No Bugs, No Glory!
10th Anniversary of – Who Wants to be an Entomologist?
It’s hard for me to believe that 10 years ago this month all the writing, all the filming, all the post production came to an end to produce the DVD – Who Wants to be an Entomologist? It was the first part in a planned series of Tales from the Bug Whisperer. Looking back on it all leaves me with mixed feelings of pride and anxiety. It was the culmination of 10 years of just trying to make it happen, then it was happening, and then it happened: 10 years ago! Looking back a blur of memories come to mind: Memories of both triumphs, failures, betrayals and a great deal of sacrifice and tenacity.
So, in that vein, let me start from the beginning:
Back in 1995, I had started a traveling live insect exhibit in my last semester of college. It started as a joke over a couple of beers with friends, where someone blurted out, “I want to talk about bugs and I want to get paid to do it!” Well, the story of the live show is another adventure all unto itself, but this blog is about the DVD. But as life would have it this is what led to a series of events that drove me forward. See, in the very beginning of the live show, nothing like it previously existed. Not in the way I was doing it anyway. There was no road map to follow, and I made it up as I went along. Everything was trial and error, testing this animal, that animal, and honing my shtick to work well with kids. I worked very hard at trying to get into their minds. Lots of people go around “talking” about bugs but the last thing I wanted to be was another mediocre drone. I didn’t want to “talk.”I wanted to light the world on fire!
One of my first frustrations was with the animals themselves. I knew in my head what I wanted the experience of the live show to be. Unfortunately, when working with animals it doesn’t always work as you wish. Immediately, I noticed that while I got to see these animals in their most excellent moments all the time, this was not the case in a one hour assembly at a school. First of all, tarantulas never move unless they have to, some animals are nocturnal and others just have better things to do than show off. In the beginning, I had a much more elaborate collection of animals. As I had said earlier, I learned a lot through trial and error. Many of my animals were so very cool, like termites and velvet ants. However, kids being kids, they just didn’t appreciate them unless they were big and gaudy.
Keeping many of these animals was new to me. So, while I got to witness some amazing things in captivity, my audiences did not. Well this was a problem. My whole purpose was to share the incredible things that I witnessed and fueled my passion for Entomology. No matter how good of a storyteller you were, there was NO WAY to convey what I witnessed in a manner that expressed the wonder of a bug’s life.
Only a month or two into the Creepy Crawly Zoo adventure, this frustration peaked. In my first shipment of insects, I had ordered a Tarantula Hawk (a giant parasitic wasp that preys on tarantulas). The vendor had captured it with a tarantula that he also sent me. A day later the wasp died and I was stuck with a paralyzed tarantula. It was alive, just incapable of movement. So, lacking any better ideas, I stuck it in a cage and posed it and no one ever knew the difference. (As I said, tarantulas don’t move much.) Then a month later I received a new Tarantula Hawk. Well again, lacking any better ideas of what to do with a paralyzed tarantula, I decided to end it “mercifully.” I had no reason to believe it was going to recover.
I set up a terrarium for the wasp and prepared a large jar full of sandy soil. I placed the tarantula inside and then introduced the wasp…. And immediately regretted it. For those of you who are arachnophobic, you have probably never imagined that spiders are capable of feeling fear. They are. I had not realized that in a month the tarantula had regained some of its mobility. Not a lot, but enough. Enough that when it saw that wasp, there was NO mistaking the fear in its spider brain. It stood up for all it was worth and frantically tried to get away. Being still partially paralyzed, it was a colossal effort of movement, which made it so much more horrific to watch. In the split second my brain had time to process, “well maybe the paralysis will wear off.” And “I should stop this.” It was all over. The wasp was upon it, and it was done.
I was left speechless with my mouth open processing what had just happened. There was nothing left to do for the tarantula, and I concluded it wasn’t going to survive being stung twice in a month. With some hesitation, I decided to let nature finish its course. I placed the wasp and the tarantula in the jar of sandy soil and watched as the wasp dug a burrow and dragged the tarantula down and laid an egg on it. The chamber was against the glass and for the next 6 weeks, I watched as the larvae developed and eventually emerged. To this day it was one of the most incredible things I have ever been privileged to witness. So incredible that I wanted to share it with the world, but there was just no way to do it justice. Telling the story does not come close to capturing the experience. How many people in the world would ever see something like this in a lifetime? It was this event and all the other events I witnessed that few outside entomology circles would ever see that prompted me to find a way to share it. I realized the only way to share it was to videotape it.
