Hi everyone! We are the producers of Spy in the Wild, currently airing its second installment on PBS Nature. For the second series we created more than 50 realistic animatronic spy creatures and went around the world from the tropics to the poles to capture one-of-a-kind wildlife moments, such as gorillas singing as they eat. We're happy to answer your questions about how these robots work, what we discovered, and more!

Spy in the Wild 2 airs on PBS on Wednesdays at 8/7c (check local listings). You can catch the first two episodes at https://www.pbs.org/spyinthewild or on the PBS Video app.

If you're in the UK, you can watch the whole series on the BBC iPlayer.


Comments: 300 • Responses: 60  • Date: 

KellanYay772 karma

Have you ever made birds for the US government?

SpyInTheWild662 karma

That's classified information!!! ;o) No we haven't but that would be interesting.

Yoadx40 karma

Or any mechanical bees?

donttrustmeokay8 karma

 Or dogs with mechanical bees in their mouth and when they bark, they shoot mechanical bees at you?

Troopar348 karma

Do you put the charge socket in the bumhole?

If not, why not?

SpyInTheWild338 karma

That is a practical solution for some spycreatures, Spy Sloth had this setup for sure. I think it makes a lot of sense. Thanks

blackwidowsurvivor243 karma

So crazy that you created more than 50 of these things! How long does it take to create one? What's the process?

SpyInTheWild268 karma

Matt: This can vary depending on the complexity of each spy creature. However, I would say the average was about 2-3 months from the initial concept, drawings, talking about the specifications needed, then building the animatronics, putting the skin on it and then finally punching the fur in.

WGACA1990112 karma

How much do animals change their behavior around a "spy" cam vs. a normal camera? Is it really all that different? Thanks for your time!

SpyInTheWild182 karma

Phil: The reaction of the animals to our spies does vary depending on the type of animal we are filming. But most animals are very curious at first, they will carefully inspect the spy, often sniffing first. But they quickly work out the spy is not a threat or food. That's when they relax and the spy becomes very much part of the scenery. It's at that point we get very interesting behaviour, being so close to the animals means we end up filming extraordinary detailed behaviour and sound. It's very different the long lens filming, spy creatures create a more intimate experience for the viewing. Of course sometimes the animals will try to communicate with our spies, that's when we often film quite unexpected behaviour.

latencia83 karma

Speaking of sniffing, do you add animal odor or any specific scents to make it more natural for animals?

SpyInTheWild171 karma

For spy fruit bat we had to leave it close to the bat colony to get urinated and pooped on (I know, not cool), but this way it absorbed the smells of the colony and so it was able to fit right in. For some animals smell is very important sense when it comes to assessing what something is.

Honest-Hawk109 karma

Was one environment harder or easier over others for the robots? Thanks for doing this! What a cool show!

SpyInTheWild232 karma

Phil: Probably the most challenging environment is operating on or in water. Spy creatures need extra design features to ensure they don't spring a leak and malfunction. Problems can arise in strong currents in rivers and seas. But our design team are very inventive and are great at overcoming many of these problems. Spy salmon required many months of development to get it to swim up river to film grizzly bears feeding on the salmon run. It moved and powered through a water just like a real fish. Fortunately it did not taste like a real fish so it managed to survive intact.

SpyInTheWild108 karma

Thank you! That's very kind of you. Each environment brings it own difficulties as you can imagine. Walking through a hot, humid, dense jungle with a big spy creature makes filming a lot harder but at the same time animals that are difficult to find and are nervous of humans adds another complexity. So filming sea otters in Alaska was quite difficult as not only did our spy creature have to be waterproof, but we had to be sometimes over 1km away and we had to deal with small icebergs interfering with our transmittor signals.

Honest-Hawk77 karma

Did you name any of the robots!? What was the trickiest part of working with the robots in the wild?

SpyInTheWild110 karma

Not this time, but in the previous series we did name Spy Orangutan Dr Birute after the scientist we worked with. Normally we call them by their official spy name.

SpyInTheWild80 karma

Matt: To answer your other questions. Each environment brings it own difficulties as you can imagine. Walking through a hot, humid, dense jungle with a big spy creature makes filming a lot harder but at the same time animals that are difficult to find and are nervous of humans adds another complexity. So filming sea otters in Alaska was quite difficult as not only did our spy creature have to be waterproof, but we had to be sometimes over 1km away and we had to deal with small icebergs interfering with our transmitter signals.

