The Spider Man Behind Spider-man

By Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
May 2, 2002
Entomologist Steven Kutcher is the spider man behind Spider-man.

"He's the guy to call in Hollywood when you need insects—he is the ultimate insect trainer," says Robin Miller, property master for the movie Spider-man.

"I know how to get a cockroach to run across the floor and flip onto its back. I can get cockroaches, beetles and spiders to crawl to a quarter four feet away on cue. I can make bees swarm indoors and I can repair butterfly wings," says Kutcher. He has even made a live wasp fly into an actor's mouth.

"I study insect behavior, and learn what they do and then adapt the behavior to what the director wants," says Kutcher.

Passion for Bugs

Kutcher's love of insects began as a toddler when he collected fireflies in New York. But he was also influenced by very "positive early childhood experiences in nature" when his family would spend summers in the Catskills. "Something about seeing fish, catching butterflies, lit a fire within me," says Kutcher.

Kutcher followed his passion for bugs and studied entomology in college, receiving his BS from the University of California, Davis, and later an MA in biology—with an emphasis on entomology, insect behavior and ecology from the California State University in Long Beach. He had planned to pursue a Ph.D., but when he wasn't accepted at the graduate school of his choice he decided to reevaluate his career options.

One day he received a call from his former academic advisor asking him to baby-sit 3,000 locusts that were to be used for the movie Exorcist 2. Kutcher had to place the locusts wherever they were needed including on the stars Richard Burton and Linda Blair. That was his first job and it has been Hollywood creepy crawlies ever since.

After doing a long survey of movies Kutcher found that about one third of all movies had an insect in it. "I saw immediate job potential," Kutcher says.

Almost 25 years after his first job Kutcher now holds an impressive list of movie, television, music video and commercial credits that include his biggest movie, Arachnophobia, the comedy-thriller in which a California town is overrun with deadly spiders. He also supervised the bug and spider stunts in Alien, Contact, Jurassic Park, Pacific Heights, and Wild Wild West.

"He is a very observant and engaging guy," says Lucinda Strub, a special effects person who worked with Kutcher on Arachnophobia. "One of his main goals is to educate the public about how fascinating and interesting insects are. He is really out to teach people about bugs," says Strub who then rattled off how to sex a spider and clarified that "of course spiders are not bugs, they are arachnids."

Even with his busy filmmaking schedule, Kutcher still finds time to teach once a week at a local community college. He also started the annual Insect Fair at the Los Angeles Arboretum.

The Perfect Match

Kutcher's most recent challenge has been finding the perfect spider for the movie Spider-man, which opens on May 3rd.

The concept designer for the movie produced a computer rendition that combined traits of up to four arachnids to create an image of the mutant spider that bites Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-man) and endows him spider powers.

"I was given this drawing of a spider that didn't exist and told to find a real spider that matched it," says Miller, whose responsibilities include assembling all the props in the entire film. The spider resembled a black widow, which wasn't an option because its bite is too dangerous.

Miller contacted Steven Kutcher and showed him the picture. Kutcher then arranged a "spider Olympics" for Spider-man director, Sam Raimi. Kutcher brought in different types of spiders to showcase the talents of each, says Miller. "He literally had the spiders doing tricks."

One spider could jump, another was able to spin webs very quickly and yet another was able to produce a drag line and essentially swing out of the way—all activites that Spider-man can do.

The spider that Raimi selected was Steatoda grossa, a brown spider with a smooth, swollen body and thin twiggy legs. The problem was that the color was wrong, "we needed a spider that had metallic blue and a radioactive red-orange color to it," says Miller.

The answer was spider make-up. Originally Kutcher wanted to make an entire costume for the spider but the timing came down to the wire and he finally settled on body paint. "I had to find a non-toxic paint, design a little harness to hold the spider as he was painted, and supervise the artist painting Steatoda."

"I need the spider to go from A to B to C and Steve can train it to do that," says Miller who has worked with Kutcher on several movies. "He is very creative, he can figure out how to get the creature to do what he wants while being very delicate," says Strub.

Why, in this age of computer-generated special effects did the director simply not animate the spider? "The real thing always looks best, especially when it fills the whole movie screen," says Miller. And computer-generated graphics are very expensive although the scene where the mutant spider bites Peter Parker is computer generated.

"People find me and I'm off on these adventures," says Kutcher, "problem solving, and exploring, and teaching, and educating people about insects." But Steven Kutcher's hat best describes his life, his love and his philosophy: "Bugs are my business."

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