Anytime I watch a nature documentary, I hope it will include my favorite type of scene: animals edited into an Old Western-style showdown sequence. Think of the iconic example of the baby marine iguana getting chased by a horde of snakes in Planet Earth II. There’s something satisfying about the combination of serious (and often British-accented) narration, recognizable music tropes pulled from a chase scene, and high-definition footage of surprisingly expressive reptiles. A new entry into my personal canon comes from the newest David Attenborough-narrated nature film, Life in Color, currently streaming on Netflix. The three-part series illuminates how animals see and use color in all kinds of ways, including mating, hunting, and avoiding predators. The show features animals ranging from tigers in India to ptarmigans in Scotland, but one highlight is a knock-down fight between two strawberry poison dart frogs on Solarte Island in Bocas del Toro, a remote archipelago in Panama.
The scene opens with a bright red male frog making a sustained chirping sound from his shaded spot of rainforest; he’s calling for mates. But soon another male enters his patch. Extreme close-ups show their huge moony eyes meeting, their glossy little snouts twitching in anticipation. “Nothing for it but to fight it out,” Attenborough says, and the frogs lunge at each other. Sticky hands are thrown, leaves fly, and one frog tosses the other over his shoulder in an undignified manner. It’s a high-stakes, slow-motion battle for dominance over a precious spot of land that will help the best frog win a mate.
Or as an expert would put it, it’s like “two gummy bears going at each other,” says Yusan Yang, whom filmmakers consulted on how to capture the fight scene and whose poison dart frog research features in the documentary. “They don’t have claws, they don’t have teeth, they can’t really hurt each other.” The feisty personalities that come through in the frogs’ scene, she says, are not just fun little tricks of cinematography. In fact, they were exactly what made it possible to film something that looked so high-stakes in the first place (even if no one got hurt in the end).
Yang moved from Taiwan to the U.S. to pursue her PhD, studying color evolution through the strawberry poison dart frog, which she completed last year. (The documentary team got in touch in 2019.) Her work often explores sexual selection and color variation within a species, so naturally Yang was fascinated by Bocas del Toro. The poison dart frogs there have the brightest and most varied hues of any frogs in the world, appearing in a range of colors from pale blue to bright orange. The population on each island is a different shade, since they evolved in isolation from each other. The frogs’ brightness generally indicates how toxic they are, in order to warn predators. Less poisonous frogs tend to be paler with more camouflage-ready colors like green, while more poisonous frogs are familiar “don’t eat me” colors like red or orange—and have bolder personalities to match.
While getting her PhD, Yang wanted to better understand why the grape-sized frogs come in so many shades and what color means to them. One of her research methods, depicted in the third episode of Life in Color, involved creating 3D-printed model frogs which she hand-painted to resemble different colors of frogs found on each island and moved around with a remote control. She wanted to see if real frogs would react differently to each of them, and they did: it appeared that they would attack other frogs only if they were the same color. They simply ignored frogs of different shades.
All of this helped filmmakers understand when frogs would be more aggressive toward each other, which was key to successfully setting up the perfect shot for Life in Color. The aim was to demonstrate just how important color was in everything the frogs did, from warning off predators to showing potential mates their fitness. Yang knew that a more toxic frog wouldn’t be shy around camera equipment, and that Solarte Island would be an ideal place to shoot because the red-orange frogs there are among the most aggressive. She also knew that the two frogs would need to be the same color if they wanted to capture a battle. But “two frogs is actually harder to get,” Yang says, “because you will want frogs that are both territorial, and in the case of a natural habitat, usually they already have their territories carved out.” The camera crew would need to locate two male frogs that were close enough to each other’s territories for a potential clash, set up the shots and lighting, and stick around long enough to hopefully see one.
As anyone who read every single article about the Planet Earth II marine iguana scene may know (just me?), it’s not exactly a closely held secret that most nature films take cinematic liberties to tell a story. The Life in Color team had to cross their fingers they’d witness a frog fight, but the rest of the visual storytelling was carefully planned out beforehand. The camera crew captured images like close-ups of the frogs’ pugnacious-looking little faces, and establishing shots of the intruder frog entering the scene, at different times using unobtrusive telephoto lenses. The footage could then be knitted together to create a cohesive story of two confident frogs who meet on a patch of rainforest that’s not big enough for the both of them.
But the Play-Doh-limbed fight itself plays out on screen exactly as it happened, enhanced only by slowing down certain clips for dramatic effect. In real life, you’d see two penny-sized frogs making jerky hopping motions at each other for a few seconds. The final scene plays out over several minutes, and it’s hard not to anthropomorphize the two angry little guys by the time we have a clear victor. “They just yielded themselves beautifully to drama, to humor,” says Sharmila Choudhury, a producer on the documentary. “They’re kind of the dream subjects for filming.” For Yang, seeing the subjects of her PhD research in a big-time nature documentary was a treat, and she loves that the film helps other people understand why her study species is cool. And there was an added bonus for Yang as a longtime Attenborough fan: “I had to pause the video and scream when I heard him say my name.”