SpyInTheWild78 karma

Phil: Spy creatures need a lot of care and attention and keeping them in good working order can be hard work, especially after many weeks of filming in the wildness. The trickiest robot for me was spy polar bear. This was life-size, for every deployment into the frozen arctic sea we had to use the boats crane to lift in and out of the water. It was very heavy, especially when wet. The cold conditions made it more of a challenge to keep the electronics all working. Phil

iambluest61 karma

Am I recalling correctly, one of your ape cameras "died" and the troop mourned for it?

Could you describe this (and other emotional scenes) from the crew's perspective?

SpyInTheWild167 karma

Matt: So in our first series of Spy in the Wild we had a Spy Langur Monkey that when it fell on the floor and was inanimate, the real langur monkeys gathered around it and then appeared to mourn over our Spy Monkey. This behaviour is something that is is thought they do among themselves when real baby monkeys sadly pass away. It was a very powerful moment. There was this unbelievable silence that fell upon all the monkeys and all I heard was the wind blowing and when we then saw the monkeys hugging each other, it was at that moment that I realised we had captured something quite incredible.

Wisgood47 karma

How many hours of footage do you capture to make an episode like this? I imagine there's lots of patience involved in waiting and searching for the creatures you're following until you get some real authentic moments.

SpyInTheWild76 karma

Phil: Over 8500 hours of material shot. For every hour-long programme 2,125 hours were actually shot as the many cameras waited for the elusive moments shown in the film

Wisgood47 karma

That's crazy dedication, thanks for your inspiration and my hats off to your editors for managing such a feat!

SpyInTheWild44 karma

Thank you. We will let the editors know!

SpyInTheWild28 karma

Thank you!

RickandMortyStan1731 karma

What's the biggest animal you would love to create a spy for? I would love to see a spy killer whale!

SpyInTheWild40 karma

Matt: Every series we often wonder this ourselves. We've got a new and exciting project which I think will definitely feature our biggest spy creature yet! Stay tuned!

LookMaNoPride31 karma

Which one is your favorite? Also, I noticed that some of these live in the "uncanny valley." Don't get me wrong, they are really good. Did any animals get "freaked out" by them? I saw the clip of the ape touching the "eye". Did they accept it after that? Did anything react in a hostile way? Do you try to recreate the animals' scent or anything beyond visual recreation?

SpyInTheWild29 karma

Matt: Personally my favourite was Spy Gorilla. I love primates in general and being able to see them and filming them in the wild was a dream come true. So to go there and film them with Spy Gorilla too was even more amazing. Yes we found the great apes and monkeys did like to explore the lens in the eye and yes they were accepted after exploring them a bit further. There was one occasion in the series when our spy pig was dismantled by a fighting pair of male Komodo dragons. It came back home to the UK in many pieces.

LookMaNoPride9 karma

Holy crap. I just watched an outtake of Spy Gorilla. The previews don't do these things justice. They are able to do lot of little mannerisms that I'm certain mean a lot to gorillas. (I don't know what they mean, but that's impressive.)

Do you have a clip of the pig that was dismantled by Komodo dragons?

SpyInTheWild17 karma

What outtake was that? We will look at uploading a clip of the komodo dragons in the near future.

eabreddit1629 karma

What was your favorite thing about making this film?

SpyInTheWild48 karma

Matt: I think it's the excitement of not knowing how they are going to react. No matter how many years we've been doing this we still get excited by filming how the animals react and the footage we get from the spy creatures.

SpyInTheWild40 karma

Phil: I have many favourite moments, but I find the best thing is not knowing what we will happen when we deploy the spy creatures, it really is a journey into the unknown. My personal highlights was filming the monarch butterflies in Mexico with spy hummingbird. It captured footage from inside the cascade in detail that I've never seen before. It's great to capture such a beautiful spectacle and be able to share it world wide with the viewers.

mrmalaki29 karma

You guys are amazing. Loved the show. S1 penguins egg cam was my favourite.

Which was your favourite to make? Who do you guys have a personal attachment to?

