The little guys become big stars

A Grasshopper Mouse stands defiantly in its territory in Arizona's Sonoran Desert Our grasshopper mouse gives a defiant howl at the moon in the Sonoran desert

The BBC has unearthed a new star - a bit on the short side, admittedly, but an all-action hero with a wide-eyed vulnerability that will have viewers swooning.

The young grasshopper mouse, who lives in the Sonoran desert, hunts venomous scorpions twice its size, sounding a warning with a chest-thumping howl at the moon, and dodges rattlesnakes with extraordinary agility.

But it also suffers pangs for the family from which it was separated during a flash flood, forced into an early and terrifying independence.

'It's an uber-incredible mouse,' gushes Mark Brownlow, series producer of the natural history unit's latest offering Hidden Kingdoms, which will be broadcast later this month on BBC One. 'We couldn't ignore it.'

The mouse is just one of an amazing cast of tiny creatures that feature in the three-part dramatised documentary, narrated by Stephen Fry.

World's strongest creature
A Sengi (Elephant Shrew) compares noses with a real elephant in the African Savannah (composite image). A blade of grass is like a tree to a sengi (elephant shrew) in the African Savannah

Co-stars include the sengi (elephant shrew), which spends its life racing at top speed through a cleverly-created network of miniature racetracks in the African savannah to find food and evade predators; the rhinoceros beetle, the world's strongest creature pound for pound, which battles other beetles in the metropolis of Tokyo; and the tree shrew, with its big brain that helps it outwit others in the fierce fight for food in the tropical rainforest.

It's a miniature world that has been overlooked by programme makers, believes executive producer Mike Gunton. 'We realised there's this world we don't normally look at which is full of drama... You realise that they are more intriguing, more dramatic than the big animals.'

The challenge was to show this world from the perspective of its tiny inhabitants and to film them as if they were lions or elephants. 'We wanted to give the sense that a blade of grass looked like a tree, a cactus like a skyscraper,' explains Brownlow.

Special camera lenses had to be built to enable the production team to shoot the creatures with infinite depth of field, while additional filming techniques - scripts, stages, blue screen and time lapse photography - were employed to distil intense lives into 50 minutes of telly.

3D specials

  • Hidden Kingdoms was filmed simultaneously in 2D and 3D.
  • Two new 3D systems were developed: one to allow filming of creatures as small as an ant; the other to allow their tiny worlds to be shown in slow motion.
  • The NHU and co-producers RTL worked with visual effects maestros Peter and Chris Parks on the 3D element.
  • A 3D Hidden Kingdoms special will be broadcast in the spring, with a shorter version to be shown in selected cinemas.

'Every minute of the day they're hunting,' explains Gunton. 'Every minute of the day they're being hunted...

'This is not Africa,' he adds, 'this is a very different type of show.'

Hot towel

While the series is rooted in real behaviour, its makers are overt about the artifice required to tell such tales. A message stating that some scenes are dramatised will be broadcast at the start of each episode, while a 'making of' follow-up will reveal some of the programme makers' secrets.

When a rattlesnake strikes at our heroic grasshopper mouse, for instance, it is actually a snake, borrowed for the day from a local collection, lunging at a hot towel atop the camera.

'The mouse and the snake never met each other,' admits Brownlow. 'We used a combination of images we joined together to create this impossible viewpoint.'

Similarly, a fight between two chipmunks in an ancient forest, which was key to the narrative, was only captured after the team spent weeks camped out in a research centre in Canada. What would have seemed like a blur of fur in real time was revealed as an extraordinary ballet of moves with the use of special lenses.

Cameraman Mark Payne-Gill uses a hi-speed camera to film a mouse eye view of a hunting Harris Hawk, as it flies over a purpose-built set in the Arizona desert Cameraman Mark Payne-Gill uses a hi-speed camera to film a mouse eye view of a Harris Hawk
Matrix moment

'Ultra hi-speed cameras eventually got that Matrix moment when our baddie strikes,' reveals Brownlow. 'It was a punch the air moment.'

Gunton believes the audience accepts and understands that these are films.

'You don't turn up, press a button and film for 50 minutes. They understand editing happens, compression of time and highlights.'

After more than 400 days of filming - some of it in the wild, some in purpose-built filming territories, some in captivity, some in the studio - the team have become firm fans of the little wonders.

'You get so sucked in,' reflects Brownlee. 'It's easy to get seduced by the little guys and their world.'

Gunton agrees: 'It's important to give them their moment in the sun. They have got such extraordinary character - they are stars.'

Hidden Kingdoms, BBC One, from January 16

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