Life imitates [filmmaking] art

Congratulations to Myra Burrell – her peacockumentary has been short-listed for the Animal Behavior Society’s film festival!

Myra, a veteran of the natural history film program at the University of Otago in New Zealand, traveled to California with me in 2010. She helped with peacock field work, capturing more females than anyone thought possible. Somehow, in the meantime, she made a movie about the birds. It’s a short film that gives you an idea about what happens on a peacock lek, from the hen’s point of view.

It’s quite an honour to be among the 6 films selected for festival screening, since they must get on the order of ~100 applicants. If Myra wins, it would be oddly fitting: a wildlife film straight out of a park that moonlights as a real Hollywood set.

You can watch “Hen’s Quest” here.

The best parts? I love the music and Myra’s cinematography. I contributed writing (including the title!) and did the artwork; Brian McGirr turned my map drawing into a fantastic animation. Good luck, Myra!

The winning score

As Hollywood gets dolled up for the Oscars, fans at home might surprised to learn that a field biologist could tell us a thing or two about the winning films. Dan Blumstein, a behavioural ecologist who works, quite fittingly, at UCLA, is an expert on yellow-bellied marmots. He might also be the person to turn to if you want to predict the win in the “Best Original Score” category this weekend.

Although Blumstein does most of his work with wild marmots in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, studying several facets of their behaviour and evolution, he recently published a paper on the science of movie soundtracks1. With Richard Davitian and Peter Kaye from the School of Music at Kingston University in the UK, Blumstein applied techniques from his research on marmot vocal communication to an entirely new question: why are Hollywood moviemakers so good at manipulating our emotions? The results pick up on a common theme in the way humans and other animals use sound.

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A royal waste?

Giant pandas are in the news again, this time for their annual date night at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC. But hardly a day goes by without a report somewhere on the latest captive panda birth, strategic breeding attempt or panda relocation.

A blogger at the London Review of Books compared the bears to members of the British royal family: both are suffering from shrinking ecological niches and in serious danger of extinction, hanging on by virtue of their marketing potential. The similarities don’t end there. Giant pandas, like royals, are expensive to house, with a fee of over $1 million per year for a zoo to lease a pair from China. Naturally, the breeding activities of giant pandas are as intensely scrutinized as those of Prince William.

This entails some surprising efforts when it comes to the pandas. The history of captive breeding for Ailuropoda melanoleuca is no sordid royal affair. It’s long, and for the most part, pretty unfortunate; zoos have been failing to produce heirs to the panda legacy for decades.

For starters, it’s nearly impossible to get the bears to mate in captivity, and it’s not just their deficiency in the looks department, as comedian Mike Birbiglia suggests. Captive pandas can’t seem to figure out a working sexual position1. Females often start things off all wrong by lying down, but the males are just as clueless. This led to panda porn: zoos started making videos of pandas achieving copulatory success, as training tools for the more hapless bears2. Other attempts to use Viagra on pandas were less encouraging, but the porn worked – for females as well as males – leading to a boom in captive births in recent years3.

Giant panda cub

Visitors can pay to see the cubs at the Chengdu giant panda breeding centre. File photo modified from

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Science fictions

Fakery is not just for Hollywood films anymore.

Nature documentaries are full of it, from elegant narratives to some downright dirty tricks. This tradition goes back a long way: the myth that lemmings commit mass suicide to save their brethren from overpopulation was spread widely as as result of the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness. This is not trivial. The film won an Oscar for Best Documentary. The lemming story made it as far as a philosophy course I took in university (Science and Society PHIL203), where the instructor used it as an example of why we should doubt evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. The myth just won’t die, even though CBC exposed the lemming scam back in 19821. Journalists on The Fifth Estate proved that the mass suicide scene was actually filmed in downtown Calgary, not in the Arctic as Disney had claimed. The Disney crew used a rotating platform to push captive lemmings into the Bow River.

More recently, the BBC has come under fire for using captive animals to film some of the scenes in the Blue Planet series1. This seems justifiable to me, but some truly ugly practices have also been exposed, like baiting corpses with M&Ms to get footage for an IMAX documentary on wolves2.

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Field biology goes to Hollywood

One of the weirder things about my field site is that it is also a Hollywood set. A number of movies, TV shows and commercials have been filmed at the LA Arboretum, going back to Tarzan Escapes in the 1930s.

