Steven Kutcher turns insects into movie stars.
Known as “the bug guy,” Kutcher keeps his focus on insects in an industry in which most trainers handle somewhat larger animals, from alligators to zebras.
His miniscule thespians have starred in box-office blockbusters, including “Alien,” “Arachnophobia,” “Exorcist II,” and “Pacific Heights,” as well as lesser-known films and commercials.
“People tell me what they want and I will be able to do it with a bug,” said Kutcher. “I am one of the few people who can make a living going out into nature, collecting bugs and turning it into money.”
Kutcher attributes much of his success to his “passion for bugs.” He spent years, for example, scrutinizing the milkweed bug for his master’s degree from California State University Long Beach, and later worked as a consultant for the Los Angeles County sanitation department and the mosquito abatement program.
Kutcher also works part-time as a professor at West Los Angeles College teaching biology, but he says he makes more money working two days in show biz than he does over a whole semester at college.
In fact, Kutcher says he bought his ranch-style home in Arcadia with the income generated by cockroaches, beetles, spiders and butterflies all of which he keeps in his home, some under refrigeration.
Thousands of creepy crawlers lurk in jars, dresser drawers and other containers, while butterflies are allowed to fly around unfettered. Tarantulas, beetles, scorpions all of these and more are “in stock.”
Most of the bugs are kept in Kutcher’s refrigerator or in small cages in his “bug room.”
Kutcher said most insects live less than a year, so he is constantly collecting new ones. He scours Los Angeles County weekly looking in vacant lots, parks, backyards and even water to find the miniature actors.
Being an entomologist, Kutcher knows exactly where to find the bugs he needs for a particular project.
“I can turn bugs into money,” said Kutcher. “Bugs are free. All you have to do is go out and get them.”
Sometimes Kutcher will enlist friends to help in collections (paying them a nominal fee), but for the most part he collects all his bugs on his own.
Divorced, Kutcher said his love of bugs had nothing to with the breakup of his marriage but that it didn’t exactly help matters.
The bug specialist said he fields more than 40 calls a week from TV and film producers. Projects can pay anywhere from $100 for a one-day shoot for a commercial to $10,000 for three months on a feature film.
The average project pays $5,000, and Kutcher says he does an estimated 50 projects a year.
His big break came in 1977, when the producers of “Exorcist II” came looking for someone to handle a scene with more than 3,000 African locusts. The producers sought help from an entomology professor at California State University Long Beach, who referred them to Kutcher. Kutcher said he made more than $5,000 on the deal and then realized he could make a lot of money on his specialty.
Kutcher carefully guards the tricks of the trade, although he did reveal a few. In one commercial for VCR Plus, for example, a housefly hits the numbers of a remote control. To make it happen, Kutcher used thin invisible strings tied around the fly to manipulate its flight pattern.
Spiders can be directed by using heated or cooled surfaces, and a layer of slippery furniture polish will keep them from climbing the walls out of camera range. A hair dryer’s hot air can coax bugs to move a certain way.
American Humane Society guidelines prohibit any living thing even bugs from being harmed during filming, so Kutcher uses preserved bugs or rubber stand-ins in certain cases. He also takes precautions, such as putting his overheated bees on ice right after they came out from under the klieg lights.
Kutcher says the increasing use of digital animation hasn’t really hurt his business. Producers agree, saying that they prefer the real “things.”
“We all gravitate toward realism,” said TV commercial producer Mike Ruppert, owner of Mike Ruppert Studios in Los Angeles, who used Kutcher for VCR Plus, Acura and Apple Computer commercials.
“If I ever need bugs, that’s the call I make,” Ruppert said. “Otherwise the bugs don’t look real. You can tell if a bug is fake.”
Kutcher said he convinced producer Steven Spielberg and director Frank Marshall that real spiders would look better in the film, “Arachnophobia.”
“It’s always better to have the real thing. And I can make bugs do almost anything,” he said.
At the same time, there is a place for animation. It helped create expressions on the beak of the parrot “Paulie” in current release and smiles and frowns for the rodent that starred in last winter’s “Mousehunt.”
“The computer graphics have helped do movies that we might not have been able to do,” said Boone Narr, owner of Boone’s Animals for Hollywood in Castaic. “Years ago everyone was frightened we would lose business, but it turns out animation has allowed us to make movies we would never have been able to do before.”