The Rabbit

A features client asked me to shoot a rabbit decomposing and being eaten by maggots. At warm wet wet temperatures this happens quite quickly. However this is winter it the UK and it turned into a bit of a logistical challenge.

We set-up the “set” in a disused pig pen. The rabbit is lying on some soil on top of a raised platform. Under the platform are two fan heaters. Over the “set” is a trace frame lit by a bare Red head. Stuart Graham (a committed Vegan!) lit this with a teddy bear called ruff ..

Ruff as stand in Ruff as stand in with other stars

Pointing at this is a tripod with a Fries Mitchell with a Jackson Woodburn motor and a Micro Nikkor 55mm lens. Also attached is a Canon 50D with a 35mm lens that gives the slightly imperfect shot you see on the youtube clip.

I rewrote the software we used for the Fromelle time-lapse to provide controls for this job. It's arranged quite simply .. there is a “work light” that burns from 7am to 7pm to “fool” the flies into believing it's daylight. When the flies have outlived their usefulness then the work-light is replaced by a UV flying insect killer. The fan heaters go on and off via a 4KW relay box and the signal for that is controlled by a domestic thermostat fitted to the side of the set.

This box takes a usb input from the computer and gives out medium current 12v signals via a relay. It also has a Tuchel plug for a digital camera that triggers a relay box. The three pin sockets on the side are for switch inputs, for this job we only used one and it was connected to the light sensor to provide feedback for the main light, the other one could be used (with some additional circuitry) to provide confirmation that a shot has been fired. The Mitchell was triggered via a 12V relay (with it's own second relay box).

USB computer interface 16A Mains controller

When it's time to take a picture the computer opens a relay on the work light and fan heaters to interrupt them. There is a concern that the heaters would cause a voltage drop and affect the lighting, so they all turn off 10 seconds before the shutter opens.

The light comes on 8 seconds before the exposure and after it has been burning for two seconds the computer checks an input from a light sensitive cell situated in the set. If there is no light then the assumption is that the bulb has failed in the first lamp and a second lamp is lit. Obviously this is a “Least worst” outcome for a dead bulb in the first lamp.

The computer puts the 50d into standby one second before the shutter opens .. and when the interval has elapsed the two cameras are triggered together.

The exposure is 8 secs .. the reason for this is that I'm hoping that the flies will not register when they are laying their eggs on the corpse (they will be seen on the corpse but not flying around).

At 10 seconds after the camera has been triggered the red head is extinguished and the “Work Light” is lit again and the heater re powered.

I am very lucky to have Susan Gruner a forensic entomologist from the University of Florida to help me with the nature side of the shoot. She has been giving me advice on maggot and fly husbandry. I have to confess that my original idea had been to get a load of maggots from the fishing store and pour them over the rabbit .. apparently this is not the thing. The tray at the back is full of pupate flies .. they are heated and have plenty of food .. The idea is that they lay their eggs on the rabbit carcass and the resulting maggots eat the carcass clean ..

The set-up took me two weeks to build (working around my other jobs) and a week to test. I had assumed that as the set was on a rabbit infested farm and that we regularly saw eight or ten rabbits in the headlights of the car that this would not be a problem .. How wrong were we .. the rabbits decided to stay indoors for the duration ..

Finally I contracted the services of a translation company Mr Robin Bennett, his 90 and shotgun combined with my sun-gun .. a combination of his shooting skill and my driving finally resulted in us casting a hero for our film. With a couple of frankly hillbilly moments along the way ..

The star was expressed from Abingdon to the set in a chauffeur driven car on a towel and was put into the set as soon as possible (rigor mortis comes on after two hours and we really wanted to catch this). Mrs PortableMotionControl was not impressed with the state of the towel as it was not as I had assumed one we were using to dry the dogs but one of the best bath towels.

The job is now finished

Rabbit Final from Justin Pentecost on Vimeo.

© Justin Pentecost, 2011.