This was 1996. Alanis Morissette and Ace of Base were playing on the radio, the Macarena was the number one song of the year and I had bleach blonde hair! Many of you reading this are not old enough to understand how much technology has evolved from then till now. We did not have HD cell phone cameras back then. Most of us didn’t even own cell phones yet. The best video camera I could afford at the time was a $300 SVHS camera I bought in a pawnshop. It was pretty much like carrying around a VCR on your shoulder. By today’s standards, it was enormous. However, carry it around I did. I took it EVERYWHERE I went. Hiking, camping, bug collecting, it was always with me. I filmed every bug I came across for the next 10 years. I captured some absolutely incredible scenes with that camera. The one thing I didn’t capture was myself.
I knew from the day of the wasp episode that eventually what I was doing with the live show would have to be done on video. What did I do with the live show? I inspired young minds. At that same time a new show had come out on PBS, Kratt’s Creatures. I loved the show and the story behind it. The Kratt brothers had been filming things like I was and realized there just weren’t any good animal shows for kids. So they made one. Let’s be honest, the original Kratt’s Creatures was awesome. Here were two very likable guys who wanted to share their passion. I loved it and that format I wanted to imitate. But I was also a child of the Bill Nye generation and I loved that too. I worked with kids and imagination was everything. All these things were combining in my head and I could picture the final product and how I wanted it to make my audiences feel. I wanted them to feel inspired. I wanted kids to want to do what I did. I wanted them to pick up a camera and a butterfly net and go do it better than I did.
I take my inspiration from wherever I find it. One of my favorite bands of all time is the Sex Pistols. I was reading an interview with Johnny Rotten and he said, “If you’re going to make music, it should make others want to pick up a guitar and do the same.” [sic]. I also remember another quote of the time from Sid Ceaser, “If you want people to listen, first you have to make them laugh.” These stuck with me and a vision was forming.
So the years went on and I filmed and I filmed and I filmed. I was dedicated to doing whatever it took to capture a moment. I was obsessed with it. Some of the things I did to capture a shot were probably less than judicious. One particular time my brother and I were traveling around Wisconsin. We happened to camp next to a lake one night that was having an emergence of dragonflies. Hundreds were coming out of the water as niads and climbing the walls of a culvert. I was desperate to film it, but the water was too deep to wade through and I couldn’t get close enough to film any of them. So I had my brother hold my feet while I hung upside down over the opening of the culvert. I hung there for more than 20 minutes filming, but I got the shot. That piece made it into the video. Then there was the time I was filming dung beetles in Tucson and ended up in a tree after being chased by a bull. The time I was black lighting in the desert and wound up on top of my jeep after being chased by a pack of javelinas. The time I was filming a wolf spider, lying on my belly only to realize after I got up that the stick next to me was a snake. The time I was filming a rattlesnake and was holding it while wearing thick gloves. This snake was NOT happy and was trying to reach back with its fangs to get me. A fire ant had crawled in my glove and started to sting me and there was nothing I could do but take it. The time I was alone in a canyon doing the splits 6 feet above a granite hole full of deep water trying to catch diving beetles. I put my hand on a rock and what I thought was an octopus grabbed my hand. In my Scooby-Doo like panic, I almost fell in. It turned out to be a tree frog. Whatever the situation was though, I captured the shot…. Except for the times, I forgot to press record.
2005: Finally, the time came when I was done filming animals. I knew that if I wanted to be the host of my own show it was time to step in front of the camera myself. Therefore, I did. I mean I do live shows right? I’m entertaining and I just figured do the same thing on camera. I don’t know if any of you reading this have ever made that transition from live performing to being on camera but for me, it was painful to watch. It was just awful. I was NOT the person I wanted to be on camera. To say I was boring is being kind. I didn’t understand what the problem was but I figured I could fix it in editing.
So one day my old college roommate came out to give me a hand filming myself. I stood in front of this tree and that bush and on this rock reciting some very informative information I had written down. Eventually, my friend couldn’t take it anymore and said, “Dude. Dude. Dude, just stop – stop. You’re boring the hell out of me. For the love of god do something! Do a cartwheel, eat something, ANYTHING! You want to be the Bug Whisperer? Well then turn it up! You have competition out there. You have Irwin and Corwin. You’re never going to get this off the ground with what you’re doing.”
He kept pushing me to amp it up to the point I felt like a cartoon in front of the camera. Next thing you know I’m ranting like a lunatic wearing a snorkel and mask and diving into a pond. (A scene also in the video) I did a lot of crazy things that day. Later, I watched it play back and I got chills. Now, THIS is what I was going for! THIS was the Bug Whisperer I had imagined! What felt so ridiculous in person was excellent on camera. I finally found my video persona. Now that I had “it,” I was going to finish this in no time! Yeah, right.
