This Show Used a Robot Chick to Infiltrate a Hornbill Nest

The producer of the PBS series 'Spy in the Wild' shares with Audubon how his team captured the rare and intimate footage.

The world of natural-history filmmaking is a bustling one, with thousands of talented people working on hundreds of projects ever year. Because of this, there are several film festivals dedicated to the genre. Perhaps the most popular and well-known of these events is the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, held bi-annually in majestic Wyoming. In addition to being a film festival, it’s also a professional conference, where new gear is showcased and panels discuss topics from robotics to the art of filming mice. As a filmmaker with Audubon, I attended the festival in September to scope out the latest bird flicks and meet the filmmakers. 

This year there were four films focusing on birds, all of which were finalists and one of which went on to be a winner. Brothers of the Wind is a visually stunning narrative about an eagle chick in a remote part of Europe; Bird of Prey is a heart-rending Cornell Lab of Ornithology feature about the Philippine Eagle's struggle for survival; Spy in the Wild is a series using animatronic critters to peer into the private lives of animals; and Antarctica in the Footsteps of the Emperor is a cinematic ode to protecting the white wilderness found around the South Pole. It was also the winner of "Best Ecosystem Film." 

As someone always interested in the "How'd they do that?" aspect of filmmaking, I was particularly fascinated with Spy in the Wild.  The five-part PBS series features more than 30 lifelike robots that infiltrate the lives of a wide range of animals. One such unwitting creature was a mother Red-billed Hornbill, who hunkered down in a closed-up cavity nest with three of her own babies and one camera-equipped spy chick (the male stays on the outside and feeds the whole crew through a narrow hole). As with many of the spies on the show, the robotic nestling captured new and incredible footage. To find out more about how the chick was made and the filming process, I sat down with series producer Matthew Gorden. You can watch our discussion above. And to see more clips and episodes from Spy in the Wild, visit the show's website.


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