Raising my first Butterflies

[Above: one of the shots of real butterflies we were able to use in FIFTY/FIFTY]

   When we were preparing to shoot FIFTY/FIFTY (our entry into the Sci-Fi London 48hr Film Challenge), producer Owen Tooth had the brilliant suggestion of including footage of real butterflies and moths. It was his way of tying together all of the film’s insect themes, within a primarily sci-fi concept. After a bit of a search, we were able to find a Leeds-based wildlife centre who’d kindly let us film there – and, because the challenge rules meant that none of our footage could be captured in advance, we sent a 2nd Unit Camera Operator (Solomon Rumney-Scriven) to grab our butterfly shots. This was at the start of day two, when the core team was filming the majority of the van-driving shots with Charlie Clarke – but I’ll talk more about that in another blog post.

   Through some Indiana Jones-type camera moves (it turns out that butterflies are very fast and hard to film – who knew?), Solomon was able to get enough footage for us to use in our film. In fact, he got so many beautiful shots that we weren’t able to include them all in our competition-set running time of five minutes. One of the great things about creating an extended cut of the film is that we can re-visit the footage from the wildlife centre, and hopefully include more. We’re in the process of working on that extended cut now (re-named ‘Lepidopterist’, the film’s original working title), and I’ll share updates on our process when I can.

   Working on FIFTY/FIFTY, and looking at the butterfly footage in particular, woke something inside of me which had been asleep for a long time. You see, when I was a kid, I either wanted to be an actress or a zoologist, and I was obsessed with insects. I went out into the garden with a magnifying glass, brought ladybirds back in jam jars, and even had a spider-themed birthday party one year. Although my career aspirations changed over the years, I’m still fascinated by insects and their supernatural abilities – so much of which fed into Sarah Lamesch’s character ‘Talia’ in FIFTY/FIFTY.

   With my love of insects (and entomology in particular) rediscovered, I resolved to explore this further, starting with live butterfly collection. I decided to raise caterpillars, study them and photograph them – tying together my childhood obsession and my modern love of cameras – before setting them free. This summer, three months after shooting FIFTY/FIFTY, I made it happen. So how did I get on?

   First up, although I know people who had successfully raised Luna Moths (which are stunning and huge), I wanted to start small and figure out the basics – so I got a Butterfly starter kit from Insect Lore. It was colourful and cartoonish, with photographs of smiling children on every page of the instruction book, but looking past that, it gave me everything I needed on a novice level. I also learnt, fairly early on, that raising insects is not just child’s play; you definitely need an adult involved, and I even had to get my partner, Edward Harvey, to help me a few times! But we’ll come on to that.

[Above: the caterpillars were tiny on arrival, and they didn't move much, apart from one explorer!]

   Step one was the caterpillars. I ordered a cup of them through the post (which is as cute as it sounds), and they come with all the food they need – so, as long as you’re in to accept the delivery, you don’t really have to do anything else at this stage. I had five caterpillars, which is the maximum you can expect to receive, and all of which were the Painted Lady variety. The caterpillars were so tiny to begin with that they didn’t show up well on any of my lenses. I was also limited with lighting options, because I didn’t want to distress the caterpillars (otherwise you might not get butterflies, so what’s the point?). So the cup of caterpillars just sat in my office undisturbed for a few days, although it was nice to occasionally look up from my edits and see them wiggling around.

   The caterpillars grew very, very quickly. It wasn’t long before they had obvious facial features and markings, and I could even hear them making chewing noises. At that point I learnt that I still didn’t have a lens which could focus on them properly, even when they were fully grown. I really should’ve invested in a proper macro lens before starting this experiment. But lesson learnt, I accepted that this was a trial venture, and just focused on raising the butterflies themselves.

[Above: the caterpillars didn't stay tiny for very long!]
   The difficult part came when the caterpillars turned to chrysalides. Once all five had finished creating their cocoons (I thought one had accidentally strangled himself in the process, but it turned out that that was just his shedded skin!), it was time to take them out of the cup, and transport them to the butterfly habitat that came with the child’s starter kit. This part of the process is HORRIBLE! I definitely had to get Edward involved at this point, for moral support if nothing else. 

