Following on from the success of Alligator Kingdom 3D, Producer/Director Michael Watchulonis from 3DigitalVision nears completion of his latest 3D natural history documentary – Fire Ants 3D: The Invincible Army.
Michael and his team used custom macro 3D rigs to profile the fascinating activities of fire ants, in both the wild and controlled lab settings.
Fire Ants 3D: The Invincible Army portrays the unique behaviour that is of great interest to scientists. For more than 80 years, ‘Solenopsis Invicta’ has been on a ceaseless march across the United States, racking up six billion dollars every year in crop damage, equipment repair, and pest control. Scientists are now cracking the ant’s ancient secrets to success and breeding winged assassins to hunt them down. 3D macro photography explores the secret world of the fire ant and the cutting-edge research into stopping it.
Fire Ants 3D: The Invincible Army will be completed this week. Running at 48 minutes, the documentary and has already achieved its first pre-sale in Europe. 3D Focus caught up with Produder/Director Michael Watchulonis to find out why such a small insect makes a good candidate for a 3D documentary.
3D Focus: Why fire ants? And why fire ants in 3D?
Michael Watchulonis: Because Alligator Kingdom 3D has been very well received and will be broadcast in more than 15 countries, we decided to go the natural history route again.
I had read a fascinating story in Wired magazine about how fire ants formed floating rafts and the research which was being done by mechanical engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I got talking to the researchers there and ended up working with some of the foremost fire ants experts around the world, discovering what fascinating insects fire ants are in the process. Depending on the challenges and stresses they face, the ants can act as a fluid, a building material, or a textile.
3D Focus: Had you done any macro 3D filming before?
Michael Watchulonis: We had done a little bit of macro filming before but nothing as ambitious as this. Initially we did a lot of tests with different lenses. It took several weeks for our Director of Photography to experiment with different lenses, set ups, inter axial distances and focus. Using the lenses that we were using, if we were more than two millimetres off, the shot was unusable. Of course, fire ants don’t really do what you tell them to do; they are always moving so to get those shots without all that testing would have been impossible.
3D Focus: Did you shoot Fire Ants 3D in a lab or in the wild?
Michael Watchulonis: We filmed some of it in Dr. David Hu’s labs at Georgia Tech. Those scenes were more of a controlled set up. When you are working at a macro level in a lab you can get the ants in the area that you want. If you are patient and you have set up your camera properly, sooner or later you will get the shot. But we did shoot a lot of the film in the wild. We went to where there were huge fire ant mounds but it was difficult getting the footage.
3D Focus: 3D is often used to enhance the feeling of space. Does macro 3D offer the same impact?
Michael Watchulonis: Marco 3D can actually have more impact but, like so many other things in 3D, it has to be done right because you are seeing something so small made giant on a HD TV. You know these fire ants are only 3 mm long but on a TV, we’re making them a foot long. You can see the hairs on their antennas; that stuff is absolutely stunning. I have to give all of the credit to our DP, my brother Daniel Watchulonis. He always found a way to get first class footage, even in the worst field conditions.
3D Focus: What are the challenges of filming macro sequences in 3D?
Michael Watchulonis: Movement! If you want to do the slightest tilt or pan, it has to be unbelievably rock steady because when you are working with a lens like that the slightest vibration becomes huge. Even a breeze blowing the branch the ants are climbing on looks like a hurricane. And with the ants, I had spent weeks observing them and visiting with scientists, so we could set up scenarios where we could somewhat predict behaviour.
We got the shots. And the ants got revenge on me and my cameraman more than a few times. They don’t call them fire ants for nothing!
3D Focus: There is an ongoing debate about how extreme 3D should be for television and there are various standards between 3D broadcasters. How creative were you with your parallax settings?
Michael Watchulonis: We were conservative. Because Fire Ants 3D is meant for 3D TV, we capture at what is basically industry standard for parallax so we are keeping it comfortable, ensuring it meets all of the major broadcaster’s standards.
I believe keeping it converged and focused on the screen plane is, for the majority of the film, the most comfortable way to go. Obviously, there are opportunities to go out of the screen and into the screen. As long as it’s still comfortable to watch after an hour then you have done alright as far as I am concerned.
3D Focus: What will we discover watching Fire Ants 3D?
Michael Watchulonis: You will never look at ants the same way again. One of the really neat things about the film is not only the unique survival and predatory behaviours of the ants, which is absolutely fascinating, how they raft, why they build a raft. But we explore the science and research how they do it and how it can be applied to robotics. We also explore the history of the fire ant, how it got here from Argentina and how it is now slowly spreading across the world. The experts tell us that the potential fire ant range is half of the world’s surface. So if fire ants aren’t in your country yet, they probably will be.
We also look at incredible research being done by Dr. Sanford Porter and Dr. DeWayne Shoemaker. They are tracking the ant’s invasive movements via their genetics and breeding flies that track down the ants and kill them. We got incredible shots of a phorid fly “air force” attacking ant colonies.
Fire Ants 3D is being distributed by Global Media Consult. Managing Partner Torsten Hoffman told 3D Focus, “I am excited to take this innovative programme to global buyers. Macro photography is one of the yet unexploited applications of 3D. It has huge potential. Having seen early footage from the film, we knew Fire Ants 3D would have broad appeal. We think that buyers are starting to look for more innovative themes and ever more impressive footage. Macro 3D is a good example of this".
Now Fire Ants 3D is completed, Michael will finish 3DigitalVision’s next 3D documentary – SUPER MACHINES 3D: CHEVROLET VOLT. 3DigitalVision has already begun filming the premiere episode for the stereoscopic 3D HD documentary series, gaining rare access to General Motors’ Hamtramck assembly plant and sensitive design facilities.
The one-hour stereoscopic film will detail the design, testing, and assembly process of the world’s first Extended Range Electric Vehicle—the Chevrolet Volt.
After the Super Machines episode, 3DigitalVision is planning an even more ambitious macro 3D film tentatively titled “Little Monsters 3D”.
BSkyB will be broadcasting its first macro 3D natural history documentary next year. Three part series “The Kingdom of Plants” will see David Attenborough investigate the hidden world of plants and flowers at Kew Gardens, London.
FREE WEEKLY 3D NEWS BULLETIN – SUBSCRIBEFollow @3dfocuslive