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Bug wrangler Alan Henderson reveals tricks of the trade for making nature documentaries

Lurking among coarse grass on a sandy flat, a wolf spider watches patiently, stalking its prey.

An unsuspecting cricket has just entered the arachnid's strike zone.

The spider launches a lightning-quick attack but misses its mark; the insect leaps away to live another day.

This life and death invertebrate interaction hasn't played out on a wild savannah plain, instead it's on a set in a far north Queensland studio; captured on ultra-high-definition video.

Alan Henderson is behind the camera with its super-long lens and he dressed the large table with sand, grass and branches to mimic the spider's natural habitat.

He says it's a little-known trick-of-the-trade when working with insects on high-end nature documentaries; a revelation which receives a mixed response from lovers of the genre.

"Most people wouldn't be aware that a lot of the smaller wildlife are shot in situations like this," Mr Henderson said.

"We've had various reactions; most people are fascinated … some people say, 'It's kind of destroyed it for me' or [that] it's fake.

"It's not impossible to film invertebrates in the wild but it's quite difficult because of their size ... [and] we're not faking behaviours on set."

A bug wrangler's life

It was hardly a straightforward path, but Mr Henderson has managed to turn his childhood fascination with insects into a career.

Among his more unconventional job descriptions is that of 'bug wrangler'.

"My role is to make sure that the animal is feeling comfortable, that it's behaving completely naturally and it's oblivious to everything around it," he said.

"It's just relaxed, it's going to court with its potential partner, it's going to lay its eggs, it's going to do whatever it does, without thinking it's in some an artificial area.

"That takes a lot of insight and knowing the sorts of things that that animal is going to respond to or ignore." 

Working with the divas of the insect world

There's an old adage in show business – 'never work with children or animals'. 

Mr Henderson says, 'Try working with insects!'.

"We have all sorts of challenges with invertebrates on sets ... some can be really, really tricky to work with," he said.

"Peacock spiders can be challenging because they'll give you something different every single day.

"What everyone wants to see is the male courting the female and dancing and sometimes we'll work with them for five hours or so and they won't dance.

"And the next day, they do it in five minutes ... it takes persistence."

Mr Henderson says he'll usually work with multiple insects of the same species during a shoot to ensure the animals aren't exhausted, which presents its own challenges.

"The fascinating thing you find out when you start working with animals like this is they all have what we could loosely term as 'personalities'," he said.

"If I have six male peacock spiders, I can guarantee each of those six will have a slightly different personality.

"One will be quite happy to just sit and look around and another one will be quite nervous and runs everywhere.

"One will dance at the drop of a hat [and] another one will never dance, so it just depends on what we want."  

Rock'n'roll moment of destiny

Mr Henderson was working at a wildlife park in Melbourne in the early 1990s when Australian rock band Hunters & Collectors arrived to shoot a film clip for their hit song Holy Grail.

The film clip features a variety of animals including birds, snakes and fish but it was the band's request for a spider that ultimately led to Mr Henderson's career as a bug wrangler.

"The park managers knew that I was a bit of a spider buff and they asked, 'Can you provide a huntsman for us?'," he recalled.

"So, I brought in a spider and got it to run across the screen … that was my first experience [wrangling]."

Mr Henderson has since worked on countless natural history productions but says the highlight will always be working alongside the legendary Sir David Attenborough.

"Definitely the pinnacle is David Attenborough's programs, we've been lucky to have worked on three of those now," he said.

"I grew up idolising David Attenborough — working on his programs was a life goal.

"He's just as amazing in real life as he is on screen … just an incredible man and I pretty much owe my entire career to him."

Education the key to overcoming fear

Much of Mr Henderson’s work is focused on educating the public about the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of invertebrates, which is why there have been plenty of jobs he's knocked back.

"There are certain requests that we get for invertebrate use that we just decline straight up," he said.

"Anything that's just using them to terrorise other people or to poke fun at the animals — these celebrity shows that want buckets of bugs — we just say, 'No, that's not for us'.

"We have an ethical standard we follow." 

Mr Henderson says he understands why some people are fearful of creepy crawlies but believes the work he and other documentary-makers do helps to bring about a greater understanding of the invertebrate world.

"Natural history documentaries definitely do change attitudes," he said.

"They give people an insight into the animal's behaviour … you get to see the detail that we don't see in everyday life, the intricate nature of their bodies close-up.

"That's the thing that people [makes people] go, 'Wow, that is a really fascinating animal'." 

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