JENNY STEEL   The Great Rainforest Project

 

           

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Contact Jenny to find out more about her freelance writing

PETER PARKS AND THE GREAT RAINFOREST PROJECT

Imagine this.  It’s the school holidays, you are taking the children to London for a day out and you intend to see a film.  The choices on offer are the latest Leo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz action adventure, or a film staring a praying mantis the size of a battleship.  My guess is that the praying mantis will win hands down, especially when you find out that this monster is no product of special effects, but a real live insect captured in 3D by some of the best film makers in the world . 

Peter Parks and his team of experts at Image Quest 3-D, based just outside Witney in Oxfordshire, in conjunction with their production partners Principle Large Format Films in London, have spent many months producing ‘Bugs!’ a spectacular film in IMAX - the largest film format in the world.  ‘Bugs!’ will receive its world premiere in the US at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and its UK premiere in Bristol, on screens over 100 feet across and 90 feet high, before going on general release to IMAX theatres all over the world.

The problems in creating a film of this sort were immense.  Fortunately film maker and scientist Peter Parks, formerly a driving force behind the world famous Oxford Scientific Films, is a master of the technical as well as the artistic.  He and his team designed and made much of the ground-breaking equipment required to bring the interwoven lifecycles of the mantis and other insect stars to the big screen.  But before Peter and his specialist film makers could even think about calling ‘action’ some enormous technical problems had to be overcome, as nothing quite like this had been done before.   This format of film hit the big screens about 30 years ago, but the quality of films produced then was variable, and the idea didn’t really take off.  Huge screens and massive projecting equipment are needed to show these films, requiring purpose build theatres.  The films alone are so heavy they take two people and a crane to lift them.  Funding was hard to come by until big investors started to sponsor and get involved in more recent years.  Even experts like those at Image Quest found fundraising difficult.  However, there are now about 300 theatres around the world, including some in museums and planetaria.  The potential for some mind-blowing camera work was clearly there.

The project was initially set to take off in the rainforests of Costa Rica where the location shots that make up about one quarter of the action were to be filmed.  The intention was to recreate the rainforest scene, including a river, in a light industrial unit in Oxfordshire where the remainder of the film would be shot. This involved bringing the necessary plants and insects to the UK and the first major problems were encountered.  Because of the nature of some of the material needed, there were controls on their importation from Costa Rica and a new location was needed.  The action switched to Borneo where the star of the film was found – a tropical praying mantis that also occurs in Australia and Malaysia.  Its life cycle is inextricably woven into the rainforest ecosystem which is home to many other insects that appear in the film, including the citrus swallowtail, a stunning butterfly that the mantis just loves to eat.

Peter’s intention was to make something so dramatic that it would have children and adults alike sitting up in amazement.  He and his team wanted to create the feeling of actually being in a rainforest, where the close-ups of the mouthparts of an insect would fill the huge screen in 3D, where the audience would feel that they too were flying around this wonderful habitat like the insects they were seeing.  But the human eye can only cope with so much detail at this magnification and the 3D effect, if not handled properly, can make the viewer feel nauseous and produce headaches.  It was important not simply to produce something with the biggest ‘wow’ factor possible, but to ensure that the viewer found the unfolding close-up drama watchable.  Sean Philips, the Director of Photography from Los Angeles, helped enormously to guarantee this comfort factor.

Eighty people together with the massive equipment gathered in Borneo to film the location shots.  Once those were complete the recreation of the rainforest began in the 6,000 square feet of the Oxfordshire warehouse, where thirty staff were involved in the remaining three quarters of the film.  The technical aspects of the filming are extraordinary.   Four separate camera heads were used, each the size of a lawn mower weighing about three quarters of a ton.  Every scene was shot with two cameras of precise optical design, to produce the 3D effect.  To simulate the ‘flying’ effect in the film, a series of overhead rail systems upon which the cameras were mounted had to be built, weighing more than 2 tons.  It was necessary to overcome many technical headaches.  Helpers and advisors were recruited from all around the world, and specialist equipment was produced at Peter’s workshop and at Cotswold Precision, a local engineering company, as and when it was needed.  And the problems did not end with the technical aspects of filming - at one point the temperature in the roof of the building reached 151 degrees F and massive industrial air conditioners as big as a sitting room had to be brought in.  Other difficulties occurred towards the end of filming as the hand reared caterpillars of the swallowtail butterflies began to die.  It transpired that the larval food plants had been treated with insecticides and at the eleventh hour some final vital shots were made of the only remaining butterfly pupa.

The result of this combination of hard work and technical expertise is a realistic eye opener into the world of rainforest insects, but the film makers were well aware that real life can be gory.  Sequences of a praying mantis chomping its way through a swallowtail butterfly were left on the cutting room floor.  No doubt many children would handle that aspect of ‘Bugs!’ with few qualms, but adults can be more squeamish.

This type of film has been dubbed ‘edutainment’ and Peter Parks has thoughts about how a film such as this will measure up in the current market place, alongside the likes of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter with their special effects.  And can the interwoven lives of a swallowtail butterfly and a praying mantis compete with DiCaprio or Diaz?  The answer to that question must be ‘yes’.  This film has 3D action with magnifications up to one quarter of a million times onto the screen, combined with comfort of viewing that has never been seen before.  With the current interest in natural history programmes, a film which allows the audience to be a part of such real life close-up drama, on a screen the height of a 5 storey block of flats, and with a voice-over by Dame Judy Dench, has to be a winner. 

So will the 3D IMAX projects in Witney end there?  Maybe not, as a film on another of Peter Parks’ specialist areas – the Deep Oceans - could be in the pipeline.

© Copyright Jenny Steel 2017