I never went to school for film. It was an obsessive hobby because I could always envision the final product. Granted technology had evolved enough since I started this that now I could do this on my home computer. Though technology was really evolving, it was still only 2005. Snoop Dogg, Green Day and The Blackeyed Peas were on the radio. While things were much better than 1996, the technology of the time still didn’t compare to what we take for granted today. Let me repeat, I never went to film school and had never actually put together anything like this. Had anyone?
PRODUCTION AND POST-PRODUCTION
I did have one partner in crime, my longtime friend Paul Hildenbrand. Paul wrote and performed the kick-ass theme song and was all in this project. He did most of the special effects and was the sound guy. He was the rock that got me through this. He was the one person that believed in what I had in my head enough to give it everything to make it happen. This accomplishment was as much his as it is mine. I don’t think I’ve ever thanked him enough for what he did.
I lived in Arizona at the time, and he was back in Milwaukee. I would come back to Milwaukee every summer touring with the live show and film as much as I could. The rest of the time we were coordinating efforts from 2000 miles apart. We didn’t have skype or Dropbox or ANY of those lovely modern file sharing and communication systems we have today. The best we had was Adobe clip notes. That was only good for exchanging 30sec of film at most….via email.
We spent hundreds of hours in the studio together. Again, let me repeat, neither of us had ever gone to film school. We did not have a preproduction plan, a storyboard, a shot list or ANY of the things you’re supposed to do before you even start filming. We didn’t even have a plan and we didn’t have any money. We just had a vision of something great, something exciting, funny, imaginative and unique. “We” had no idea what we were doing.
Much of what came together we made up as we went along. We had 10 years of footage to go through and figure out what we still needed. We had more ideas than we knew what to do with. We had home video cameras and home computers. Not digital, not HD cameras, but good old fashion Hi-8 and DV tape cameras. You know, where you filmed for an hour, then you logged the tape by watching it for an hour, then you captured it in your computer for an hour – then you were ready to START editing.
I think the part of this stroll down memory lane that causes me the most anxiety was the creation of the special effects. Just thinking of it makes the back of my neck tense. Back in 2005 was the beginning of Windows XP. While better, your computer would occasionally crash, you would accept this, restart and move on. Editing video on a computer was a huge task for processors of the time. It could be done but not quickly. So, you would constantly save your work “just in case.” There is nothing – I mean NOTHING – more sickening than spending dozens and dozens of tedious hours drawing in a lightsaber on EVERY single frame of video only to have your computer lock up, and lose it all. These events would happen constantly. I think we once estimated that the accumulated hours we lost to computer malfunctions totaled almost 2 months!
I even remember a time Paul had almost a month of work just “disappear” from his computer. Paul is a pretty Zen dude but that day he lost his freakin’ mind! These computer glitches went on for the entire 5 months of post-production. It was so demoralizing that the only thing that kept me from taking a baseball bat to my computer was the amount of work I had done up until that point. I had to finish it! We were in too deep to stop. – Oh, and none of this even touches on the subject of “render time.” Once you completed your work then, you would have to render it into a new finished project. The more fx, the slower the render would be. You would start rendering at night and hope to be done by morning, so you could continue to work. Sometimes it would still be rendering, so you would wait. Come midafternoon of the next day it’s still going, and only then do you realize that your computer is frozen and you have to start over again! Good times! Good times!
I will even tell you about how much fun it was to film the special fx! The Green Screen: Yes, the green screen is where you film something you want to cut out and lay upon another background. The term is called compositing. Once, again let me repeat, I had never done this before! So how do you make yourself look like you’re flying? Well, you take the company forklift, some rope attached to a weight lifters belt around your waist and you lift, right?! What could go wrong? It was even better when trying to spoof a scene from The Matrix. I used a thin steel cable tied around my chest under my shirt. Cable just “tied” around my chest; no undershirt, no comfy support. It went up my back and out the top and that was how I would lower myself backward to duck imaginary killer bees. I did that over and over for an hour. I think I still have a scar.
Some of the filming was more on the humorous side. I had rented a house in Tucson that had a large living room with sliding glass doors. I turned it into my green screen room. This is where I proceeded to film the bits for the “Meleos” commercial and the talk show bit. It was just myself, a remote and a camera. So night after night I would film in that room by myself. I was wearing a suit and tie with my hair all slicked back, in a room, by myself, speaking to an imaginary audience. From the outside, you could see everything through those glass doors. I had to do my job to get the filming done but part of the smile on my face is because I could picture the raised eyebrows of my neighbors. They could see everything I was doing. I can only imagine what it looked like from the other side of the windows. There is this man in a suit and tie with slicked back hair, in a lit up room with giant green walls, walking around and waving his arms like he has adoring fans and delusions of grandeur – but he’s all alone.
