Animated Ants: Not So Accurate Anatomy

Insects commonly appear in movies and television shows. They make excellent villains to plague the human race, as well as interesting characters in productions targeted at children. How do movie-makers accurately represent insects on film? As a Computer Graphics major, I am interested in understanding how much research is done and put into a film to display insects in a way that would appease both avid moviegoers and entomologists. I remember viewing Pixar’s A Bug’s Life when I was a child, and how enthralled I was with all of the insect characters. On the studio’s website are several interviews including one detailing the process of animating A Bug’s Life:

Capturing the world from a bug’s perspective is no easy task. So Pixar’s creative team watched ‘bug cam’ footage—shots of flora and fauna taken from an insect’s point of view. They found that a single clover looked like an enormous tree. Cracked mud resembled the Grand Canyon. A clump of grass was like a giant redwood forest. But most impressive was the translucency of the bug world. When the sun was out and an insect walked on a leaf, its shadow could be seen from below through the leaf. This stained-glass effect inspired the film’s vibrant colors.

Pixar animators carefully considered the environment. In the film, they reveal accurate behavioral information about caterpillars, ants, locusts, fleas, and gypsy moths. However, their anatomical depiction of insects is been skewed.

Flik: Concept Art from, A Bug's Life

This is a drawing of Flik from some of A Bug’s Life’s concept art. You can see that he is missing two of his limbs, one of the very basic elements that make him an insect! His two lower legs are extending from his abdomen when they should attach to the thorax. However, this process of humanization makes the character much more appealing to the audience, and allows Flik to move and animate in a human-like manner. The artists were able to capture the jointed legs of ants as well as the elbowed antennae that are characteristic of Hymenoptera.

After examining Flik, I began to look at other ant characters from the Dreamworks film, Antz, and a newer film, The Ant Bully. These artists took a lot of liberty designing these insects, and did not fairly portray them as insects. While characters from both films do contain all of their legs, they seem to have too many body segments. In an attempt to make the characters more “human”, they almost created an alien-like appearance with the body structure. There seems to be an upper “torso” thorax and a lower thorax where the last two pairs of legs attach. The detailing on the face in Antz is very human-like. The face allows a wide range of expression, but it detracts from the accuracy of the characters’ designs. The character from The Ant Bully has an elongated head, some attempt at mandibles and a very tribal appearance, which may be part of the character.

Based on these three accounts, movie-makes take a lot of liberty designing their insect characters. In an attempt to make more human-like designs, they lose accurate depictions of insect anatomy. Hopefully insects will not be misrepresented in the future film industry, and if I ever have the chance to work on an animated insect project, I will guarantee that the insects will be factually depicted.

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