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On making the #Smithsonian documentary, Killer Hornets

Most Natural History Documentaries are staged. Killer Hornets is no different. But That's OK. The Behavior is Real and accurate -- And that's what's important.

I'm Mike Trout. Perhaps you saw me on Animal Planet's Killer Hornets from Hell. I have a new, amazing documentary out called Killer Hornets on the Smithsonian Network.

I'm receiving flack and threats about making this post and sharing content. The production company behind it is claiming it violates an NDA I signed. However, it doesn't. The NDA prevented me from talking about the show WHILE I WAS WORKING ON IT -- which is done. Also, I'm not revealing any of their special filming techniques I observed, but merely sharing what I did or had to do to make the documentary possible given the massive constraints of time and money. These methods are my own intellectual property I am now putting in the creative commons and sharing for the benefit of all. I am also releasing all my personal videos (I have 100+ more to still make public) into the creative commons to allow fans of my shows to mash-up and create their own amazing #KillerHornet #OpenMedia productions.

But in doing so I am also blowing the whistle on the natural history documentary industry -- the vast majority are staged. And that is what the production company is really upset about because it sells its shows as authentic. The behavior IS authentic but it is staged so we can film it in a couple of months and not over years like the BBC productions of Meerkats and Big Cats Diary. Small indie production houses don't want this little secret out. Let's suit up to get some #killerhornets!

Viewers should know the truth, which doesn't make animal documentaries any less amazing. Natural history documentaries always rely on an expert like me behind the scenes pulling the strings to coax the exciting behavior the director wants. That behavior is hard wired in an insect's brain but hard to catch unless you are willing to wait. What you see is orchestrated for your viewing pleasure. If we wanted to do it "naturally," we would have to wait weeks, months or even years to catch it. That, unfortunately, is the nature of the beast. I should stress, however, ALL the behavior is natural and real. You can't fake that.

If you haven't seen it, here is the show, airing on the Smithsonian Channel since August 16th, 2016. I did not upload it, I'm simply sharing the link. For most of these shots, I am standing near the cameraman acting as a spotter for new shots and making sure he is not in any danger.

Called Killer Hornets, it has a kind of Game of Thrones theme, where 4 factions (3 hornet faction antagonists (Bamboo, Rock and Temple Hornets) and one Japanese bee colony protagonist) fight each other for survival and domination -- something they have done for millions of years.

The documentary is amazingly well done and I am very proud of it. Directed by the talented Kira Ivanoff, who has over 20 documentaries under her belt, and filmed by the equally talented filmmaker Grant Brokensha. They came over twice for two, one month stays. Where we had long grueling, hot and sometimes very dangerous shoots. But I did take the opportunity to bring Tommy down. Once with his younger brother Mikey and then once by himself. In this video he is being visited by a bee. Who is interested in his electrolytes. He is totally unphased by it. A bee has no interest in stinging you. It's after something beneficial for its brood and queen in his case tasty sweat.

What was my involvement in filming the documentary? I was the puppet master that either found, with the help of my teacher, the great Japanese Hornet hunter, Tokunaga Susume, or established myself the stage and sets these deadly actors played on. I was the guy who forced their interaction by employing a number of techniques. I managed every aspect of the entire five-month Japan-side production that facilitated the highly successful 2-month shoot in Shikoku Japan.

My work included: hunting and wrangling and moving hornets, identifying shoot locations, and building various habitats for shooting. I secured the director/crew housing with the help of Kunihiro, arranged for all transportation needs, and brought together and managed the entire Japan team with included myself, my entertaining assistant Marius, my teacher, the great Japanese Hornet Hunter -- Tokunaga Susume and my community liaison officer Kunihiro Nodo. I even flew my own DJI Phantom drone and did the moving OSMO shots of the hornets flying thru the trees. Fun stuff!

Understand we only had 2 months of shooting. A company like BBC television would probably spend a year or more with a team in place. But we didn't have that luxury! And this is the reality of ALL shows seen on TV. Channels like Animal Planet and Discovery want shows fast and cheap. And they are accommodated because of fierce competition.

Everything seen in the show would happen in nature. The behavior is real. But that is the extent of the show. It was all orchestrated and masterfully filmed and edited by Earth Touch. Here is a Kogata Hive I relocated and placed on a Palm. Just 30 yards to the right is the Rock Hornets and just 20 yards behind is the Bee Colony. I placed them all close proximity in order to force the interaction of hornets so we could film the behavior. Sometimes I added players to the stage. Before arriving to the set the Kogata hornets were attacked and been displaced by The Rock hornets. We wanted to capture that attack or the very least the interaction of kogata hornet and osuzume hornet. 

'Tree Bees' -- I spent months working with my Teacher looking for wild bees living Shikoku area and could not find any. We chanced down every lead but could not find any. We even explored the idea of electronic tracking or both bees and hornets. But the technology is still under-developed. Had I had a year we could probably have set up a colony in a tree. But it was late summer so I was forced to create the illusion of a hive in an old tree trunk. It took me a month to build it by chiseling out by hand the inner trunk and attaching a beehive to the back (I originally wanted to get the bees in there but there wasn't enough time); Btw the Tree Bees were just 50 feet from 'The Rock'. This was so they could capture the natural behavior without waiting for it to happen over a 3 month period.

'Rock Hornets' -- We had to dig out a side entrance to expose the hive for early filming, I added a door for hive protection and easy filming access (all under the moss); then created a fake facade of moss over chicken wire later so we could shoot the beginning of documentary and show the habitat. I set up a number of killer hornet hives and in one encounter I made a mistake that could have proved deadly! I also had to build a platform 3 meters up and a special netting enclosure to protect the cameraman for long hours of shooting (he could not film the needed shots in a hooded protective suit).

'Bamboo Hornets" -- It was a very small hive and beautifully located. We didn't want to disturb it and so we needed an Army to throw against the Rock Hornet!

The Kiro (yellow) Hornets in the mountain monastery -- I had to relocate them over a 30km distance in my van from their location in the mountains at Tokunaga's farm to the Monastery location in the mountains of a neighboring town. Then attach them with 2000 furious hornets whizzing about my head! They weren't too happy at all! Btw, this was a fallback solution I had set up a Kiro hive near The Rock Hornets and it was ransacked by them while we were out filming something else.

Among other things: I wrangled the Hornets for 3 hrs for the green screen shooting; set up a special hive for bee balling filming and was with the cameraman pointing out shots and behavior and protecting him from angry killers! It was an intense time!

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