• South China Morning Post: How robot ‘Penguincams’ are helping filmmakers chronicle the secret lives of penguins



     A heartwarming image of a Penguin family taken from the documentary ‘Penguins: Waddle All the Way’. Photo: SCMP Pictures

    Cuddly, clumsy and sometimes “even a bit nuts”. That’s the way the internet, films and documentaries portray penguins.

    They were animated in Warner Bros’ Happy Feet and live in Academy Award winning documentary March of the Penguins, but a new documentary by Discovery channel and BBC now brings us an unprecedented insight to the way these flightless birds actually live.

    Penguins: Waddle All the Way, produced by British filmmaker John Downer, is a light-hearted 2 hour close-up look at penguins across the globe.

    For twelve months, over 50 cameras followed the lives of Emperor penguins in Antarctica, Rockhopper penguins on the Falkland Islands, and Peru’s Humboldt penguins.


    John Downer (middle) and the rest of his team. Photo: SCMP Pictures


    While wildlife documentaries on penguins are by no means revolutionary, what makes this documentary so special is the use of cameras hidden in life-size robot penguin replicas, known informally as ‘Penguincams’.

    “The Penguincams can swim, toboggan, waddle, jump and even lay fake eggs,” Discovery said in a statement. “Wherever the penguins go, Penguincam follows.”

    These robotic Penguincams infiltrated penguin colonies to capture over 1,000 hours of footage showing the birds in their most intimate moments. The cameras were hidden in the eyes of the robots and in fake penguin eggs, and would record and transmit footage back to Downer and his producers.

    This innovative filming technique provided a first-person glimpse into the lives of penguins the world over – from fighting to mating, nurturing their young or just waddling along.

    In several moments captured on camera, the real-life penguins tried to befriend their animatronic counterparts.


    A male Rockhopper penguin (right) has the hots for a Penguincam (left). Photo: SCMP Pictures


    In one particularly anthropomorphic sequence, a jealous female Rockhopper penguin knocked an undercover Penguincam to the ground after finding her mate bonding flirtatiously with the robot – a testament to the incredible likeness of the robotic technology used by Downer and his crew.

    In another instance, the cameras hidden in penguin eggs ‘laid’ by a Penguincam fell prey to vultures, who had mistaken it for food. In another technological first, this led to several stunning aerial shots of penguin colonies shot by a bird.

    Penguins: Waddle All the Way premiered on the Discovery Channel in the United States on November 23rd and has since generated a healthy following on Twitter under the hashtag #waddlealltheway.

    This is not the first time Downer and his crew, John Downer Productions, have used spy cameras to create insightful documentaries on animals in the wild.  Cameras were previously concealed in elephant dung or in rocks when the team produced the documentaries Elephants: Spy in the Herd and Lions: Spy in the Den.

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