Swooping down from the top of a saguaro down to the desert floor: Howard moves the crane while Martin drives the camera.

Swooping from the top of a saguaro down to the desert floor: Howard Bourne swings the crane while Martin Dohrn drives the camera. Tucson Mountain Park.

What was I doing in Arizona last month?

Thanks for asking.  I was helping a film crew wrangle harvester ants for an upcoming National Geographic documentary.  The crew, an all-star cast of nature cinematographers including Martin Dohrn, Howard Bourne, and Gavin Thurston, is still in the field- you can follow their progress by blog. The program is tentatively titled “Planet of the Ants” and should be on television in 2010.

If there’s one thing I learned from the experience, it is that nature films are strenuous work.  A night with more than 5 hours’ sleep was unusual.  We’d often film well past midnight, only to be up before dawn to catch the early morning foragers at another site.  The equipment occupies 20 heavy cases and is constant need of being loaded, unloaded, or carried about here and there.  The hotter the temperature (and we saw temps in Tucson above 108º), it seems the farther and more frequently the gear needed to be ferried about.

But no matter.  The shoot was tremendous fun, and I could not imagine a more genial lot than Martin, Howard, and Gavin.  Below is a photo essay from the week.

Martin gets a wide shot of a Pogo nest at sunset using the "Megascope"

Martin gets a wide shot of a Pogo nest at sunset using the "Megascope".

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The heart of Martin's film kit is a machine called Frankencam, or "Frank". Frank is a remotely-piloted system for pointing miniature lenses nearly in any direction while swooping about and encircling the subject. If you've watched BBC's 2005 "Life in the Undergrowth", filmed in part by an earlier incarnation of Frank, you'll be familiar with the sort of shot I'm talking about. Here, Howard tries not to get stung by harvester ants while making some adjustments prior to filming a sunset sequence.

Gavin drives Frank, with Howard assisting.

Gavin drives Frank, with Howard assisting.

Frank at work.

Frank at work.

Igor!  Fetch me some ants!

Igor! Fetch me some ants!

Martin and Howard carrying Frankencam into position.  Frank can take more than an hour to set up, so shots have to be carefully planned ahead.

Martin and Howard carry Frankencam into position. Frank can take more than an hour to set up, so shots have to be planned ahead.

Proximity to the Mexican border meant a near constant presence of the U.S. Border Patrol in the filming area.

Proximity to the Mexican border meant a near constant presence of the U.S. Border Patrol in the filming area.

Moonrise in Sycamore Canyon

Moonrise in Sycamore Canyon

Illuminated only by the computer monitor, Howard remotely pilots an infrared camera around a Pogo nest at Sycamore canyon, with Gavin assisting.

Illuminated only by a small LCD monitor, Howard (at right) remotely pilots an infrared camera around a Pogo nest at Sycamore canyon, with Gavin assisting.

Gavin gets a lesson from Martin on piloting Frankencam.

Gavin gets a lesson from Martin on using Frankencam.

Martin shoots a Pogo mating flight.

Martin films an ant mating flight. In an unbelievable stroke of luck we arrived on site just as the harvester ants were starting their once-a-year reproductive event.

Although we didn't film them, honeypot ants were common at Sycamore Canyon.  Here a worker ant poses at the nest entrance.

Although we didn't film them, honeypot ants were common at Sycamore Canyon. Here a worker poses at the nest entrance.