In 1996, a pair of French filmmakers released a project they had been working on for nearly two decades, an intimate look at 24 hours in the lives of thousands of insects in a rural French valley. But whether the film is more about insects and their biology or our human tendency to recognize ourselves in animal behavior is up for debate.
Directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, a husband and wife team, spent 15 years planning the film, two years designing peripatetic microcameras that would allow them to get the close-up shots they had in mind and three years waiting for their actors to cooperate. The result was a beautiful--almost hypnotic--film that has been celebrated by audiences and critics alike since its release six years ago.
The pictures do the talking
Many critics have made the mistake of calling Microcosmos a documentary. In fact, the film is composed more like a piece of a music than a research project. No cheesy voice-overs, no subtitles tell us what the insects are doing or why. The only human intervention comes in the form of the brief introduction and conclusion read by British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, each lasting no more than 30 seconds.
"Here," she says, as the camera sinks through the clouds, "is
an immense world as big as a planet, where stones are mountains and ponds
are oceans. Here, an hour is like a day, a day is like a month and a month
can be a lifetime." So it makes sense that the directors don't want
to waste any more time with silly narration. Instead, the camera focuses
immediately on patterns of sunlight splashing in the dirt, then begins
following individual insects around the field.
"Most people grow up and stop noticing the things on the ground, but we are always on all fours," said Nuridsany, who usually carries a magnifying glass in his pocket. "When you watch a nature film, everything appears perfect and amazing. But what interests us is to show all the quirks of the insects' lives--to bring out their individual personalities. When you are looking at insects on their own scale, they cease to be insects."
Working with their own crew of engineers, Nuridsany and Perennou designed
and constructed small motion-control cameras using microscope lenses and
special diaphragms that would allow them a tight focus on tiny legs and
antennae. They built miniature crane and suspended rail systems and several
remote-control cameras, including one with a flexible arm that they used
to follow the erratic and often unpredictable path of an insect. A remote-control
helicopter with an itsy-bitsy camera perched on top enabled them to trail
a dragonfly through the air on film.
This attention to detail is part of what makes Microcosmos so appealing. Before 1996, a film like this did not exist because the equipment to make it did not exist.
also developed new microphones and recording systems to pick up the minute
noise of buzzing wings and clicking mandibles. In the theater, a cruising
bumblebee sounds like the Red Baron's fighter plane. A pheasant pecking
at an ant colony sounds like a cross between the giant footfalls of the
Tyrannosaurus rex in 1993's Jurassic Park and a staple gun.
Most of the movie was shot outdoors in the Aveyron valley, but some parts
were filmed in a re-creation of the field inside a studio and others in
a terrarium at the directors' home in south France to make lighting control
and complex camera work easier.
Although Microcosmos does not have what could be called a plot, the filmmakers did write and revise a script in advance, detailing which audience-friendly insects they planned to use and the daily activities of insect life they wanted to include, such as eating, grooming and reproducing. The finished film includes shots of scarab, stag and ladybird beetles, grasshoppers, butterflies, dragonflies, an ant colony, caterpillars, and plenty of other noninsect creepy crawlies such as spiders and snails.
These are insects that are easily recognized and easily assigned simple anthropomorphic characteristics. An audience knows what to expect when they appear on the screen. Scarabs are mysterious and ancient, going back to the days of the early Egyptians. Stag beetles are fierce warriors. Dragonflies are intense hunters.
Nuridsany said that some shots took days to focus and as many as 40 takes
to perfect. All told, the pair shot 50 miles of film. At 90 feet per minute,
that's almost 49 hours of footage, shot over three years.
"It's very complicated because insects only behave certain ways if they're in a favorable environment," said Nuridsany. "The wait becomes an obsession."
Intended for comparison
The filmmakers took great care not to portray the creatures behaving
in ways they naturally wouldn't. They did their best not to interfere
and kept the tiny cameras as far away as possible, operating them by remote
"We wanted our footage to look as if it was taken by an insect reporter with a camera on his shoulder," Nuridsany said.
The film does achieve that effect. Watching the film, the viewer gets a strong sense of "being there." So, one way or the other, whether we bring the insects into our world or journey into theirs, we begin to see our own human traits in them.