Getting The Ants In 'Ant-Man' Right Was No Tiny Challenge

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In Marvel's latest superhero movie, filmmakers had to portray the insects as realistic yet relatable. Two myrmecologists, or ant scientists, weigh in on whether the attempt was successful.

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Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Superheroes, by definition, are extraordinary individuals - not exactly the type to blend in with a crowd - but what about Ant-Man?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANT-MAN")

MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (As Hank Pym) The world sure seems different from down here, doesn't it, Scott?

RATH: In a piece that first aired on Morning Edition, NPR's Neda Ulaby trains a magnifying glass on the superhero based on one of the least individual, most collective creatures on the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Ant-Man" begins as a burglar stumbles on a suit with superpowers and gets recruited by the scientist who created it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANT-MAN")

DOUGLAS: (As Dr. Hank Pym) You've learned about the suit, but you've yet to learn about your greatest allies, the ants - loyal, brave and your partners on this job.

ULABY: Ant-Man befriends the armies of ants who swarm to help whenever he's in trouble.

JAKE MORRISON: We want the ants to be a character in the movie in the sense that we want people to feel for them, be rooting for them.

ULABY: Jake Morrison is "Ant-Man's" visual effects supervisor. Two years ago, he threw himself into researching ants - how to make them, in the movie, both scientifically accurate and relatable.

MORRISON: Well, first and foremost, it's hair.

ULABY: Ants are covered with hairy spikes. Morrison and his team found a kind of ant with beautiful hair - Hollywood hair, silver and downy. They adapted it for the friendly ants in the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANT-MAN")

EVANGELINE LILLY: (As Hope van Dyne) Paratrechina longicornis, commonly known as crazy ants. They're lightning fast and can conduct electricity, which makes them useful to fry out enemy electronics.

PAUL RUDD: (As Scott Lang) Oh, you're not so crazy. You're cute.

ULABY: And the visual effects jiggered with ants move - less like an insect...

MORRISON: A bit more like, say, a puppy. So we give them this sort of springy, bouncy aspect to them, and it's really hard not to get attached to them over the course of a project.

ULABY: Jake Morrison did not want the ants of "Ant-Man" to be anything like a retro giant ant thriller.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THEM!")

EDMUND GWENN: (As Dr. Harold Medford) Get the antennae. Get the antennae.

ULABY: Instead of the mutant ants of "Them!," "Ant-Man" features different kinds of real ants and their real, almost super, ant powers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANT-MAN")

LILLY: (As Hope van Dyne) Paraponera clavata.

RUDD: (As Scott Lang) I know. Bullet ants, right? Number one on the Schmidt Pain Index.

ULABY: Bullet ants really do sting their enemies painfully. And crazy ants can short out electrical systems, though probably not on purpose, as they do in the movie. And fire ants actually build bridges and rafts with their bodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANT-MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) (Inaudible).

ULABY: I took two real ant scientists to an early screening of "Ant-Man." Ana Jesovnik and Sean Brady work at the ant lab at the National Museum of Natural History. Their official job titles are myrmecologists, not film critics, but here's their review of "Ant-Man" as scientists.

ANA JESOVNIK: I thought it was a great movie.

SEAN BRADY: I thought it was fantastic. It shows some respect for the actual biology of the ants.

ULABY: Brady and Jesovnik have, out of professional curiosity, checked out earlier depictions of ants on film - "Ant-Man's" antecedents.

BRADY: You see other ant movies, and the ants don't even look like ants, and they're not acting like ants. And here, they clearly took the time to figure out what ants actually do, what they look like.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANT-MAN")

LILLY: (As Hope van Dyne) Camponotus pennsylvanicus.

DOUGLAS: (Dr. Hank Pym) Alternatively known as a carpenter ant - ideal for ground and air transport.

RUDD: (As Scott Lang) Wait a minute. I know this guy. I'm going to call him Antony.

DOUGLAS: (Dr. Hank Pym) That's good. That's very good because this time, you're really going to have to learn how to control him.

ULABY: Ana Jesovnik approves of this movie's ant messaging.

JESOVNIK: Ants are the good guys. I like that.

BRADY: Good girls, though.

JESOVNIK: (Laughter).

ULABY: Wait - good girls? The two scientists say this is "Ant-Man's" only flaw. Hollywood, says Jesovnik, always assigns ants the wrong gender.

JESOVNIK: It's always boys and girls or boys, and ants really are only girls, mostly.

ULABY: OK, Ant-Man is a fictional character in the Marvel universe. Jesovnik has no quibbles with his gender, but real ants crawling out in the world are pretty much all female. Male ants have short, little lives. They live in the colony, mate with the queen, guard her and die. Sean Brady says females are the farmers, workers, soldiers and flying around, like in the movie.

BRADY: They got the gender wrong, but other than that, they did a pretty good job. Yeah.

ULABY: So Hollywood.

MORRISON: (Laughter) So it should've been Antoinette, really, then.

ULABY: Jake Morrison, "Ant-Man's" visual effects supervisor, was nice about getting called out.

MORRISON: It's certainly not a deliberate bit of ant sexism. Absolutely not (laughter) - absolutely not planned that way at all, and duly noted.

ULABY: Duly noted?

MORRISON: Well, we'll get that right on the next one.

ULABY: The sequel - "Bride Of Ant-Man," "Ant-Man: Fury Road," maybe even "Ant-Woman." Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.