Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Prepping For A Film Crew Visit

Lights, Camera, Action!

African grey parrot Griffin does the bigger/smaller task with the keys in Dr. Pepperberg’s lab.

I’ve written previously about doing publicity photo shoots with my parrots in the laboratory and how much work is involved in the procedure. A photo shoot, however, is an extremely easy event compared to having a film crew in residence for a day or two. Although the finished production always looks effortless, the process is anything but.

Preparing For A Film Crew

First, of course, comes the preparation. We always keep our lab extremely clean for the health of the birds, but we aren’t always neat. The desk is often piled with papers and notes; boxes of paper towels, bottles of spring water, and other items are arranged for convenience, not aesthetics. That all has to change the day before a crew arrives. We have to think about how everything will look through the lens of a camera. We also try to make sure that all the materials that will be needed for whatever experiments we plan to demonstrate will be immediately available; during filming, we can’t waste time hunting for various exemplars.

Making Our Parrots And The Film Crew Comfortable

When the film crew arrives, we have to educate them about lab procedure and introduce them to the parrots. Shoes have to come off, hands have to be sanitized. Athena is happy to climb on whatever hand is presented to her, but Griffin is a lot more reticent. We actually formally introduce everyone so that the birds understand that these new people are safe to be around. When the parrots see us talking calmly to these strangers, shaking hands and acting friendly, they know not to be afraid. And the crew needs to learn to move slowly and deliberately, to avoid fast actions so as not to startle the parrots.

Of course, not being afraid of people is very different from not being afraid of equipment. Most crews bring in large, bulky black, scary items— cameras, sound boxes, special lighting, etc. Griffin is now an old pro, and acts quite disinterested. Athena, however, wants to be as far away as possible from the offending objects, and to cower on the shoulder of her favorite human! We have to go over to every single piece of equipment, stand next to it, handle it, stroke it, and slowly bring her toward it. She has been trained to “touch” unfamiliar objects, and reluctantly does so, but that doesn’t mean she likes the procedure. Seeing Griffin initiate the beak tap to these items sometimes helps. It’s a slow process, and we always warn the crew that it may take some time for the birds to adjust to the new situation.

Repetition: Good For Filming, Not So Good For Parrots

The filming process itself is quite arduous and the parrots really do not understand why they have to do the same things again and again just so the crew can get different angles and views. On a regular day, if my birds perform a task correctly they get a reward and get to move on to something else. They have to repeat a trial only if they have erred — and after the first film shots, they know they were correct because they were praised and rewarded. Repetition thus makes no sense to them.

During a recent filming, Griffin was very happy to identify all his toys immediately, and was even willing to do so a second time. The third time was not a charm. He definitely had issues. He began to do exactly what Alex used to do when he didn’t want to work, was bored, and wanted to mess with our heads: When asked to give the color of a woolen pompom, Griffin said every color except the correct one. Statistically, he couldn’t have done that by chance — he could only have avoided the correct answer five times in a row if he indeed knew the proper answer and didn’t want to produce it. Fortunately, the crew thought Griffin’s behavior was quite clever and said that they would make sure that their viewers understood what had happened!

Griffin’s Big Screen Moment

Later in the day, something similar occurred. We were trying to get Griffin to demonstrate his knowledge of relative size — to label the color of the cup that was either the bigger or smaller of two on a tray. Understanding such relational concepts is a hallmark of advanced cognition, because a subject needs to recognize not only that a tennis ball is “big,” but that it is “big” compared to a golf ball yet also “small” compared to a soccer ball; that is, that context is crucial. Demonstrating this behavior on camera would be really important.

During our experimental trials, Griffin is usually correct about 80% of the time, a significant score. But when we set up for filming, he just sat there — beak tightly shut. No matter what colored cups we used, no matter what enticing morsel we offered as a reward, Griffin refused to speak. It felt as though we were filming for an hour, although it probably wasn’t that long. I teasingly said I would use some old footage we had of Alex, who had performed this task quite nicely. And that gave me an idea … maybe Griffin was again bored. So I had a student find the differently sized and colored keys that we had used with Alex.

Now, Griffin had never before been questioned about bigger-smaller with anything other than toy plastic cups. What I was proposing to do was what is formally known in psychology as a “transfer test,” to see if a subject can transfer a concept from training materials to totally novel items. It’s a very rigorous test. It was also pretty risky: If Griffin failed, he would fail for all the world to see. If, however, he succeeded, we would have officially documented a very important event. At that point, however, I wasn’t thinking of risk; I was just trying to figure out what might make Griffin talk on camera. So I placed the keys in Griffin’s line of sight, asking “What color smaller?” Griffin looked closely, hesitated only briefly, and came out with a clear — and correct — “YELLOW!” Phew.

Athena’s Performance

Nothing we could do would get Athena to talk on camera, but it occurred to me that we could at least demonstrate how we were training her. If she talked that would be terrific, but even if she didn’t, the audience would see something of interest. Thankfully, the familiarity of that situation worked nicely, and she produced a very soft “nylon” after a student and I modeled the appropriate question-and-answer system.

Unseen Efforts

The film crew spent most of a day with us, with only a break for lunch. We filmed and re-filmed, and that didn’t even include my on-camera interview which took up a few hours on a second day. The actual edited piece will only take up a few minutes in a program broadly devoted to animal communication; the show will seamlessly glide from one task to another, covering a multitude of species.

Much of what we filmed will likely end up on the cutting room floor. Was it worth it? If it helps people appreciate the intelligence of these amazing birds, definitely! But, the next time you watch an hour-long documentary about various clever animals, please try to appreciate all the days, weeks, and likely months of effort and energy that went into the overall filming and editing process!

Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D.

About Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D.

Dr. Irene Pepperberg is an adjunct associate professor at the Dept. of Psychology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA. She is also a lecturer and research associate at Harvard University, in Cambridge, MA.

1 thought on “Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Prepping For A Film Crew Visit

  1. Joanna Skupien Harrington says:

    I would love to see the finished filming. Assuming it will be on the Animal Channel, do you have any knowledge of what time period it will be aired?

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