Fly Away Ralph Helfer
“I need 5,000 trained flies. Can you do it? Yes or no!” The voice at the other end of the phone was insistent.
“Well, I . .”
“Of course you can’t, Helfer. Nobody can. Look, I told the director I’d make a couple of calls. So, now I have. The answer is obviously NO!”
“I can do it,” I said, fitting my sentence neatly in between my caller’s constant jabber, “but I’ll need a couple of days.”
The voice on the phone was silent a moment. Then: “You’re kidding.” “No, really. Two days, and I’ll be ready. What do they have to do?”
“There’s this artificial, dead-looking „thing” lying on the ground in the forest. The director wants thousands of flies to be crawling on it without flying away.”
“okay–,” I said. “Consider it done.”
“No; wait. Then, he wants them all to fly away, on command — but not before.” “Okay, no problem,” I said. “Two days.” “Wait. Did you hear what I said? They can’t leave until he says okay. How are you going to keep them there, let alone have them fly away when he wants them to ?”
“I’ll stick each of their 20,000 legs in glue! Look, don’t worry. Call me later, and I’ll give you the figure. Bye.”
Sometimes affection training was not the only answer. One could not “pet” a fly or earn its respect. I knew I would have to resort to the laws of nature for the answer to this one. I’d had the opportunity to work with various insects in the past. But 5,000! I hoped I hadn’t bitten off more than I could chew.
I went to work, first converting an old box in which we’d been keeping crickets (we raised them to feed to the tarantulas). The box was about three feet high by two feet square. Patching up a few holes, I scrubbed it clean, fixed– a crooked door, and set it inside the snakeroom.
The next day I visited a good friend of mine, Professor Jonathan Ziller, an entomologist and researcher:. His work area consisted of twenty to thirty lab-type cages made of fine-mesh wire. Each contained a different species of insect. Over a cup of coffee, I told him of my needs. We walked over to a cage that was being heated. by a special infrared lamp. Inside I could see massive swarms of maggots — fly larvae, ready to be hatched into their next stage. As I stood there, the professor calculated the exact time when they would become flies. As his watch struck the “birthing” time, thousands of flies left their maggot bodies and were suddenly airborne, buzzing about the cage.
We both agreed that these flies, an unusually large type that resembled the horsefly, would be perfect. An added plus was the fact that they were all hybrid, incapable of breeding. Hence, in releasing them I would not be running the risk of upsetting the natural balance of the environment.
The professor gave me a batch of fly larvae, which he’d calculated would hatch on the morning of the shoot, along with a vial of a special, harmless tranquilizer in a; gas capsule. The gas would be released when the tip of the cigarette-sized plastic tube was broken.. With the vial set inside the fly box, all the flies could be put to sleep within seconds. Once the as had dissipated in a matter: of moments, ”
the flies would awaken. _The tranquilizer was, of course, harmless to people. A handshake later, I Was off, gently-carrying my brood with me.
On the morning of the shoot, all the flies hatched right on schedule. I loaded up
and headed for the studio location. When I arrived, I was greeted by a crew of
disbelievers with tongue-in-cheek attitudes. Bets and jokes were being made in
every direction, all in good-natured fun.
The directorc a big, friendly sort, came over to me with auspicious look in his eyes. “Is it true?”
“That you can put 5,000 flies on something and they’ll crawl around, but you can guarantee they won’t fly right off?”
“Then when I tell you to let them go, they’ll all fly away immediately?” “Give or takd a few.”
“A few what?”
“Flies that won’t fly ‘away.”
“If you pull this off, I’ll double your fee,” he said in disbelief. “Ready whenever you are,” I said, and headed for my fly house._
The camera was set. The “dead thing” turned out to be a special-effects monster baby that had supposedly died a while back and was now to be swarming with flies. Somebody was to walk by, and the flies would then have to fly away.
Everything was ready.
The sceptical assistant director yelled for the “fly man.” One of my trainers and I carried the fly house over and set it near the camera. The loud buzzing of an enormous number of flies was obvious:._ Sheets of heavy paper prevented anyone from seeing into the box.
Now, Ralph, I’ll roll the camera whenever you say — okay?” asked the director.
“Sure, but everything has to be ready. I’ve only got l0;042 flies just enough for two shots.”
His look told me. he wasn’t sure whether I was putting him on or not. “10,042 — really!” he mumbled, and walked over to the camera.
With everything set, I opened the small door of the fly house. Hiding the gas capsule in the palm of my hand and reaching inside, I broke it open, closed the door, and waited for fifteen seconds. To everybody’s amazement, the buzzing stopped. Next, I opened the door and scooped out three or four handfuls of flies. I shook them out as one would when counting a pound of peanuts. Putting the little sleeping flies all over the “body,” I began to dramatically count the last few: “Five-thOusand twenty, five-thousand twenty-one, five-thousand twenty-tWo . that makes it half!”
I told everyone to hold still, then I gave the flies a verbal cue: “Okay guys —Jack, Bill, Mary — come on,,up and at „em!”
Slowly the -flies started to awaken, then move around. In a few moments the whole mass of them was swarming all over the “thing,” but they were still too drowsy t6 fly, as my professor friend had told me they would be.
“Okay, tiAl!” yelled the director.
The camera rolled on the fly swarm, and I shot a look at the crew. They appeared to be in shock. Then, having gotten enough footage, the director shouted, “Okay, Ralph, now!”
My great moment! “Okay, group,” I said to the flies. “Get ready: on the count of three, all..of you take off.” The crew, absolutely, bug-eyed (forgive the pun), was hypnotiied. “One,” I counted. They looked from the flies to me.
“Three!”–I yelled, clapping my hands and stamping my ‘foot at the same time Fivethousand’-twenty-one flies flew 4, up, around and around. The camera hummed, until the director, rousing himself from his amazed state, said, “Cut!”
The entire crew was silent for a moment, and then they burst into applause and delighted laughter.
“You did it, you really did it!” said the director, slapping me heartily on the back. “I’m not even going to ask you how. I don’t even want to know. But if I ever need a trained anything, you’re the man I’ll call!”
Straight-faced, I said, “Well, actually, I’ve recently trained 432 flies to form a chorus line on my arm, and on cue they all kick a leg at the same time.”
The director, poker-faced, looked straight at me. “Which one?” he asked. “Which one what?”
“The left one, of course!”
We all broke up laughing and headed home.
About the Author
Ralph Helfer (1937-) is one of the leading animal trainers in the world. He has persuaded animals to do what Hollywood directors wanted them to do in mod than 5,000 movies and television ptograms. In his book, The Beauty of the Beast, Helfer explains that his work as a stuntman and wild animal trainer has led to his being “clawed by lions, attacked by bears, bitten by poisonous snakes and nearly_ suffocated by pythons.” Helfer and his trained animals have won 18 PATSY awards for the best animal performances on the screen. He is the founder of Marineworld/Africa USA.