A house mouse tackling tarantulas; a hamster fending for itself on the mean streets of New York; a canary in its upset cage being eyed by a hawk; and a kangaroo rat trying to avoid birds of prey and venomous lizards.
No, it’s not the latest Disney CGI blockbuster, but a new Netflix series scripted and shot like a proper movie, but using actual creatures. There are thrills, spills and suspense but although it looks completely genuine, none of it actually is.
Tiny Creatures has been made by British director Jonathan Jones, who won an Emmy as a cinematographer on David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II.
‘I’m a massive fan of fantasy adventure movies, so it’s like fusing my experience of shooting natural history programmes with my experience of filming commercials and making a hybrid,’ he says.
New Netflix series Tiny Creatures, follows animals (pictured) as they face huge challenges in new dramatic environments across eight episodes
We see the house mouse in rural Texas forced to abandon her young in search of food in the countryside, and having to stave off predators. There’s the hamster who was living a cosy life in a posh apartment but then finds itself on the streets of New York amid rats and pigeons.
A timid skunk – a nocturnal creature for once caught in the bright sunlight of New Hampshire – faces its biggest threat from a red-tailed hawk and is grateful when the bird of prey is distracted by a canary in an upturned cage.
And keep your fingers crossed for the young kangaroo rat in the Arizona desert who’s threatened by Harris hawks and venomous Gila monster lizards after his mother is killed by a rattlesnake.
All eight episodes feature tiny creatures facing huge challenges in dramatic new environments. Helped by a team of handlers and trainers, Jonathan used real animals for the stories, and even wrote scripts for them ahead of filming.
‘We visualised every frame, based on our experience of what we could expect from the animals,’ he explains.
‘And because we had a good idea of what we could get out of the animals in terms of performance, I was able to write a script that was scientifically accurate and didn’t embellish what they’d naturally do.
British director Jonathan Jones, said it was important the crew got used to the animals and that the creatures got used to them. Pictured: Hamster’s not home but out on the mean streets of New York
‘Once the storylines were established, we could then build sets around our stars – cityscapes, deserts, attics – that would provide the backgrounds for their amazing journeys.’
Although the series is set in America – to satisfy Netflix’s predominantly US audience – most of the filming was done in the UK and many of the creatures are based here too.
The animals’ welfare was paramount, not only because the law demands it but because a happy animal is more inclined to be active on set.
‘It was important we got used to them and they got used to us, that we made them familiar with their surroundings,’ says Jonathan. ‘So, where possible, we fed them by hand and brought them onto set well in advance of filming.’
Jonathan explained that the animals were filmed separately, putting a hawk looking down and a rat running created a dramatic scenario. Pictured: A scene from the series
And despite appearances in the thrilling action scenes, the animals were filmed separately. ‘The hawk and the kangaroo rat, for example, were not in the same space at the same time,’ says Jonathan.
‘We filmed the hawk and worked on its eyeline so that it was looking down. That footage was not very dramatic but when you put together the hawk looking down and the rat running you create a different scenario.’
The hamsters (usually, more than one creature was used to portray a character on screen) proved particularly challenging subjects to film.
‘We thought, “Hamsters are pets, they’re going to be receptive,” but they were tough! They wouldn’t walk in a straight line, or they’d suddenly stop in their tracks when we wanted them to carry on walking.’
The squirrel – supposedly in an attic in Louisiana – was more predictably tricky.
Jonathan revealed Netflix had reservations about rodents dominating the cast, but he wanted the series to be about the unsung heroes of the animal world. Pictured: A scene from Tiny Creatures
Jonathan had to coax it (only one was used) into knocking a baseball out of a glove and chewing a table leg, all part of a sequence of events that leads to pipes in the attic bursting.
‘It was unpredictable, so to get it to do what we wanted was a triumph,’ says Jonathan.
But some creatures were joys to work with. ‘We found we could train the house mice to do so much and they learnt things quickly.’
Rodents dominate the cast despite Netflix’s reservations.
‘Netflix thought there were too many but I pushed back on that because we wanted to make the series about the unsung heroes of the animal world,’ Jonathan explains.
‘I want to reveal a world that people haven’t seen before, and by making animals such as mice and squirrels the stars of our stories, I think we’ve done that.’
Tiny Creatures is on Netflix from Friday.