Most people see a bug and get squeamish. Michele Pollack, (aka a bug wrangler), merely sees them as “characters” in a movie she’s working on.
Pollack literally works with insects and other critters on movies, commercials, music videos, etc. “I love this job and I’m passionate about the bugs,” Pollack said with simple enthusiasm. “It’s second nature.”
She said she immediately took to the work after another bug wrangler, Steve Kutcher, approached her eighteen years ago to help with a butterfly on the movie set of “Cold Heaven,” where she was working as a stand-in for Talia Shire. She’s been with the insects ever since. And, she and Kutcher still work together getting bugs to behave on cue.
Recently, Pollack worked on the movie “The Hitcher,” where she said she “prepped spiders and wrangled scorpions.” The scorpion was to walk up a shoe and snap. Her job is to place it on the ground to be able to do the shot (and make sure the actors are safe). “You have to know how to work, it takes years of experience to make sure you know the lighting, that you’re not in the shadows, because you’re on your knees in a cramped little spot,” she said of filming the scene. And the scenery is everything. “When you put him (the scorpion) on the dirt, it has to look the same every take; every pebble, every line in the dirt has to be the same, so you have to be sure you also pay attention to those things, too.”
Is she scared? “You can’t think of being scared,” the bug gal said, confidently.
Also in the film she was in charge of making a spider “move.” “There’s a web on the door, so you blow through a straw and give it a little movement,” she said. But, it does take skill to ensure the web doesn’t break and is barely touched.
Pollack, for as long as she can remember, has always loved bugs. Her first pet was a snail at the age of five. If she ever finds bugs in her home, she lets them go. Unless, of course, they are the bugs she keeps in her house for movie shoots. “I have some here at home, in terrains …” She keeps a butterfly net in her car and vials to keep critters in, should she happen to come across them in her travels.
Her love of what she does also extends to her “day job” as well. A teacher in Los Angeles for autistic children, Pollack knows a lot about patience and understanding from many perspectives. “I feel very fortunate,” she said of her work with the children. “If I can make an impact on their lives, I’m happy. It’s so rewarding and I learn a lot from the students.”
She is able to teach by day and bug wrangle by night or weekends. (And there’s also summer vacation, too.) Her resume of projects, to name just a few, is fascinating:
She has worked on the once-television series “Now and Again” with hundreds of butterflies; “I was in butterfly heaven,” she said. There was also the film “Matilda” with Danny DeVito; “he’s something else.” She worked with Sigourney Weaver on “Copycat;” “she’s a trooper. We reassured her that she would not be harmed by the carpenter ants, but I was. One crawled up my pants and I never told her.”
She said her favorite was working with Dick Clark on his once-television show “The Other Half;” “It was wonderful just to meet him …” she said. There’s the series “House” where they used hundreds of wax worms in a scene; “I loved it.” She’s worked with Christina Aguilera on her music video; “I placed large moths all over her body and dress, she was a pleasure to work with, very professional.” There were the music videos with Gwen Stefani, with Bush, and several other artists. There were the hundreds of grasshoppers, crickets and other bugs on the X-Files; “the set was chirping all night, tons of fun.”
Pollack also worked on the film “Spiderman.” (In fact, Pollack got her picture taken on the set and was part of the Spiderman game card set.) She worked with the spiders. The type of spider that was cast (to bite Tobey Maguire’s character) was chosen for its shape and size, but was the wrong color. So, Pollack helped create a small harness out of foam and tape to gently hold the spiders (they needed more than one for all the scene takes) in order to paint them the correct color. “We painted the spiders without hurting them, it was very gentle,” Pollack said of the process.
Pollack also worked on that Nike commercial a few years back where 40,000 ants (yes, 40,000) ran across a gymnasium on cue. For every retake, Pollack was out there scooping up the ants with brushes and containers to recapture them to be able to re-release them for each shot. “It was filmed downtown (L.A.) at The Greek Theatre and it was a big challenge. We worked with thousands of ants — we had to be two steps ahead of them or else!”
Incidentally, there’s a casting process to ensure that the bugs “cast as stars” in any of these movies or videos are truly worthy and beautiful: all bugs are not the same. “If I’m collecting cockroaches, I have to make sure they have nice antennas for the close-ups,” Pollack said. “Bees have to have the best wings, the best legs … the tarantula has to have the nicest amount of hair … The stars are the heros.” And, the list goes on … if an ant has to run straight in a shot, she will look at the ants to see which ones run the straightest…
Her own personal favorite insect is the praying mantis. “It has this diamond shape and it is robotic; it moves its head back and forth as if in conversation.” But after talking with this bug gal, she seems to love all of the critters. “I’m passionate about my bugs,” she said. And she said she loves what she does.
“The greatest joy of all is being able to get the shots that are needed to make everything come alive, that’s the challenge,” the savvy wrangler said. “Regardless if it is a feature film, music video, movie for TV or a commercial, the reward is getting it right and that makes all the difference!”