SpyInTheWild29 karma

Matt: Thank you so much and glad to hear you've been watching a few of our shows. Our penguins programme was special as it was the first time we decided to take the spy devices to the next level and disguise the cameras as real animals and we love penguins so this was a special programme to make. However, in the latest series with the help of some world-class engineers and model-makers we now made some even more remarkable creatures and I think for me either Spy Gorilla or Spy Orangutan were my favourite and ones that I have a personal attachment to, especially as my academic background is primatology.

SpyInTheWild25 karma

Phil: Thanks for watching the show and I'm so pleased you enjoyed it. My favourite was spy bear. It turned out looking more like a teddy bear than a real bear. But it did its job and was miraculously accepted by the real Grizzly bears. The crew all became attached to spy bear, it was always difficult to pack it back into its case at the end of the shoot. But don't worry, spy bear is currently in my office siting happily by my side.

ShogunJosh29 karma

Have you ever lost any spy creatures in the wild?

SpyInTheWild100 karma

Phil: We've always been able to retrieve our spy creatures after filming. There was one occasion in the series when our spy pig was dismantled by a fighting pair of male Komodo dragons. It came back home to the UK in many pieces.

SpyInTheWild22 karma

Thanks for all your questions. We have been amazed by the response, so thank you! Unfortunately, that's all we have time for today. Our apologies to anyone who we didn't have time to answer today but feel free to expand and browse this thread to see some of the questions, feedback and comments. Don't forget to watch the second episode of Spy in the Wild 2 airing tonight on PBS at 8/7c (check local listings).

Spy in the Wild 2 airs on PBS on Wednesdays at 8/7c (check local listings). You can catch the first two episodes at pbs.org/spyinthewild or on the PBS Video app.

If you're in the UK, you can watch the whole series on the BBC iPlayer.

And to watch more clips from the series don't forget to visit and subscribe to our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/JohnDownerProd

amandanature21 karma

Is there a spy creature that you were most excited about using in the field? And is there an animal that you hope to build in the future?

SpyInTheWild47 karma

Matt: My personal favourites were probably the Spy Gorilla and Spy Jaguar Cub. Both are very different animals and therefore could potentially react in very different ways. With jaguars you are filming an ultimate predator and so seeing how a jaguar in the wild was going to react to our Spy Jaguar cub was very exciting. When Spy Cub was deployed this great predator suddenly for a brief moment looked just like a domestic cat who was inquisitive about this novel Spy Jaguar Cub. At the same time, with mountain gorillas there were many who wondered whether the silverback would accept our Spy Gorilla near the troop but as you saw in our footage, he did accept the Spy Gorilla and we got some incredible footage here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=podn2Szo1ls

SpyInTheWild43 karma

Phil: Spybear cub was exciting, we new we were entering into risky territory with grizzly bears. Spy bear was designed to be able to roll away from trouble and had many facial movements to mimic the behaviour of a playful bear cub. Its teddy bear looks worked, the adult grizzly bears accepted Spybear and the younger cubs tried to play with him. Spy bear was able to sit shoulder to shoulder with grizzly bears without coming to harm while filming the bears feasting on the salmon run. Something no wildlife camera operator would dare to do. Working with spy bear was great fun!

SpyInTheWild18 karma

Thank you for all your questions today. The variety of questions and feedback has been great to see. Don't forget to tune in tonight to watch episode 2 "The North" of Spy in the Wild 2 at 8/7c on PBS. Check local listings!

If you're in the UK, you can watch the whole series on the BBC iPlayer.

And don't forget to watch more clips from our series on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/JohnDownerProd

mdg214618 karma

What materials do you use to create realistic fur for the animatronics?

SpyInTheWild37 karma

Phil: We use faux fur type materials (fake fur). For more detailed work around the face of the animals the model makers punch individual hairs into the silicon skin, this can take many weeks of hard repetitive work. Phil

caitlynlee12311 karma

What a wonderful idea to get closer to the wild! Do you think that as technology continues to improve this style of sending spies in will become a more standard way to observe behavior? This could be an amazing tool for following those really shy creature in the ocean, e.g. a basking shark. Thank you for getting us a little closer to the wild!

