even a humble backyard. But thanks to a series of innovations, we see these worlds from completely new perspectives. “I think the look and feel of this show, and I’m not just saying this, I don’t think there’s anything like it or anything else that’s ever looked like this,” Nathan Small, a self-titled Producer/Director working on the show told Engadget.
The series opens in New York, where we follow the misadventures of an intrepid jumping spider. Although our eight-legged hero begins his journey on a city rooftop, it’s not long before we’re down to street level and teamed up with a gang of plucky ants, industrious flies, and menacing mantises. Some shots immediately stand out without knowing why. But Small does.
He explained that macro specialists have long preferred 60 or 100mm lenses, which provide incredible detail but have a very shallow depth of field (DOF). “It means there is no context always, there’s no geography and you’re always in this very nasty, blurry world,” he said. “Many so-called ‘probe’ lenses have been released in the last few years. A bit of a game-changer is made by a company called Laowa and is 24 millimeters.”
The probe’s lens looks just like you’d imagine — more like a vacuum cleaner trailer — but the shots it produces have two main advantages, Small explained. The first is practical: the 16-inch barrel means you don’t have to be physically close to the bug you’re shooting. Second, and the real reason these shots stand out, is that with a 24mm lens you get a deeper DOF with more focus. “You get that geography and you get that setting that makes it really cartoonish and fresh…kind of funny.” All I can say after watching that episode is that New York beef will never be the same again. You’ll also see the burgers fly in stomach-churning detail.
Small also explained that sometimes technology doesn’t change a shot, but instead can enhance what’s going on inside it. “A while back, all the lights I used were your classic film lights, Arri Blondes and stuff like that. They are very hot,” he said. “The LED lights, they’re very bright, but they’re cool, which means we’re getting all the light that nobody wants, without cooking the animal, letting it move naturally,” he said. . Catching creatures trying to escape the heat is less interesting than watching them do what comes naturally.
But what provides many of the most cinematic shots Real Bug Life cannot be purchased, at least not off the shelf. “I never touch the camera again,” Small said. “I do everything in specially constructed motion control devices. I have a robot that I have been working on for the last five years, gradually changing everything.” Small’s “robot” is a machine-engineered contraption machined with the same precision as medical instruments — which, he says, are vital because any shake or wobble is magnified at the scale he’s working on.
The robot allows him to work at a distance and control things through a large display to better visualize how things will look on TV. Two rails with sliders provide dual axes of movement, while the rotary stage and tilt control provide a full range of motion that, combined, unlocks shots you can only dream of with a tripod and slider. It uses the “brain” of the robot and he controls it all with the PlayStation 2 DualShock. After years of updating and improving, the robot can finally deliver the dynamic macro footage we’ve enjoyed on the show. If you want to see Small’s cinematic robot shots for yourself, visit the episode filmed on a British farm.
Some things still require humans. If you’re wondering how they pull off seemingly impossible moments like a spider spinning a web, the answer is… patience. In the show, we see an elephant hawk moth emerging from its chrysalis. “I just didn’t sleep for about five days, that’s not much,” he said. “You collect so many of them that you have options. My camera was on a big rail, and then as soon as I see one start twisting and moving, I slide the camera and beat, you’re in that camera.” The last shot in the show is only 10 seconds long, but without it the narrative falls apart, such is the life of a wildlife photographer.
If you want to celebrate a fledgling hawkmoth elephant or a daring jumping spider, but don’t have a Disney-level budget, don’t worry. Today’s consumer products are already more capable than a lot of pro gear, says Small. Especially when it comes to working in low light. “Before, you were stuck at ISO 200, which is a nightmare for macro because everything is too dark or noisy,” he said. “[Now] You can shoot at 3200 and still get really clean pictures. As mentioned before, this high aperture of f11 or above avoids those “smoshy” backgrounds. He also says that most of his kit comes together parts (unrelated).
For the camera itself, it will mostly depend on what you want to capture. For small, close-up macro photos (rather than video), he says the Olympus system dominates the industry, largely due to its internal focus assembly/bracket. In the same way that HDR photos blend multiple exposures for more even, natural light, focus stacking does the same thing, but with focus, so you can sharpen your subject and background pin.
More bird people? Then there seems to be an industry favorite according to Canon Small. Especially larger sensor models and RF mount lenses. Canon’s excellent autofocus locks on to animals very quickly and can even keep it locked when the subject is moving (as birds do). RF lenses also have a great reputation for their blend of speed and excellent internal stabilization, making them a good choice for general wildlife photography. When not shooting for work, Small uses a Canon EOS 5DS. “I think it’s a good all-round camera that does everything I need. Winners are like my hobby now, which is pretty sad, isn’t it? Because this is very close to my work.”
Real Bug LifeNarrated by Awkwafina, Disney+ premieres January 24th.
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