Behind the Scenes of Metamorphosis with Producer/Director Lad Allen

For our newest documentary, Metamorphosis, our film crew captured some amazing footage while shooting on location in Mexico, Ecuador, and Florida.  Unfortunately, butterflies aren’t the easiest actors to work with.  They have this habit of hiding from predators and photographers during several of the the most interesting  phases of their development.  Early on, it became clear that the only way to get many of shots we needed was to have 24-hour access to the insects. So, producer/director Lad Allen set up a greenhouse/ butterfly nursery/ photo studio in the family room of his house (fortunately, he has the most understanding wife in the universe).

Lad wanted to film a caterpillar hatching from an egg, growing, and then emerging from a chrysalis…so for starters, he had to secure a supply of freshly laid monarch eggs and plenty of milkweed (the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat).  Lad contacted The Monarch Program, a non-profit research organization in San Diego.  There, he purchased four milkweed plants and eight new eggs.  Over the next four weeks, he watched, photographed and raised to adulthood, seven beautiful monarchs.  It was quite an adventure.  Here’s his first-hand account of the experience:

I set up the gear in the corner of our family room.  Lights, cameras, tripod, macro-lenses, plants, the works.  Then, I waited six days for the eggs to mature.  After several nights of getting up at midnight and 3AM to check on the “kids,” they all ended up hatching within two hours of each other.  The big day was three-ring circus.  I was trying to guess which egg would hatch next so I could get it into position for filming.  While I was taping the action on one plant, two eggs would crack on another.  When the morning ended, I had filmed two excellent hatchings–including the part where the microscopic caterpillar devoured the empty egg shell.  As I was soon to find out, that was only an appetizer.

For the next eight or nine days, the caterpillars did little else but eat and grow.  They entered the world measuring about 1/32nd-of-an-inch, and ended up being as long as my index finger. I had to make two additional trips to San Diego for more milkweed plants.  Each morning, I’d get up and take role call to be certain everyone was present and accounted for.  Most of the time, I’d be missing two or three of the caterpillars, so my wife (who gave them all names) would start searching.  We found one guy climbing on the ceiling.  Another, was inching his way up my tripod leg.  Sometimes, they’d be crawling along the floor.

When friends would visit, they’d want a tour.  Everyone got a big kick out of what was going on.  One little boy asked if we did this type of thing all the time.   We watched eating, molting, crawling, climbing, the formation of chrysalises, and seven glorious emergences.   Through it all, I never tired of observing this miraculous process of metamorphosis.  A caterpillar looks nothing like a butterfly.  Yet, in a matter of weeks, it transforms into a beautiful winged insect.  Science is still trying to understand the entire process.  It’s often referred to as “butterfly magic.”  I agree.

On Sunday November 7, we took our final monarch into the backyard and released him to the world.  My wife had named him, “Billy.”  She shed a tear as he flew away.  I felt a little misty, myself.  I never would have imagined we could become so emotionally attached to an insect.

Lad’s excitement about watching and photographing butterflies is contagious.  Between eggs hatching, caterpillars molting, and butterflies spreading their wings for the first time,  we could go on and on describing the sheer wonder of these magnificent creatures.  Their life-cycles are compelling evidence of intelligent design.  We’re anxious to share this evidence with you.    Metamorphosis is scheduled for release in the Spring of 2011.