SpyInTheWild14 karma

Phil: I really believe as the technology improves filmmakers and scientists will always feel compelled to find innovative and inventive ways to get closer to animals to gain a more in depth understanding of their lives. Our next big series will delve into a deeper realm, one that you have hit upon in your question.

Akamasi8 karma

As smell as a sense is much more important for some animals than others, how do you deal with animals that are less reliant on sight?

Are there some animals which you can never 'tricks because they don't trust the lack of the right smells?

SpyInTheWild22 karma

Matt: So yes smell can be very important but it depends on what animals we are trying to film. So for example when filming great apes we were told by the experts that it is highly unlikely you will ever be able to disguise the artificial smell of the Spy Creature but that it is more important therefore to ensure that the Spy Creature looks and behaves as realistically as possible. However, for some animals such as meerkats and bats that live in colonies, it was important to cover the Spy Creatures with poo from the colony to help allow the Spy Creature to be accepted. Sometimes the job is not as glamorous as you think!!!

somersetfairy7 karma

Who's idea was it to get David Tennant to narrate it all, and do you not think David Attenborough would of been better??

SpyInTheWild25 karma

Phil: We all love David Attenborough and there is no mistaking his distinguished style. But we felt the innovative approach of the spy series needed to be different on all levels. David Tennant achieves this with his unmistakable delivery and ability to capture the humour and emotion that defines our spy films.

Norgeroff7 karma

What color is your toothbrush?

SpyInTheWild19 karma

Phil: Pink, blue, green, it depends on who's brush is available for me to use, I often loose my toothbrush on filming shoots and end up with somebody else's, never ideal.

SpyInTheWild8 karma


sugardani076 karma

Do any of the wild animals get traumatized after meeting the spy animals?

SpyInTheWild14 karma

Phil: No. If the animals were traumatised by the Spy Creatures we would not be able to capture their true behaviour. We as a team have all been amazed by the ability for animals to assess and accept the spy creatures. We seek advice from scientists and go to great lengths to ensure our spy creatures integrate with minimal impact. Our techniques have been recognised by many world leading scientists as an effective way of filming behaviour.

SpyInTheWild14 karma

Matt: So we the producers who work on the series are all biologists & zoologists and we work with scientists and field experts in the field and we all constantly make it a priority to ensure that the animals feel relaxed around us and our spy creatures.

ElRocketeer5 karma

In the spy series, Who’s filming the interactions with the animal and spy? For example, The hippo underwater shots?

SpyInTheWild15 karma

Matt: So as well as other spy creatures and spy cameras on each shoot we also have a camera person who is filming on a long lens using traditional filming techniques when required.

likecomicshaveboobz5 karma

Your creatures look amazing and I’m excited to watch the show!

How are the creatures powered? Do they have to be connected to a power source via extension cord or do they have batteries that need to be recharged like a phone?

Also, are the creatures programmed to make certain movements ahead of time, like pre-planned choreography? Or are they remotely-controlled to move and react to things in real time? Thanks!

SpyInTheWild6 karma

We use on board batteries, so no tethers. For some spy creatures we have pre-programmed robotic moves to choose from depending on the context of the behaviour which we are confronted with.

PerilousAll3 karma

I know some animals are more scent conscious than others. How do you get the spies to smell right?

SpyInTheWild4 karma

For spy fruit bat we had to leave it close to the bat colony to get urinated and pooped on (I know, not cool), but this way it absorbed the smells of the colony and so it was able to fit right in. For some animals smell is very important sense when it comes to assessing what something is.

ShutUpVegan3 karma

How many people were part of the production and what were the different jobs?

SpyInTheWild6 karma

So at John Downer Productions there are over a dozen staff members working on our productions from production co-ordinators, production managers to producers and directors. We of course also use editors, dubbing editors and for the 'Spy' series we also need animatronic and robotic engineers too. So a whole array of different people and skills are needed to make our programmes.

SpyInTheWild5 karma

We have about 12 people on the productions team, jobs include producers, productions manager, productions coordinator, assistant editor. We then contract freelancers which include editors, camera operators, composers.

Magnus_ORily3 karma

Have you any plans to reintroduce 'boulder cam' back into the wild?

I haven't seen one in so long and they're my favourite.

