Next time the Avengers have an opening, they should consider Portia, an ingenious warrior who lures her enemies by creating sounds that suggest she’s a goner, then leaps on her unsuspecting prey with lightning speed.
The fact that she’s a 5-millimeter-long arachnid who feeds on fellow spiders shouldn’t disqualify her from membership.
The unsung creature is among the dozens of cunning, colorful and even comical characters that make “The Hunt” the most engaging, visually stunning nature documentary series ever created for television.
It’s also downright heartwarming, an incredible accomplishment for an eight-part series that, at its core, is about predators devouring those lower in the pecking order. But unlike cable’s countless examples of nature porn — “Shark Feeding Frenzy,” “Built for the Kill,” “Animal Fight Club” — this one is as family friendly as a rendition of “Circle of Life,” with most of the violence being left to the viewer’s imagination.
“It’s very deliberately not called ‘Predators’ or ‘The Kill’ because we’re not interested in that,” said executive producer Alastair Fothergill, whose credits include “Planet Earth” and “Frozen Planet.” “What really gives us the narrative of the series is how predators use strategy to catch their prey and how the prey try to escape. Once the animal has been caught, the story is over.”
You don’t need to see blood dripping down a polar bear’s white coat to enjoy the visceral thrill of watching him climb 300 feet up a perilous cliff to snag nest eggs or examine the innards of baby sea lions to marvel at how a whale risks being stranded on shore to snatch them from the Argentine coast.
The set pieces, which also include a water buffalo playing rope-a-dope with overheated African lions and Alaskan grizzlies setting up shop at the mouth of a river to feast on salmon, were largely shot with gyro-stabilized cameras, designed to eliminate vibrations and mimic the movement and flexibility of the human eye. By strapping these new-age contraptions to everything from Jeeps to elephants, producers were able to keep pace with wild dogs as they chased wildebeests at 45 miles per hour and tag along with eagles as they swoop in on swinging monkeys in midair.
The cameras were also equipped with lenses that magnified the action 40 times, allowing intimacy without camera operators getting within clawing distance of their fiercest subjects.
“The key to wildlife filmmaking is you cannot disturb the animals,” Fothergill said. “Apart from the moral imperative, they’re not going to behave naturally if they’re worried by you.”
A super web-slinger
The equipment also allowed producers to get up close and personal with critters less imposing, but equally magnificent, popping up throughout the limited series, which is divided up by terrain ranging from jungles to oceans.
Among the show stoppers: Army ants working in tandem to immobilize their target, an American marten scampering from one snow tunnel to the next in a frantic game of Whac-A-Mole, and Darwin’s Bark Spider making quite an impression in her first on-screen appearance by spitting out an 82-foot-long silk thread stronger than the material used in bulletproof jackets.
Another creature making her TV debut is the walking octopus, an Australian anomaly so freshly discovered she doesn’t even have a name, yet exudes the confidence of a time-tested star while combing the landscape for crabs.
“Straight out of science fiction, that one,” Fothergill said.
Technological breakthroughs wouldn’t mean much unless they were combined with good old-fashioned grunt work.
Fothergill and his team spent nearly four years assembling footage from 13 different countries, spending more than 80 days alone with the South American marine otters, if only to figure out how they squeeze into narrow cracks to get grub during their short underwater dives. A crew dedicated 56 days at sea and shot 560 hours of footage to be able to be in the right place at the right time to capture a blue whale’s seven-minute feeding spree. (Those keenly interested in the production challenges will want to circle the series’ final installment on Aug. 14, “The Making of the Hunt.”)
Adding punch to the proceedings is veteran narrator David Attenborough; music from the BBC Orchestra adds ominous undertones to sea hunts and a Benny Hill vibe to futile searches for snacks across the prairie.
Call of the wild
Not all the enhancements are welcome. The series got rave reviews when it premiered last year in England, but took some well-deserved hits for creating artificial sounds in the studio to re-create certain action.
Sound engineer Kate Hopkins told the Daily Mail that salt crystals were mixed into custard powder to simulate the sound of a polar bear trodding across snow and snapped celery sticks represented the crunch of bones. Producers defended the enhancement, arguing that while their lenses could get crews close, microphones could not.
It’s the kind of “trick” that may annoy purists, but would certainly delight cunning Portia. Despite her rascally charm, you probably still wouldn’t want to have her over for coffee. We’ll leave that invite up to Iron Man.