Hornets and Leeches and Frogs,Oh My

Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.

Jeff Morales ’86 is thinking about leeches and maggots. Which is a change from thinking about fearsome frogs or giant hornets. For a guy who loves “being out living in a tent and living in wilderness,” such singular beings are his bread and butter.

Okay, not literally. Morales doesn’t snack on the creatures, he films them. He recently finished his work as producer of Hornets from Hell, a wildlife film that will premier on National Geographic Explorer at 8 p.m. Sunday, October 27, 2002, on MSNBC. Although Morales has worked on a number of projects, he says the hornets film “is my first official producer gig.” A producer credit can mean a lot of things; for Morales it meant serving in the combined role as director and cinematographer of the film.

Producing Hornets from Hell did have its share of hellish moments. Shot in the mountains of Nagano, Japan, where Morales and other National Geographic crew members followed an entomologist as he studied the 2-inch-long Giant Japanese Hornet, the workers were frequently exposed to the venomous insects.

“We constantly had to be on guard,” says Morales, who explains that the hornet’s venom can break down human tissue. “I actually had one — she landed on my lip. I just froze.”

Although humans can suffer anaphylactic shock and die from the stings, it is the honeybee that is most at risk from the commando insects. “We were able to document some pretty cool natural history, including . . . a spectacular mass attack where 20 or so hornets decimated a colony of 30,000 bees in several hours,” he says.

While entomologist Dr. Masato Ono and the aggressive hornets are the stars, the wildlife documentary has a definite Notre Dame buzz. Morales, Salvatore Vecchio, Michael O’Keefe and Brad Ray — all 1986 grads — put together a bluegrass band while on campus. They remain friends, and sometimes even manage to work together: Vecchio is a freelance editor of the hornets film, and attorney O’Keefe has a brief stand-in role. “I couldn’t squeeze in our banjo player [Brad Ray] as he was off performing surgery somewhere,” notes Morales.

For Morales, the road to wildlife photography began with freelance work in Australia and Alaska with such photogenic stars as tooth-billed bower birds and striped bass. After a move to Washington, D.C., he was hired for equipment work at National Geographic but soon left for a freelance job on Vancouver Island.

His self-employment lasted until he and his wife, Kimberly, welcomed their first child. “I figured I’d better get some sort of steady income,” Morales says. In 1998 he was back at National Geographic. Now the couple has three children, and, says Morales, “When I’m out in the field, I love it. But it’s difficult to leave Kim and the kids behind.”

Fortunately, he’s generally away less than a month at a time. And when he’s home finishing up a project, Morales says, “it’s been kind of fun for the kids, too.” It’s not every dad, after all, who creates a swamp in the basement so he can do some close-up camera work to meld with outside shots.

The swamp filled in some Fearsome Frogs scenes, a National Geographer Explorer documentary about a type of bullfrog that was introduced west of the Rockies, where they were not native. His work on that film won Morales an Emmy nomination in 2001 for graphic and artistic design. “I don’t think people realize the amount of work and, especially, time that is required to make a wildlife film,” he says.

And so he continues to develop a project about ants and mull over a story involving leeches and maggots. Morales hopes he and Vecchio will be able to work together again on a project. “I’ve met a lot of people who went to school [at Notre Dame],” he says. “Relationships sort of carry through the rest of your life.”

Carol Schaal is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine.