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MicrocosmosHow They Did It
Humanizing NonhumansMarketing

Humanizing Nonhumans

What's a little slime between lovers?

The camera swoops low and creeps over tall grass that has been flattened in a wide swath. On closer examination the grass appears to be coated in a thick slime, which shimmers in the sun as the camera inches forward. The ooze looks like a close cousin of the creature that terrified Steve McQueen in the 1950s. A moment later, the camera catches up to the star of this particular segment of the film Microcosmos--the plump foot of a burgundy snail on its way to an afternoon rendezvous. It meets up with a second snail, and the two hit it off. The fat, wet snails writhe and wriggle in a passionate embrace while a sumptuous operatic score plays in the background, evoking small gasps of delight from the audience.

The musical score in Microcosmos is deliberately designed to provoke viewers into drawing parallels between themselves and the snails and insects.

"When two snails make love, they make love," director Claude Nuridsany said. "It's not another thing. We choose to accompany it with a style of music like opera and at first people laugh a little because it's like a gag. But when the scene goes on little by little, you can see two lovers that are not so different from us."

Actually, they are quite different from us, biologically speaking. But perhaps drawing these types of parallels are necessary on a certain level to keep people interested in an insect film that has minimal amounts of narration.

Marketing Microcosmos

Marketing Microcosmos in the U.S. apparently meant trying to appeal to a mass audience's taste for anthropomorphic nature stories. Tag lines for the film played up the more dramatic aspects of the film: birth, death and war, the last depicted in a battle between two beetles.

Pray, tell us

The poster for the American release features a cartoonlike praying mantis wearing sunglasses, while the poster for the French release is a more dignified photo of an actual praying mantis silhouetted against the moon.


The U.S. poster

U.S. Microcosmos poster

The French poster

French Microcosmos poster

Praying mantises are not quite on the same level as dogs, cats or hamsters in popularity, but they are the most popular insect pet. Among insects, they have the unique ability to rotate their heads in an almost human fashion. Only a praying mantis can turn to see what's behind it without turning its entire body. Also, they are known for their intelligence. People who keep mantises often remark on how clever they seem to be. They will take live prey (usually crickets) from a human's hand, and cases of mantis "training" have been reported, in which the mantis learns when feeding time is near and usually waits near the top of its cage for its owner to present it with a snack.

These qualities make the praying mantis a natural choice for any film hoping to earn money. Humans can quickly identify with a mantis in ways they certainly cannot with, say, a cockroach. The addition of the sunglasses in the American poster serves to enhance this feeling, while at the same time trying to put in theatergoers' minds that this is a fun movie, certainly nothing like biology class.

To the letter

In the French poster, the title appears in all lower-case letters (tres chic!) and in a lightweight typeface. It is elegant and stylish.

In the U.S. poster, the letter "O" has been converted to a sunflower. The letters are thick and chunky, almost overlapping in places. Oddly, the "C" has been capitalized, as if the designer may have feared Microcosmos was just too long a word for American audiences to digest. Don't worry, folks, it's science lite.

People of the grass

While here in the States it was plain, ol' Microcosmos, in France, the film was known as Microcosmos: Le peuple de l'herbe, or "People of the Grass."

Filmmakers Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou have said that they purposely avoided imposing anthropomorphic qualities on the insects a la the Disney nature films of the 1960s. But they have also said that they felt it important to show a human side to the little creatures.

"It's always fun to see that other people are in trouble," Nuridsany said.

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Copyright 2002 Angie Brammer, all rights reserved
Last updated April 18, 2002