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Little Hero, Big Screen: The Entomology Of 'Ant-Man'

Visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison wanted <em>Ant-Man</em>'s titular insects to be both accurate and relatable.
Visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison wanted Ant-Man's titular insects to be both accurate and relatable.

If superheroes are one of the ultimate expressions of individualism, what are we to make of Ant-Man, a Marvel Comics character based on one of the leastindividual, most collective creatures on the planet?

Ant-Man can shrink to the size of an ant — and, in the movie which opens this weekend, ants are his greatest allies. "The ants are loyal, brave and will be your partners on this job," explains the scientist who invented Ant-Man's supersuit.

It was the job of Jake Morrison, the movie's visual effects supervisor, to make ants, of all creatures, relatable. "We want the ants to be a character in this movie," he says. "In the sense that we want people to feel for them, be rooting for them."

Two years ago, Morrison threw himself into researching ants. He spent a lot of time peering through microscopes and lying on floors to understand how to represent them both accurately, and aesthetically.

"First and foremost, it's hair," he says.

It turns out that ants are covered with hairy spikes. Morrison and his team found a variety of ant from the Saharan desert with beautiful hair — silver and downy. They adapted it for some of the friendly ants in the movie. And the visual effects jiggered the way one kind of ant moves. It's less like an insect, and more like a puppy, Morrison said.

Actor Paul Rudd stars as the tiny insect-riding superhero in <em>Ant-Man</em>, Marvel's latest Avengers movie.
/ Marvel
Actor Paul Rudd stars as the tiny insect-riding superhero in Ant-Man, Marvel's latest Avengers movie.

"We give them this springy, bouncy aspect to them," he says. The ants — all of which are CGI — are undeniably cute. "It's really hard not to get attached to them over the course of the project."

But Morrison aimed higher than just adorable. He wanted Ant-Man's ants to be scientifically spot on. The movie highlights a few different real kinds of ants, and their real, super ant powers. For example, bullet ants really do sting their enemies painfully. Crazy ants can short out electrical systems (although probably not on purpose as they do in the movie). And fire ants actually build rafts and bridges with their bodies.

"I thought it was a great movie," says Ana Jesovnik, a graduate student who works at the Ant Lab at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. She attended an early screening with scientist Seán Brady, who chairs the entomology department there.

"I thought it was fantastic. It shows some respect for the actual biology of the ants," Brady agrees. "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."

"Ants are the good guys," Jesovnik says approvingly.

"Good girls, though," Brady adds quickly, and they both laugh. This, they agree, is the only thing Ant-Man really got wrong. In real life, most of the ants crawling out in the world are sterile females. They're the farmers, workers and soldiers. Jesovnik says in earlier movies like Antz or A Bug's Life, Hollywood has gendered ants incorrectly.

"It's always boys and girls," she says. "Or boys. And ants really are only girls, mostly."

The scientists have no quibble with Ant-Man, who is, after all, a made-up Marvel Comics character. But male ants have short little lives. They live in the colony, mate with the queen, guard her and die. In the movie, the main ant character is a winged carpenter ant named Antony. He most certainly would be female in reality.

"So it should have been Antoinette really, then," Morrison says, sounding slightly abashed when told about the scientists' reaction to the movie. "It's certainly not a deliberate bit of ant sexism. Absolutely not. It was not planned that way at all. Duly noted."

"We'll get that right on the next one," he adds.

We can't wait. Bride of Ant Man. Ant Man: Fury Road. Maybe even: Ant-Woman.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.