Post production editing and filming were not really separate events. Every time we thought we were done filming something else had to be added. I spent the last 5 months editing 10-18 hrs a day in Tucson while Paul was doing his part in Milwaukee. I gained 20lbs from sitting in front of a computer. I stopped working out, I stopped hiking, I just wanted to get it done. I spent so much time watching every single frame of video forward and back that I completely lost touch to whether it was funny or not. I was so sick of my own voice that if it had gone on any longer I think I would have punched myself in the face out of loathing. I told myself when I started this venture that I was going to produce this video or die trying. It was meant as a figure of speech, but by the time it was all over the mental and physical toll it had taken was huge. I didn’t care if it was funny or not anymore, I just wanted it done. The last couple weeks Paul and I were getting snarky with each other over changes and edits and sound and – well, pretty much we were just sick of each other. We were out of money and out of time and all out of enthusiasm.
I remember very clearly the day it was finished. It was completely surreal and for the next 3 days, I felt like crying. I didn’t know why I felt like crying, I just physically felt like crying. It took me a couple days to realize that it was the stress and anxiety, which I had been living with for so long, physically leaving my body. That stress was what got me through each day and suddenly I had no need for it. I felt like I just went through an emotional breakup. I can’t say I was happy about anything. I was just numb. There was no excitement, no hoopla. I just honestly never wanted to hear my own voice again. Paul and I didn’t have any kind of falling out, but we didn’t speak for two months. Nobody said anything; we were just pretty sick of each other and the video. I don’t know how many friendships could take what we went through.
The DVD went into production and we received the first 1000 copies. It was pretty neat to see it in its finished form for the first time. I remember seeing the truck pull up and the smell of the boxes as I took them inside. This was supposed to be an exciting moment, but I still couldn’t bring myself to watch it. It was two months before I actually put one in the DVD player to see how it had turned out. The production quality was just awful by today’s standards. This was always in the plan though. We had said, “let’s show what we can do with no money.” In our minds, the idea would be that some production company would see it and say, “Wow! Imagine what they could do if they actually had a budget?!” So we never worried about production value. It was all about the content.
I watched and was amazed when it was over. It was actually pretty good! It was really good! Production value aside, the content was great. We had NOTHING to be ashamed about… or so we thought. One little side note: As I stated earlier, we had seen it forward and back, frame by frame, so many thousands of times that you just go completely numb. You don’t even know what you’re looking for anymore. So one of the mistakes we had made was in a quote from Einstein. We had spelled “Einstein” wrong! I mean honestly, can you imagine that feeling of EVERYTHING we went through to get to that point? All the excruciating detail, only to find out you spelled “Einstein” “Einstien”?! It’s in big bold letters and neither of us had caught it. Total face palm!
I did have the joy of watching it for the first time without this knowledge. I have to admit, I thought we did a pretty darn good job all things considered. The 35 minutes just flew by and it was funny where it was supposed to be funny. I called Paul right away and said, “Hey dude! Have you watched this yet?” and of course he hadn’t either. I said, “We actually did a pretty great job. This isn’t bad at all.” I was excited but I think his reply was more along the lines of an enthusiastic, “I’ll take your word for it.” Eventually, he did watch it.
We liked it! Our nieces and nephews liked it. All the kids who watched it liked it and so did their parents. The really flattering part was not only that they liked it but that they were watching it over and over! We had made a kiddy cult classic. A cult classic being defined as Bruce Campbell put it: “mainstream films” and “cult films” by defining the former as “a film that 1,000 people watch 100 times” and the latter as “a film that 100 people watch 1,000 times”
That summer I did a tour with the live show all around Arizona. I went to every library from Tucson to Wilcox and back again. I gave a copy to each library, I sold a few, I gave many away. I was trying to create a grassroots movement to build it up. Mostly because I had made the same mistake every first time producer does. I spent every last dime making it and did not factor in the promoting it after it was done. Whatever, it was working. An article came out in the Arizona Daily Star. Library Journal did a wonderful review of it. The best part though was the letters and emails from parents and students expressing how much they loved it. Kids were watching it again and again and again. They would recite lines from it when they’d meet me. Most often it was “tweeeeezzzeeeers!” From my point of view that wasn’t even supposed to be funny, but then again, I’m not 8.
