Australian Screen

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Webs of Intrigue (1992)

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clip Red-back spiders education content clip 1, 2, 3

Original classification rating: G. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

A close-up look at the deadly red-back spider. In giant close-up we see an ant enter the red-back’s insect trap, and get caught. The spider drops down, hoists the ant off the ground, and wraps it in special thread for future consumption.

Curator’s notes

A beautifully shot and constructed sequence, with very effective narration and music. The final slow motion of the spider wrapping up the ant is great.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows a red-back spider capturing its prey in a suburban back garden. The opening scenes show close-ups of the female spider, her egg sac and sticky web. An ant becomes caught in the web trap, and is then retrieved and spun into a cocoon of threads by the spider. The narrator and presenter, Densey Clyne, comments on the action, which is accompanied by dramatic music in horror-movie style.

Educational value points

  • The clip features one of the roughly 2,000 spider species in Australia that have been classified. As many as 10,000 species may exist on the Australian subcontinent. Most of the classified species come from the eastern and southern regions of Australia. Despite the fear that spiders inspire in some people and the dangerous reputation of Australian spiders, only two species have bites that are capable of causing death, the funnel-web spider and the red-back spider, and no deaths have been recorded from a spider bite in Australia since 1981.
  • The clip depicts the red-back spider, one of Australia’s most venomous and wide-ranging spiders. Belonging to the genus Latrodectus or widow spider, it is related to the black widow spider, found in the USA. Red-backs can be found in India, across Asia and throughout Australia. They live wherever they can find a sheltered site to construct their web and enough warmth for breeding. About 600 red-back bites are recorded each year in Australia, with more than 250 requiring antivenom treatment. In 1956 an antivenene for red-back bites was developed and there have been no reported deaths from such bites since.
  • The female of this species is deadlier than the male – only female red-back spiders are dangerous to humans. The male of the species is less than half the size of the female and its tiny jaws have difficulty penetrating human skin.
  • A remarkable aspect of red-back behaviour is the degree of risk that the male incurs in mating. To achieve prolonged and effective mating the male presents his abdomen to the female by way of a somersaulting action. While he inserts his sexual organ, called a 'palp’, she squirts digestive juices onto his abdomen and will attack him in preparation for digestion. If he survives this and returns to insert the second of his two palps he will die; most males die after mating.
  • Webs of Intrigue is an example of the work of Densey Clyne, naturalist, author and photographer, and Jim Frazier, cinematographer–director. Their successful collaboration began in 1972 when they formed Mantis Wildlife Films. Two 1975 documentaries, Garden Jungle and Aliens among Us, researched and written by Densey Clyne (1926–) and filmed by Jim Frazier, were shown on Australian television and subsequently sold to the BBC and networks in Germany, Japan, the USA and the Middle East. David Attenborough asked the pair to work on his series Life on Earth and The Living Planet. Clyne and Frazier’s work, including Webs of Intrigue, has won numerous international awards.
  • Densey Clyne, naturalist and filmmaker, presents and narrates the film. Clyne’s professional life as a naturalist and filmmaker goes back to the meticulous observations she made of wildlife in her own suburban garden in Sydney. She taught herself macrophotography and in 1972 teamed up with cinematographer Jim Frazier, with whom she made award-winning documentaries about the insects and spiders in her garden. They went on to develop a highly successful style of natural-history documentary making that relied on Clyne’s research and writing skills. Clyne has received many awards for her books, photographs and documentaries and has appeared on the television series Burke’s Backyard.
  • The film shows the skill of macrocinematographer and technical innovator Jim Frazier. It was while working on wildlife films for David Attenborough in the 1980s that Frazier became frustrated with the limitations of the lenses then available to him. He determined to develop a lens that could keep very small objects such as spiders and insects in focus while also keeping their world, the background, in focus. The Frazier lens has been hailed as one of only two significant developments in lens technology since the invention of the camera, the other being the zoom lens. The Frazier lens has been used in notable Hollywood films such as Titanic and Jurassic Park.
  • The music that accompanies the film was produced by Supersonic, a music collective featuring the talents of composer–filmmakers Paul Healy, Antony Partos and Andrew Lancaster. This group produces music for commercials, theatre, dance and film. The soundtrack for Webs of Intrigue features sound interwoven with music and draws on the horror movie tradition to create a sense of menace to accompany the visuals of spiders. Antony Partos received the Australian Guild of Screen Composers Award for Best Music in a Documentary for Webs of Intrigue.
  • Webs of Intrigue was directed by one of Australia’s most established wildlife and science filmmakers, Paul Scott. Scott achieved an honours degree in biology and several film qualifications from London University before moving to Australia in 1984 to work on wildlife documentaries. Some of Scott’s directorial credits include Australia’s Marine World, Devil Diary, Huon Pine – The Oldest Living Tasmanian, Koalas – The Bare Facts and Heaven’s Breath.
  • The producer of Webs of Intrigue, Roger Whittaker, is a documentary producer–director. His company Roger Whittaker Media has produced some 30 television documentaries, some of which have screened worldwide and received numerous awards. Whittaker’s collaboration with Paul Scott began with the very successful 25-min A Bird’s Eye View – The Kookaburras, which was televised in many countries.

Shot under a house, then of a red-back spider.
Densey Clyne There’s another dangerous spider common around Australian homes, a sub-species of the notorious black widow of America. She’s the red-back, seen here with her egg sack. The red-back’s permanent insect trap is made up of extremely strong vertical threads, beaded at the base with a contact adhesive. It’s a minefield, a maze with no way out but death and insects enter at their peril. This ant seems to have some misgivings. She’s cleaning her antennae, the sense organs that warn her of danger. Perhaps she is aware of the assassin waiting above her.

An ant is struggling in a red-back’s web. The spider catches the ant and cocoons it.
Densey Clyne Red-back spiders and their relatives use a special comb on their hind feet to wrap their victims. In slow motion we see the silk as a ribbon of rainbow colours. To the ant, it is simply a shroud.

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