Filming Insects in 4K: A Look Inside KQED’s Deep Look Video Series
By Melissa Mayer
From revealing how crickets chirp to spotlighting the way mosquitoes suck blood, San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED’s award-winning video series Deep Look is changing the way viewers see the world. Deep Look uses ultra-HD (4K) macro cinematography and video microscopy to uncover the wonder of tiny things—and that means insects frequently take center stage.
Josh Cassidy, lead producer and cinematographer for Deep Look, calls the episodes “science tacos”—short, punchy, and enjoyed a few at a time. To serve that up, Cassidy uses macro lenses with varying levels of magnification to reveal things barely visible to the human eye. And, when they want to dive deeper, he connects that ultra-HD camera to a microscope—at a collaborating researcher’s lab or the biological imaging facility at the University of California, Berkeley—to bring the invisible world into focus. In addition to all that macro footage and scripting, each episode gets a unique musical score.
Entomology Today spoke with Cassidy and Gabriela Quirós, Deep Look coordinating producer, about what goes into creating the Deep Look episodes that keep more than 1.3 million subscribers coming back for more.
Entomology Today: How do you choose your video subjects?
Quirós: There are four producers now, and we have different interests, so each individual producer is coming up with [their] own ideas and pitching them to the group. I’m very interested in health and from the beginning have been interested in doing a series of videos about mosquitoes and ticks and different animals that live on humans.
Our aim is always to present the most dramatic story that we can. We’re not really after a topic. We’re after a character who wants to achieve something. And we want to tell the most interesting story about how they’re able to get what they want.
Cassidy: My background is wildlife biology, so a big part—especially in the beginning of the show—was the comparative invertebrate anatomy course I took as an undergrad. There were so many interesting animals that I learned about in that class. As a biologist, you typically pick one creature that you’re going to study through your whole career. What’s great about Deep Look is that we can keep discovering all these new stories, all these new creatures.
I have to say Gabi really hit on something important with the health stories because those are our most popular. People seem really interested in animals that interact with people—usually not in a way they enjoy.
Quirós: People are interested in animals that suck their blood.
Cassidy: Our audience really prefers smaller invertebrates to fuzzy, cute mammals and birds … which was a big surprise for me—a welcome one!
Sometimes you film in the field and sometimes you bring the field to your studio?
Quirós: We give ourselves two days to film each episode, and, ideally, we spend one of those days out in the field and the other day in the lab … but sometimes we bring the characters of our films back to the studio, and we build a set for them here.
Building an aquarium or terrarium allows Josh to get much, much closer to the animals that we’re filming in a much more controlled environment.
Cassidy: If we can film things in the field, it’s great to film them in their natural environment. But, for example, if we want to wait for a butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis, it’s a lot better for us to have that here so we can keep checking in on it instead of having to keep going to a location.
But usually it’s either at a specialist’s laboratory or in the field—and mixing the footage from those two locations together and having them mesh is a big challenge for our production.
Tell us more about how you work with experts.
Cassidy: We do a substantial amount of research on each story, but these specialists have dedicated decades to that animal, so they’re able to help us learn in a very accelerated way. … We might be able to look up a map of where an animal lives, but the researchers know exactly which side of the tree this insect will live on or what time of day is best to find them—things we wouldn’t know otherwise.
Quirós: We’re most fortunate when we are able to work with a scientist who … has been successful in capturing photos and video of the animals they study, because they really understand our needs, and they have probably thought through very carefully what is necessary to capture the behaviors.
What is the biggest challenge?
Cassidy: A lot of the creatures we film don’t like light. They want to live under a rock somewhere, and when you put a light on them, they might not behave normally. We have to find a way to film them without scaring them basically and just try to film natural behaviors.
One of the biggest challenges I face with the camera is there’s something called depth of field, which is how much of your frame is in focus when you’re looking through the viewfinder. The more zoomed in you are on tiny things, the shallower the depth of field is. So, it will get to the point where even a millimeter off and the whole image looks blurry—and it’s very hard to try to film because these are often living animals—so it’s hard to keep focus when things are so tiny and the slightest touch of the camera to try to focus it will shake the camera.
Quirós: I’d say that the biggest challenge is that the animals and plants we film are on their own schedule. So, even given our best efforts and the scientists’ best understanding of their life cycle and all of our preparation, there’s still a fair amount of waiting involved—and also good luck.
Cassidy: We might wait for hours and then, when the action finally happens, we have seconds to be ready and able to catch it to put it on film.
You’ve filmed more than a hundred episodes so far. Do you have a favorite?
Quirós: One that I feel emotionally attached to is the episode about lice because, since I started working on Deep Look, I really wanted to do that episode. I think it’s partly because, when I was a little girl, I had lice a couple times, and my dad used the opportunity to put the lice and eggs under the microscope. … That was the first time I think I saw an insect up close like that. I remember being able to see through the eggs and being very intrigued.
There’s one [image] in particular I imagined and was happy we were able to film. There’s a strand of hair that’s horizontal—parallel to the ground—and there’s a louse that’s crawling with its tarsal claws like a little acrobat. It was just very satisfying, and in combination with the music that Seth scored, very aesthetically pleasing and funny.
Cassidy: I really like the sea urchin episode from early on. I always think of them as these very stationary balls of spikes. I didn’t realize they go on this grand adventure and float through the ocean on their own as a larva—a pluteus—trying to find the right place to land and develop into an adult. I really liked that the pluteus is really beautiful on its own, but also there is something the audience can connect to about trying to find your place in the world and being lost.
Do you have a favorite insect?
Cassidy: I think the praying mantis is probably my favorite. I’ve always thought they were super cool with their triangular heads, the way they hunt, and their extremely dramatic love lives. We did an episode about praying mantises, and I definitely learned some things I can never unlearn about their mating practices.
Quirós: If pushed hard to choose, I think that—just because of their tremendous variety and how hardworking they are—bees are probably my favorite. … They’re just a wonderful example of evolution at work and how animals can adapt to make better use of their environments.
I would say that, for me, the fun challenge is bringing people stories about insects they don’t like and making them vivid to them and teaching them something about those insects in a way that they can’t look away.
Deep Look‘s 7th season is underway. It airs on the PBS Digital Studios YouTube network and showcases the talents of Craig Rosa, series producer; Josh Cassidy, lead producer and cinematographer; Gabriela Quirós, coordinating producer; Jenny Oh and Mike Seely, producers; and Seth Samuel, music composer. Additional editing and motion graphics provided by Kia Simon and animations by Teodros Hailye. On March 10, the team will say goodbye to host Lauren Sommer and welcome Laura Klivans as its new host.
Look for newly released videos—including episodes about fleas, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, and walking sticks—twice a month on the Deep Look channel.
Melissa Mayer is a freelance science writer based in Portland, Oregon. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.