An ultra-realistic animatronic spy robot gorilla went undercover and recorded some groundbreaking footage of wild mountain gorillas singing and, well, farting.
John Downer Productions recently came up with a genius way to record animals in their natural habitat. As part of the BBC-PBS miniseries Spy in the Wild 2, the filmmakers employed lifelike robots made to resemble different animal species and had these “ultra-realistic animatronic” spies go undercover and capture unique footage of their daily lives. One of these secret agents, a gorilla, became a real star of the show. As it got deployed in the wild, it did such a wonderful job of infiltrating the giant apes, it came back with some never-seen-before footage of the gorillas singing. And farting.
It took the team about 3 months in total to build Spy Gorilla. One of the greatest challenges was making the robot look and move as realistically as possible, while also trying to get a small enough camera to fit in the eye and finally make sure that all this will work properly in practice.
“Firstly, we need to work out what spy animals would be best to film the animal. So, for example, it would not be a good idea to make a spy Silverback Mountain gorilla, as this could be seen as too much of a threat to the real mountain gorillas. Therefore, we went with a baby gorilla,” explained filmmaker Matt Gordon in a blog post.
The producers, who are also biologists and zoologists, did everything to make the creatures as realistic as possible – starting with the eyes. Even though mountain gorillas learn about each other by staring into one another’s eyes, looking a male silverback gorilla in the eyes can be interpreted as a threat, prompting the large animal to fight the challenger. For this reason, the robot gorilla was created with the ability to close and move its eyes, as well as avert its gaze.
When spy gorilla was embedded within its adopted family of wild gorillas, the little robot “witnessed some of the family’s most intimate moments like eating, singing, and flatulating.” The result represents the first-time mountain gorillas have been caught singing on camera. And a perhaps more profane manifestation of the great apes’ appreciation of the 40 pounds of greens eaten every day is the bellowing farts that erupt throughout the episode. According to the voiceover, the gorillas live in a “semi-permanent state of flatulence.”
One tricky challenge for the robot gorilla was passing inspection by a dominant male. “We wanted to make sure that we were not being threatening, so we averted the gaze of our spy gorilla,” Gordon said. This display of submissiveness convinced the male that the robot gorilla wasn’t a threat; he then signaled to the troop that it was safe for them to take a closer look at the “stranger”.
The robotic spy gorilla was also able to beat its chest in response to a baby gorilla’s chest-beating, allowing the filmmakers to capture a rare glimpse of primate playtime.
“A young gorilla came over and did the natural thing for him, which was to beat its chest. For a baby gorilla, that means ‘I want to play,’ and if our gorilla was lifeless, not moving, I think the gorilla would have lost interest. But our spy gorilla was able to beat its chest too,” Gordon said.
“We had this wonderful, magical moment where there was this lovely to and fro between our spy gorilla and the baby gorilla, where they were really interacting,” he said. “That would be very difficult to see with traditional filming techniques.”