SpyInTheWild5 karma

Boulder cam is one of our favourites too and is still useful on our shoots and was occasionally used on some shoots!

luisabueno3 karma

Are you two involved in controlling the spy creatures? Which one is the most difficult to control? How do you position the shot?

SpyInTheWild5 karma

Matt: Yes on some shoots we would control the spy creatures. Some of them are quite complex, like the Spy Gorilla, and so it needs 2 people to control it. But where possible we often like to have the animatronics engineer, who is far more experienced at puppeteering than us, to produce the most realistic movement and face expressions.

armcie3 karma

I understand being able to film amongst the animals is different to filming from a distance, but is there a difference between using your animatronic devices and a normal remote camera, or one disguised as a rock, say?

SpyInTheWild4 karma

Yes there is a difference. Depending on the animals we are filming, will determine what sort of spy device to use. Sometimes it was better to use a spy creature such as Spy Gorilla when filming the interaction and behaviours of mountain gorillas compared to a Spy Rock but then on occasions an inanimate device such as iceberg cam was perfect for example when filming polar bears!

ShutUpVegan3 karma

What was the worst and best reaction the animals you were filming had?

SpyInTheWild12 karma

Matt: There hasn't really been a 'worst' reaction. As mentioned to a previous question Spy Pig was destroyed by komodo dragons but the best reaction was probably the mountain gorillas to our Spy Baby Gorilla. To see what I mean check out this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=podn2Szo1ls

apricotcarguy3 karma

For the design and manufacture of the robots, how did you go about choosing who to do it? Did you approach engineering firms?

SpyInTheWild4 karma

We use a wide array of animatronic and robotic engineers and some of the most amazing artists and model makers from around the world some of which have worked on some top feature films such as the Harry Potter films. Many of the Spy Creatures such as Spy Orangutan and Spy Gorilla were made by a company in London in the UK called John Nolan Studios.

frigginamazin3 karma

Who was the one to come up with the concept of this type of filming in wildlife?

SpyInTheWild4 karma

The team at John Downer Productions are behind the concept! BONKERS!

j0shred13 karma

Sorry I have a couple questions, but this is just really interesting considering the combination of robotics, zoology, nature, and art:

What is your process for creating a an animatronic creature realistic enough to for animals to trust it? What kind of robotics systems do you use. Do you use any machine learning to get the animals to behave in a more realistic way? Do you consult the opinions of different zoologists to get an idea of what the robot would smell like, look like, act like, ect.

SpyInTheWild6 karma

Thanks for your interesting questions. Yes we often consult with scientists to get advice on what to consider during the design and build of our Spy Creature. We do our best to mimic certain stereotype behaviours which can help illicit behaviours that are non threatening. For example, the play bow and submissive ear and tail movements in Spy Wolf, which you will see in the last episode. Smell is sometimes essential as I've highlighted in some replies below.

xGunner4552 karma

Have you ever had an animatronic/cameras get destroyed from predators thinking it’s real?

SpyInTheWild5 karma

There was one occasion in the series when our spy pig was dismantled by a fighting pair of male Komodo dragons. It came back home to the UK in many pieces.

hippocratic_oaf2 karma

I've always wondered what's the split in terms of footage from the Spy Animal Vs more traditional filming techniques? Is the one shoot that was particularly one way or the other?

SpyInTheWild3 karma

It does vary from sequence to sequence and so hard to quantify but it can be up to 50% or more approximately

ShutUpVegan2 karma

What did the control station look like? Did it look more like a remote control for an RC car or like a cockpit?

SpyInTheWild7 karma

Yes you are spot on! They looked more like a controller for a RC car or plane, we customise the switches and add wheels in combination with the sticks. Some controllers look like playstation controllers, but again heavily customised.

funklesmithus2 karma

Very impressive, and well done!

What is the footprint of these machines on the environment? Are they all collected from where they were originally placed for the footage, or are you remotely retrieving the data?

SpyInTheWild3 karma

They occupy they same footprint as the subject animal we are filming, actually less as they don't move as far as the real animal. We typically deploy the device and retreat, leaving it in the field all day and monitoring the video picture remotely. At the end of the day we collect it once there are no animals in close proximity to retrieve the on board media and replace the batteries. Some spy creatures are left out for longer periods.

