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Entomology on Screen: Q&A With the Directors of ‘The Love Bugs’

In March 2017, Arizona State University announced a $12 million gift from entomologists Charlie and Lois O’Brien, which included their collection of more than 1 million weevils and 250,000 planthoppers. The gift more than doubled the size of the university’s entomological collection, and it endowed ASU professorships devoted to insect systematics.

Maria Clinton

Maria Clinton

Allison Otto

Allison Otto

However, behind the major scientific and academic impact of that news was an endearing story about a husband and wife, 83 and 89 years old respectively at the time, who had dedicated their lives to their love for insects and for each other. That story earned warm headlines around the world and eventually made its way to filmmakers Allison Otto and Maria Clinton, who worked with Charlie and Lois to turn their story into a 34-minute documentary, dubbed The Love Bugs.

The film premiered in May and has won audience-favorite awards at four film festivals since, and it is showing at six more festivals this fall—in addition to screenings at entomological and nature-related events around the world. In August, Charlie O’Brien passed away, and Otto says he “was thrilled that the film was resonating so well and that universities and entomological organizations around the globe were interested in his and Lois’s story and their collection.”

At Entomology 2019 next month in St. Louis, attendees will have the opportunity to see The Love Bugs at a special screening at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 19. Entomology Today caught up with Otto and Clinton to learn more about the film, the messages it shares, and what the two directors learned about entomology along the way.

Entomology Today: What inspired you to make this film? How did you first hear about the O’Briens?

Otto: Charlie and Lois made international headlines in 2017 when they announced that they were giving away their collection. That’s when the larger public outside of entomology circles learned that this collection existed. I read about the O’Briens in an NPR article, and I was fascinated by their relationship and this amazing collection they’d put together. It was mind boggling and so inspirational. I reached out to Nico Franz at ASU, and he helped me get in touch with Charlie and Lois.

Clinton: When thinking about embarking on the journey to make this film, what inspired me most was both Lois and Charlie’s dedication to their research and their collection. They have been trailblazers in the field of entomology and have inspired so many people through their perseverance. I first heard about the O’Briens through Allison and I was immediately onboard. I also did some research of my own after hearing about their collection. Shortly after, Allison and I were headed to Arizona knowing that we had come across two very special people.

How did the project come together from there? What went into the filming?

Clinton: The project took a lot of planning and assessing what the actual focus of the film would be. The film shoots were always informed by the desire to share both the humanity of Lois and Charlie as well as the magnitude of their collection. We initially knew that we wanted the collection to come to life through animations. In addition, we wanted the music to complement the tone of the film as well as the subject matter. Overall, everyone involved worked incredibly hard to piece all the various elements together.

Otto: I emailed Charlie and Lois and then began chatting with them to see if it would be OK if Maria and I came to Arizona to film their story. We were originally planning to make a 10-minute film, but we quickly discovered how profound their love story is and how important their collection is to science.

The filming was pretty intense! I made seven trips to Arizona to film them and their collection over the course of a year. And they were very gracious to let us keep coming back. We wanted to follow the journey of their decision to give away the collection and how that impacted their lives, the life of the collection, and the generations of entomologists who will be using their collection in the years to come.

And the filming was only the beginning of the film’s creation. Then we collaborated with a really talented team to complete the editing, fashion the illustrations and the animations, and create an original soundtrack for the film. We were even fortunate enough to have a live studio recording of the soundtrack! Flutes, violins, clarinets, and a bass were just some of the instruments used to create not only the music but also to mimic the buzzing and trilling of insects.

Did you go into the project with a particular focus in mind? Or did themes reveal themselves as you got to know the O’Briens?

Otto: Our original focus was a 10-minute film focused around their love story. But as the filming progressed, the nuances of the story revealed themselves. They had such a bonded relationship and were so passionate about entomology and about sharing their knowledge. I always joke that they could have taught a master class in love. Ultimately our goal was to make the film a story about the love of nature and the nature of love.

The film ended up being not only about the deep love that Charlie and Lois have for each other—it also reflected their love for their collection, which they cared for with the devotion of a parent to their child, and their love and commitment to science in a time when its value is under attack. We want to immerse viewers in the story and the world of entomology in a way that’s engaging, approachable, and occasionally humorous. Lois and Charlie were perfect for that!

Clinton: I would say that yes, we initially went into the project with a specific scope of how everything would turn out. While we originally thought we would create a very short piece, once arriving at the O’Briens’ home we realized that their legacy deserved so much more attention. Themes of sacrifice, love, and tenacity began to emerge as both Lois and Charlie freely shared stories of their research, expeditions, and accomplishments together.

What kind of impact do you hope the film has on audiences?

Clinton: We want the film to resonate with the audiences. We want them to walk away understanding that a vast diversity of insects exists. We also want them to understand more about the field of entomology and the scientists who work tirelessly and dedicate their lives to research and passing knowledge onto future generations. Science matters as well as scientists and we hope that the film conveys these messages.

Otto: We want this film to inspire wonder and reverence for the complexity and beauty of insects and the important role they play on our planet. We also want the film to spark a dialogue about what it truly means to love and dedicate oneself to the natural sciences. We hope that ultimately The Love Bugs will help foster a paradigm shift about the value of scientists and of the insect world and a deeper, more nuanced understanding of both.

How much did you know about entomological collections before this?

Otto: I knew a little, but I had never seen anything like Charlie and Lois’s collection. It blew my mind! And it helped me develop a new love for insects, their beauty, and the importance of the role they play in ecosystem. And they’re so diverse—from the rainbow scarab beetle that looks like a miniature Triceratops to the otherworldly Brazilian treehopper. But, if I were an entomologist, I would probably be a behaviorist as opposed to a systematist, though. I’m fascinated by the behaviors of insects and love reading about new behavioral discoveries.

Clinton: Prior to co-directing this film I knew very little about the field of entomology. However, I am now so grateful to be exposed to such a rich field of study. It speaks to the things that matter most, especially now! I am dedicated to sharing this knowledge with communities that do not have access to this information or the work being done within the field.

Do you have a favorite species of weevil and/or planthopper now?

Clinton: There are so many to choose from but, if I had to choose, it would be the clown weevils and the peanut bug Fulgora laternaria.

Otto: I love the Compsus benoisti weevil—the one that looks like a disco ball and is featured toward the end of the film). As for planthoppers, I’m fond of the Pyrops whiteheadi with the blue nose.


Film Screening: The Love Bugs,” Tuesday, November 19, 6:30 p.m. U.S. Central

Entomology 2019, St. Louis, Missouri

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