   You see, you need to remove all the sticky ‘webbing’ from around the chrysalides before you put them in the habitat, otherwise the butterflies can get tangled when they emerge – but not only do you run the risk of pulling the wrong silky strand of webbing, in which case a chrysalide might fall off the lid and die, but it turns out that the caterpillars DO NOT like this process. I thought they’d be silent in their cocoons: they were not. As soon as you start pulling on the webbing, they shake and chatter and tap loudly against the lid like a bunch of very angry rattlesnakes! One chrysalide did slip down, we barely caught her in time, and she did her rattlesnake impression late into the night. All five chrysalides were safely moved in the end, but Edward and I needed a strong drink afterwards!

[Above: crysalides in the habitat, after a slightly traumatic moving operation!]

    Why do I know that the death-defying chrysalide contained a female? Because, in spite of everything, she was the first to emerge (and they can be sexed by the shape of their abdomens). I heard a cracking sound early one morning, and suddenly there was a butterfly! It came out with crumpled wings to begin with, which was very funny because it looked a bit like a balled-up piece of paper – but then it spent the next 30 minutes or so straightening out its wings, building its proboscis (basically a long ‘straw’ for slurping up fruit juices!) and oozing a red blood-like liquid the whole time. The leakage is perfectly normal, but it’s not the image that first springs to mind when one thinks of butterflies!

[Above: the first butterfly to emerge, which was female]

   For a couple of days, this poor butterfly was on its own. We fed it fresh fruit days (scored with a fork so that the juice was more accessible), but we were about to give up on the others and set her free. That night, two more appeared – followed by the other two the following morning. I didn’t see any more butterflies emerge (the last one even came out in the three minutes it took me to pop to the bathroom!), but nonetheless, it was great to have five healthy butterflies flying around together. I got as many photographs as I could, but I knew that, if I had a proper macro lens, I really could’ve caught the detail on their wings and faces, or the fur on their abdomens, and that was frustrating. The habitat was also quite hard to shoot through - but I don't know if there's a solution to that. I'll have to do more research.

[Above: a group of butterflies, hanging out together inside their enclosure]

    Sadly, I wasn’t around on the day the butterflies were set free. You have to time their release depending on the weather, and the only day it wasn’t raining that week was when I was working as a production designer on the brilliant BFI Network-funded Going Country (ironically, there were a LOT of butterflies flying around on location that day!). But Edward was able to capture some footage for me, and I’ve put that together with a few handheld shots I grabbed while the butterflies were in their habitat (Please excuse the lawn - July was a very busy month for me, so I didn't have time to mow, but the butterflies appreciated the long grass!):

   All in all, it was a lovely experiment – and it’s great that we were able to contribute to the eco system in the process. There was an article in the news the day after the butterflies’ release, which talked about a sudden influx of Painted Ladies in the UK; although obviously our small batch doesn’t count as an ‘influx’, it's still lovely to think that our butterflies were a part of those rising numbers. Many people don’t know that butterflies (as with all insect life coming into contact with pesticides) are on the decline, and we need to do everything we can to stop that from happening. Who wants a future where you’ll sit in your garden on a Summer afternoon, and you won’t see any butterflies or bees dancing around you?

   Although I don’t have much time for hobbies these days, I definitely want to raise and photograph butterflies again. I’ll probably use the same ‘starter’ kit again next year (but with a much better lens!) before building my way up to more exotic and complicated breeds, and I’ll be sure to share any good images via my Instagram account along the way.

[Above: one of the late-hatching butterflies kindly posed for me on some fruit]

   I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading a slightly different blog post from me. Most years I’ve released a Summer Update, to talk about my work at the mid-point of the year, as well as sharing news of what’s yet to come. Well, I’ve actually been so busy this year that this is my first blog post since June, and it’s now the start of Autumn! I’ll have to do an extended end-of-year update instead (apologies in advance for how long that post will be!), and I’ll try my best to post more regularly in the meantime.

   The extended cut of Lepidopterist should hopefully be finished and released to festivals in early 2020. But for now, for those of you who haven’t seen it, you can enjoy the original cut, FIFTY/FIFTY (including Solomon’s awesome butterfly shots), on Vimeo and YouTube now.

   And if any of this has inspired you to help protect butterflies and moths, please consider visiting and/or donating to The Butterfly Conservation.



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