Over the summer of 2008, it had gained a lot of momentum. I had entered it in a few film festivals and it received a couple of minor awards. I received calls from Discovery Channel and Nat Geo to talk about hosting my own show, and I even got a call from the Letterman Show! So what happened? The housing bubble popped, my phone never rang again, the whole world went to hell and I lost everything. Big sigh. I ended up taking a credit card and a Uhaul and moving back to Milwaukee. I spent my 40th birthday unemployed, living in my parent’s basement with my insect collection watching reruns of Battlestar Galactica!
When you’re young and someone asks, “Where do you see yourself at 40?” I can say with complete sincerity that this wasn’t how I had pictured it. It sucked.
The wind had been completely taken out of my sails. I spent the next year and a half working for my brother in the family business and wondering what I was going to do with my life. I was broken.
It took me another two years before I started up with the live show again. I had heard of a Bug Day at the Wehr Nature Center. I volunteered to be a part of it because, well, because it’s a Bug Day! My first year there I just set up a booth for people to walk through and I didn’t perform. At that event, a woman was looking at my table and saw the DVD. She picked it up and looked at me and then back at the DVD. Her eyes got wide and she said, “Is this you?!”
I smiled and said, “Well ma’am, you’re looking right at me.”
She said, “Wait right here! I have to get my son.”
She came back with her son who was perhaps 9 yrs old. She said, “Look! This is him!”
He sat silent and wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I tried to make conversation, but he was nonplussed. His mom explained to me that he had found the DVD in his local library and had watched it 100x! He wanted to be an entomologist because of it and that was why they came to Bug Day.
For those of you who do not teach, I don’t know if you can understand what that meant to hear. Especially after telling you what I went through. Then later that year I was at Purdue’s Bug Bowl. I saw a woman who looked familiar and I realized she followed me on Facebook. She had asked me if I ever came to St Louis. Her son had found my DVD in their library and had also seen it dozens of times. I looked at her and saw her son standing next to her and I understood. They drove all the way from St Louis to Purdue just so he could meet me. His name was Carter. She said it had meant the world to him to meet me. I couldn’t even speak from the lump in my own throat. Carter, if you’re reading this, I’ll never forget meeting you. The honor was mine!
I had been out of touch for two years but as the ball kept rolling and the more live shows I did, I met more and more kids who had seen it. Who had loved it! Who took the time to tell me so. To all of you, Carter, Sidney, Jarret, Antonio and those whose names I’ve forgotten with time, “Thank you!” Your letters, emails and patronage have made it all worth it. You are all the reasons I dedicated my life to teaching about insects. You are the reasons “I” believe in what I’m doing. I don’t know what you’ll all grow up to be, but I hope I’m around to see it.
LET’S WRAP THIS UP
Conclusion: Why am I telling you the story of a pilot video that I put my heart and soul into that never went anywhere? Well, for a number of reasons. First of which is if I don’t tell the story, who will? Even though Tales from the Bug Whisperer never became the series I envisioned, I look at the faces of the above mentioned and feel nothing but the utter satisfaction of a life well spent. It did what it was supposed to do. It inspired kids to pick up a butterfly net and do it themselves. Would I do it all again? Well, if we’re being honest and I could skip the part where I ended up living in my parent’s basement then, SURE! Absolutely! Second, to say “Thank you,” to all who took the time to tell me that it did touch them in some way. Third, to all of you out there who dream of doing something crazy and great to make the world a better place and fall short of your goal. If you aim for the stars and land on the moon you have still gone farther than most ever will. And no matter how far you fall short of your goals you can always say, “At least I didn’t end up living in my parent’s basement.” Ha!
So that is the story of Tales from the Bug Whisperer E1, Who Wants to be an Entomologist? You can now watch it for free on youtube. I recently gave it the dignity of enhancing the video to HD, fixing much of the sound and adding closed captioning. Only, 2000 DVDs were ever created and last I saw it was on Amazon for $40. I don’t know if that one has Einstein spelled correctly or not. I did fix it in the second batch that was produced.
In 2015, I “retired” my live show…. Sort of. I still do a few events for fun. After 20yrs of traveling around the country, it was time to do something bigger and better. Something that did not involve me spending my life in my jeep driving everywhere. If you enjoyed reading this perhaps you wouldn’t mind contributing to my new venture which is the creation of an insect themed natural science park for kids. I anticipate this will probably be a little more difficult an adventure than the DVD was….but I’m going to make it happen anyway. Seriously, just look at these faces!
Details are at here: www.gofundme.com/thebugwhisperer
Live long and Prosper!
Antonio Gustin aka – The Bug Whisperer!