Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How did you do that? Teaching a Tarantula to Walk Like a Weatherman

How do you pack three birds, a woodchuck, hedgehog, box turtle, millipede and a tarantula into a tent and train them to exit single file? It’s easy if you borrow an old trick from your favorite TV meteorologist and employ lots of expert animal training.
 When the Tennessee Aquarium wanted to create a fun television commercial to advertise Ranger Rick’s Backyard Safari, they turned to some veterans with “out-of-the-box” production experience. Animal Instinct Advertising came up with a backyard camp out storyline. “What if some of the cool animals visitors meet at the Aquarium could come parading out of a tent at night?,” suggested Greg Newberry, president of Animal Instinct Advertising. On paper this concept sounded great, but it would take some talented animals and a lot of production wizardry to pull it off.

Since the animals couldn’t be taken out to someone’s backyard, a television set had to be built at the Aquarium. And this mini studio came complete with a chroma-key wall and matching floor. “We used an old weatherman’s trick and built a blue screen set,” said Newberry. “By filming the animals moving around on the blue screen we can make it appear as though they are coming out of the tent during post production.”
 Actor W.C. Fields once quipped, “Never work with animals or children.” (He actually loved both.) His point was simple, filming can become challenging with talent that has other ideas about what’s fun or interesting. And, it’s a lot easier to encourage a child to deliver a line than to coax a tarantula to tiptoe on cue.

 So the animal experts from the Tennessee Aquarium and Natural Encounters Incorporated took baby steps with the “stars” of this commercial. “We began by just spending some time introducing the animals to the blue background,” said Amy Graves. “At first we just bring the animals in to see the material. Once they learn that the bright color isn’t scary, we let them walk around on it for awhile.” Add in some tasty treats and their favorite items and pretty soon you’re ready to bring in the cameras.
On filming day, each animal was brought in by trainers and each creature hit their marks. “The box turtle loves to follow people’s fingers,” said Susie Grant, senior educator. “And the woodchuck loves yams, so he’s pretty easy to work with.”

Animal experts from Natural Encounters Inc. were able to coach a trumpeter hornbill, red-fronted macaw and toucan to fly on cue with various fruits and nuts. A millipede is a little bit of a challenge to motivate, but once you get the first of one thousand legs headed in the right direction, the rest will follow.

Chattanooga’s Atomic Films built the mini-studio at the Aquarium and captured all of the action. At one point, a red-fronted macaw decided to change direction and fly over the camera toward the back of the auditorium. On another occasion, the toucan decided to fly over and perch on the camera as if it was inspecting the focus of the shot. It seemed to be saying, “Make sure you get my good side.”

Hopefully people enjoy this new commercial almost as much as meeting the animals in person at the Aquarium.

Take a look and then come visit these cool critters at Ranger Rick’s Backyard Safari!

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