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Bugs! A Rainforest Adventure is a 2003 Imax 3-D presentation, here reduced to the much more modest scale of DVD. The expensive and exacting show is a peek at the insect life in a Malaysian rain forest, featuring macro photography of exceedingly high quality.
The action takes place in and around an abandoned shack on a beautiful river. We're given an overview of the wide variety of colorful and bizarre insects that inhabit the rain forest. Judi Dench provides an expressive narration. The 'stars' of the piece are a praying mantis and a caterpillar, both of which are given cute nicknames derived from their Latin names. Although the show sticks to basics and doesn't attempt in-depth ecological lessons (as in the phenomenal Nature episode, The Queen of Trees), the visuals are superb. The caterpillar egg is a tiny dot on a leaf, yet the camera view shows us the larva moving inside it. Most of the film's insights are communicated visually -- we can see for ourselves that the caterpillar is basically a head attached to a body that swells like a garbage bag as the creature grows. The bulbous eating machine mows its way through an enormous quantity of greenery.
The mantis has a different kind of life. Sprouting by the dozen from an egg sac, the fully formed but tiny mantis is a carnivore with compound eyes to help it snatch its prey. We see the mantis capture and devour a fly, seemingly 'erasing' its meal with its complicated mouthpieces. The male mantis must be cautious when it comes time to mate, as the female might bite its head off.
When it undergoes its metamorphosis, Dench's narration describes the caterpillar inside the cocoon turning into a living soup that then reforms into an entirely new creature. The breakout of the adult butterfly is covered in minute visual detail. Again, Bugs! doesn't say much more than the average old Encyclopedia Britannica classroom film: the images are the show. Seen in ultra fine detail, we can perceive the shingled butterfly wings and appreciate the odd padded 'grabbers' on the caterpillar's little feet. The mantis looks like an amazingly articulated machine with large compound eyes.
The show takes frequent side trips to show the insects' myriad adaptive strategies -- bugs that appear to be leaves, like twigs, thorns. One mantis is disguised to look like part of an orchid flower. The scope of the film doesn't go far beyond simply marveling at the bugs themselves. We see various predators looking for insect meals -- bats, lizards, a snake, a tarantula, but the text soon returns to a simple appreciation of the variety of insect shapes and sizes. The narration occasionally 'humanizes' its subjects, as when two grotesque rhinoceros beetles battle for possession of a female. The camera cuts back to the waiting female several times, and we almost expect it to say, 'My hero!' When one rather silly-looking green katydid stares at the camera before falling backward, Dench's narration encourages to think of it as an insect clown.
Bugs! is a beautiful, relaxing visual meditation that must be stunning on a giant Imax screen, in 3-D. The enhanced widescreen DVD image is an excellent idea, because director Mike Slee often allows the action to play out in a relative wide angle. The DVD resolution is just sharp enough not to lose the desired effect.
A lengthy making-of featurette will interest viewers who've seen Bugs! on the large screen. The filmmakers reassembled a shack in their forest creek bed location, and then shipped it off to London for weeks of close-up filming of the insects. Because of the unwieldy 3-D cameras, this is not a true-life production filmed in the authentic wild. Bug-wrangling scientists are shown pampering their stars, while a large cabinet harbors dozens of butterfly cocoons at various stages of development. The bugs are very carefully set up and positioned for their shots, which is essential considering that the field of view for many images is only a couple of centimeters across. Clever art direction places the bugs in appropriate settings, convincing us that they're back in the jungles of Malaysia or Borneo.
Shooting 'undirectable' subjects like insects means that much film will be wasted in search of a useable shot. Rolling twin loads of 70mm running at 32 fps is like watching money pour into a furnace. The docu shows director Slee repeatedly saying "NG!" as soon as he feels that a take isn't panning out, in an effort to conserve film.
The technology used on the show is extremely impressive. For reasonably normal shots, twin 70mm Imax cameras are mounted on a large rig. Optical snorkels are used (in conjunction with tiny mirrors) to do the microphotography. The 3-D cameramen vary the distance between the left and right eye views, changing the parallax and convergence particulars of individual shots. With the 'eyes' placed wider than normal, a long shot of trees and a distant sunset is given more depth.
Even more complicated are a number of 70mm 3-D opticals. Butterflies are released in front of a blue screen, and later matted over a moving shot of a forest background (remember, this has to be done separately for each eye). In other shots, insect action from different takes appears to be matted into the same frame. As Bugs! is aiming for visual clarity as opposed to objective realism, these techniques are not offensive. The result is seamless.
The disc extras also include a trailer and several TV spots, and interview outs with the director and others. Amusingly, the film's first credit announces its sponsor: Terminix, a pest extermination company! 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bugs! A Rainforest Adventure rates:
1. A Note from Andrew Leblanc, 1.3.08: Glenn, Just perhaps as a post-script to your review of the Imax film, it was released last year in 3-D on an HD dvd in Germany. They supply you with 2 pair of the red/blue glasses. The disc also has the 2-D version. Even with a 50" plasma screen, I found that the 3-D caused a lot of eye strain and was vastly inferior to polarized, current state-of-the art Imax 3-D.
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