The Arboretum had a regular appearance in the popular 1970s show Fantasy Island. In the opening credits, a midget rings the bell in the Queen Anne Cottage. This is a historic building on the Arboretum grounds that was built in the by the same wealthy California businessman who started the peafowl population in the area.

You can catch the Arboretum in many other films, since it provides a convenient stand in for the jungle a short drive away from downtown Los Angeles. Examples: The Lord of the Flies, Anaconda, The Lost World, Congo, Terminator 2, The African Queen, and too many campy horror flicks to count (Attack of the Giant Leeches?).

Several things were filmed during my three seasons there, leading me to realize that making a movie is a lot like doing field biology. Here’s how:

1. The hours. Field biologists often have to keep the same hours as their study species, working for as long as the animals are active. For some ornithologists, this can mean starting at 4 am. We were lucky with peafowl. They are late risers, coming down from their roosts around 7-8 am. They also tend to take a long siesta in the middle of the day. This meant that we had to work two shifts, coming in for several hours in the morning and returning after lunch until sunset. It made for some long days.

Film crews also seem to work long hours based on the amount of light, since our schedules would often coincide.

2. Tedium and futility. Most of the time spent watching animal behaviour is watching them do very little. Here’s an example: we saw about 20 mating events in 2010, in 500 man-hours of observation time. That’s over 24 hours of sitting quietly for each copulation.

Catching the beasts can be a little bit more active, but you still feel completely useless 90% of the time. Your main activities include: waiting for the animals to show up, looking for the ones you haven’t caught yet, waiting around for your traps to work, and worrying about all the reasons why they aren’t.

A lot of jobs in Hollywood might not be so far off. When AT&T filmed a commercial at the Arboretum last year, we met a guy whose sole responsibility was to keep the peacocks away from the set. His boss gave him a bag of bird seed. It was the cusp of the breeding season, and the crew had decided to place their set right in the middle of one particularly dedicated male’s territory. The poor guy was literally playing tag with that bird all day.

3. Costumes. Important in Hollywood, but also useful when trying to catch birds. After a few weeks in the field, most tend to settle in to a uniform, wearing the same thing nearly every day. If it works and you’ll just be getting dirty again tomorrow, why change?

Field clothes

Waterproof jackets come in handy when catching large birds. From left: Will Roberts, Myra Burrell and Roz Dakin. Photo by Bonny Chan.

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Deep archives: Better than Gary Busey

They’re filming a movie on our field site right now. Apparently this isn’t out of the ordinary; one of the Jurassic Park movies and the climax from Anaconda were both shot at the Arboretum, for instance.

We’ve known this for some time, since a work crew has been gradually building a stadium on the main lawn of the Arboretum, on top of what is usually a large fountain (seems like a strange choice to me… fortunately, this area is not part of the lek so their activities won’t interfere with the peacocks). Rob found out a while ago that the stadium will be used for “a teen movie about cheerleaders”.

I learned some more details the other day. I was standing near the front gate, observing two peacocks that display on the roof of the Arboretum office building. Binoculars and notebook in hand, dressed ridiculously for the mild weather in a toque and heavy fleece, to most I would look like a crazy person taking notes about a roof. A woman approached me and struck up a conversation: apparently she was some sort of Hollywood production person on a scouting mission, and something about my appearance made her think that I was in production too. She was looking for a waterfall for a scene in an upcoming episode of Criminal Minds. She wanted to know if I was working on Fired Up, since she knew some people who were involved with it. I explained that I was actually watching the peacocks, secretly happy that I had found out the name of our cheerleading movie.

As soon as we got home, I searched for Fired Up on IMDB and learned that was a movie about “two guys who sign up for a cheerleaders’ camp in a desperate attempt to pick up girls”. And, as if this wasn’t ridiculous enough, it was billed as starring Patrick Swayze.

Our hopes of running in to the man who inspired the Patrick Swayze Express were dashed, though, a few days later. Rob had asked one of the set security guards about Swayze (and received a somewhat confused response); when we checked the IMDB site for Fired Up again, it had changed. The new site suggested that it’s most awesome (and sole recognizable) star had backed out – I think Rob’s questions might have even brought about the web update. But, as proof of how close we nearly came to Swayze, here is the old version of the site:

IMDB entry on "Fired Up"