How To Suck Up a Beetle on Camera
How To Suck Up a Beetle on Camera

A few years ago, I suddenly started to think about this little spider that I saw in my bathroom. What was it doing there? What did it eat? Was it lost? How did it get in my house? With that curious thought, the wheels were set in motion to make a film for The Nature of Things called The Great Wild Indoors, that would reveal — in full close-up glory — this amazing, hidden world of indoor wildlife we live with. A wildlife film that never goes outdoors.

Standing on a stool, cameranman Derek Rogers squeezes in between pipes and cables to get that cellar spider by the window.

We were blessed with a wonderful crew of bug experts and a gracious and cooperative family that let us into their house. But when it came to the real stars of the show —the bugs — we faced numerous challenges. The first was how to film creatures that in some cases were so small they are hard to see with the naked eye. And even if they are not tiny, we still needed to get very, very close to them to film them — it’s the nature of macro photography. And because many of them live up in rafters or hide away in dark corners, our work wasn't easy.

In other cases, the creatures we wanted to film were nocturnal — like the house centipede — and of course they instantly ran away from the bright lights we needed to film with. And finally, many of the creatures that were easy to see and didn’t mind bright light had another talent working against us — they could fly. It’s hard to direct your talent when its brain is the size of a pinhead.

On the positive side, while insects can be amazingly complex in how they live out their lives, they tend to also be rather singleminded, focused on doing one or two things very well. For example, finding food and eating it. So in the case of ants and pantry beetles, we could usually corral them to a tiny piece of bread crumb and film like that. Keeping them in focus was still a very big challenge, because macro lenses allow you to get incredibly close-up shots, but you sacrifice a lot of focusing depth to do that. With a weevil that is 2 mm long, we sometimes had the head nicely focused but the back of the body was blurry!

The main solution to this challenge was simply to shoot a lot, until we got what we needed. Some shots that you see on screen for three seconds, like this great close-up of a weevil being sucked up by an aspirator, took about one hour to get. One hour, for three seconds. (And the film is over 2,500 seconds long!)

BEHIND THE SCENES: The completed shot, and many, many outkakes.

To get this shot, our insect wrangler Jim Lovisek had a great trick that helped a lot: he chilled the weevil in the fridge. (Insects can tolerate large drops in temperature by slowing down their metabolism.) He would then put the “frozen” weevil in front of the camera, we would get our focus set perfectly, and then wait a short time until it warmed up and started moving. As soon as it did, we would suck it up with the aspirator. A great plan.

The problem was that there was no in-between period between the weevil waking up and instantly scurrying away! And if the weevil moved just a few millimetres out of our focus zone, we would lose it. We tried over and over and over, and finally, after I don’t know how many takes, we managed to get the shot: the weevil moving, the aspirator hose entering the frame, and the critter disappearing as it got sucked up.

Around take number 18, I remember thinking that this was a crazy way to make a living. But in the end, it was worth it. With the amazing camera work (and patience!) of Derek Rogers and with Daniel Sadler’s editing, we put together something we think reveals the wonderful world of the arthropods in our homes. Watch The Great Wild Indoors.