'Silence of Lambs' used stand-in for rare moth

February 28, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

As befits movie co-stars, they were flown first class to the set, had special living quarters and carefully designed costumes. But their stardom was short-lived: After two weeks, it is curtains for the Tobacco Horn Worm Moth.

Also known as the Tomato Horn Worm Moth -- formerly giant green caterpillars, the kind found munching garden tomatoes -- the creatures play an integral part in Orion Pictures' "The Silence of the Lambs."

The thriller -- starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins -- revolves around the search for a vicious serial killer. Pivotal clue: a rare moth, the Death Head Moth from Asia, named for the markings on its body that resemble a skull and crossbones.

For one scene, biologist and insect wrangler Raymond A. Mendez rounded up more than 300 of the worm moths. A handful were fitted with tiny body shields bearing painted skull and crossbones; some wore unseen "harnesses" as they flew toward the camera.

Because of the brief moth phase in their one-year life spans, backups were constantly shipped in -- flying first class, in a special carrier -- from genetic research duties at the University of North Carolina. Once on location, they were housed in a room with controlled humidity and heat. Off-camera, they mated; the resulting eggs were shipped back to the university.

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