UghKakis2 karma

Do you add a specific scent to each robot?

SpyInTheWild3 karma

For spy fruit bat we had to leave it close to the bat colony to get urinated and pooped on (I know, not cool), but this way it absorbed the smells of the colony and so it was able to fit right in. For some animals smell is very important sense when it comes to assessing what something is.

SpyInTheWild3 karma

For some animals smell is an important sense for assessing their environment, so we try to anoint our Spy Creatures with smells of the animals they are filming. In the past this was done using poop! Just below I mention spy bat being left close to the colony to get pooped on. Once it had the smells on its fur it was readily embraced by the colony.

Bridget1340 karma

Hi! Thanks for doing this AMA. I had never heard of this series before seeing this post and I look forward very much indeed to watching it as it becomes available. As it is, though, I want to add that I can only watch the 30 second preview available at the PBS link you shared so that's all I know about y'all and your doings - which is a long way of saying, please excuse me if I ask you something that you have answered elsewhere or in the series itself!

So, I have tons of questions about you guys, and the show, and the spy animals themselves flitting around in my mind, but I'll limit myself.

My impression from the nature of your series is that you clearly feel that there is much that is worthwhile to know and learn about animals that can be found when they are in their natural habitats and, at the same time, unaware of being watched.

With this in mind - ie the importance you place on wildlife remaining undisturbed in their natural habitats - I wonder what you think of, and how you feel about, zoos and/or the private ownership of wildlife ala Joe Wild et al.?

Is there a such thing as a "good zoo"?

How would you rate the quality of life of a wild animal in captivity - ANY captivity, no matter the size of land or the level of mimicking the creature's actual native environment?

Some background: I worked at a no-kill animal sanctuary on a large estate in Texas many years ago - albeit it was mostly for domestic animals (cats and dogs) with a few wild stragglers. I vividly remember the opinion of the sanctuary's owner, which was: dogs and cats ought not be "allowed" to breed/or be bred anymore, full-stop. She was of the mind - and I think it was a conclusion that she came to feel after many many years of rescuing thousands of unwanted/abused/neglected animals - that humans are not worthy and/or capable of companion animal-ship. In fact, the cynical philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said something along the lines of "life is so awful that it would be better for us (humans) to have never been born, and existed, at all" (I'm paraphrasing). This sentiment of Schopenhauer's I think summed up the way the sanctuary owner felt about domestic animals - their lives, generally, are so awful that it would be better for them to just not exist.

Do you have any thoughts you would care to share on your reaction(s) to the suggestion that all wild animals in captivity, and the vast majority of domestic "pets", have such poor quality of lives, due directly to human intervention in whatever form it may take, that we should allow them (or force them) to go extinct?

I realize, after writing this all out, that I'm most interested in ironically asking the creators of a TV series specifically about animals in the wild what their thoughts are on animals in captivity. But I do feel that because of the scope of your show based specifically in the wild you must have some affinity for, some feeling for the importance of, the quality of the lives that wild animals are free to live in their natural habitats and that, consequently, you would have feelings about animals' lives on the "other" side of the habitat coin.

SpyInTheWild2 karma

Thanks for your question and glad you are looking forward to seeing the programme. If you want to see more clips from the series you can visit PBS Nature's YouTube channel:


You ask some very interesting questions, due to time constraints it would be difficult to answer your questions in depth and in full. However, what we can say is that our Spy series explores animals in the wild and hopefully give the viewer an insight in to wild animals' natural behaviour. We hope you will enjoy the series.

goatsin-9 karma

My question is, how can you honestly describe these monstrosities as realistic? Do you not feel absurd making that claim? Thank you.

SpyInTheWild7 karma

Phil: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder! We must never judge on looks alone, it's the bigger picture and what the Spy Creatures capture and the valuable insights they can deliver which is important.

goatsin-4 karma

Realism is an objective measure. Beauty is not.

SpyInTheWild5 karma

Thanks for this insightful thought.

SpyInTheWild7 karma

Matt: We beg to differ. Spy Turtle was just one that was incredibly life-like. One of the issues we have when editing our sequences is making sure that the viewer can easily tell which is the real animal and which is the spy creature.