‘We Were Not Dropping Acid’: The Story Behind the Making of DuPage Forest Preserve’s Viral Cicada Video

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s video has humans act out periodical cicadas’ lifecycle. (Screenshot)The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s video has humans act out periodical cicadas’ lifecycle. (Screenshot)

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From the Mannequin Challenge, to a grumpy cat, to a dude on a skateboard singing Fleetwood Mac and drinking an Ocean Spray, there’s no predicting what will catch fire on the internet.

Take the latest viral sensation: It’s the educational video, “The Life Cycle of a 17-Year Cicada.” Yawn, right?

Wrong, thanks to one very unusual twist — the cicadas are played by humans, dressed in handmade costumes, giving off high school theater club vibes.

The brainchild of staff at the DuPage County forest preserves, this video has nabbed hundreds of thousands of views, tens of thousands of shares and comments, and caught the attention of a certain late-night TV talk show host (more on that in a minute).

If you haven’t seen it yet, we’re jealous you get to experience this wonderful weirdness for the first time. Click play, and then read on as Jonathan Mullen, the fellow behind the camera, shares the backstory of this quirky creation.


THE CONCEPT

Jonathan Mullen, multimedia content specialist, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County: We knew that cicadas were going to be a big topic this year. But of course we knew everyone would be putting out content about cicadas.

We were talking, me and my co-worker Ashley (Chex) — Ashley is our digital communications specialist — trying to figure out how are we going to make something a little bit different. She had the idea to juxtapose an interview with an ecologist with people dressed in costumes.

And when she said that, I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea.’


THE CAST

Mullen: We got one of our environmental interpreters, Jen Rydzewski, to play the female cicada. When I started filming, Jen was so in character, she just became the cicada.

And then one of our rangers, David Sima, we all call him Smokey, we got him to play the male cicada. Jen was like, ‘Well, you know, Smokey plays drums and I think he has bongos.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, that’d be hilarious (for the cicada noise).’ It just kind of came together.

Of course Tom Velat, the narrator, is one of our ecologists here. I love him because his voice is perfect.

WTTW News: Anyone have any acting experience?

Mullen: Not professionally, but they’re all real funny. Me personally, I’ve been being a goofball on the internet forever. Everyone else, not really.


THE COSTUMES

Mullen: We reached out to Rianna Schwartz who’s in our planning department — she’s a landscape architect. We knew for Halloween she made this amazing turtle costume. We were like, ‘Hey, can you make cicada costumes?’ And of course she got into it right away and was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can figure this out.’

There was a day we went to Walmart and bought two hoodies and some cellophane, basically. And then the rest was just kind of stuff we had. I 3D-printed the eyes at home.

(Schwartz) was working on it during lunch and after work for a few weeks. We had to give her a role after all that work. She played the baby cicada, breaking out of the egg, which is just a garbage bag.


THE PICK-UP LINE

Say girl, if I was a fruit fly, I’d land on you first, cuz you’re so sweet.”

Mullen: So Smokey spent the night before filming reading insects’ pick-up lines. None of us knew that was going to happen. Jen did her dance and flicked her wings and Smokey just dropped that line.

Mullen: Her reaction is 100% legit. He tried out a few more and they were all hilarious, but I went with that (initial) one because she had that reaction. We also have a few outtakes with Smokey in the tree just making cicada noises.


THE PRODUCTION

Mullen: One day on my lunch break, I went around with Chris Welch, who’s one of our civil engineers; he has a map of all of the storm drains on the property. We spent a lunch break looking for the perfect storm drain for someone to climb out of. (Jen) is climbing out of the ground. It was a very shallow storm drain and there wasn’t any water in it, so I don’t think there was any great risk. Maybe don’t tell our safety guy about that.

Mullen: The funny thing is they literally just painted us a green screen on one of the walls in our meeting room here. So we used that for the first time. It wasn’t even completely set up; I moved painting supplies off to the side to film those few shots.

Mullen: When we shot it, it didn’t take very long. I already had a shot list because I’d interviewed Tom — I knew what I needed them to do.

Our headquarters is part of the forest preserves, so we just went across the street — there’s a really good tree there — and we dragged over a picnic table for Smokey to step off of.


THE REACTION

Mullen: I was expecting to post it and maybe we’d get a few thousand, maybe 10,000 to 20,000 views. But yeah, we were not expecting this level of response. It just blew up on every platform — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok — kind of right away. When you have one that blows up on every platform, that’s how you know you have a great video.

Then WGN (TV) found it and ran it in the morning, and then they had us on in the afternoon. And then from there, CNN picked it up, which was really fun. I know they ran it a couple of times during the day. From there, I figure that’s how (Stephen) Colbert, ‘The Late Show,’ found it.

I got a text from Ashley that says, all caps, ‘STEPHEN COLBERT.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, people are commenting on Facebook they just saw it on Colbert.’ I sat there waiting for the YouTube video of his opening monologue to come out. And then I watched that and there we were. We were super happy to have him drop the full name of the organization. I loved his joke about what the production meeting must have been like.

We were not dropping acid when we made the video, although it may seem like it. But that was so funny, we loved that. That’s the best you can hope for.


BUT SERIOUSLY

Mullen: It’s really great to have an educational video really pop off like this, it’s wonderful. Nature education is a big part of what we do here, but you gotta find a way to make it interesting so that people actually watch it. And we actually did it. It can be difficult, and I’m glad we pulled it off. It feels good when that actually happens.

We’ve gotten dozens of comments. There was one that was along the lines of, ‘Cicadas scare me, but I’m glad I saw this.’ Some others are like, ‘I wouldn’t have watched this if it was real cicadas, but I’m glad I got to see this.’

And lots of people are saying they never understood what the lifecycle was like, and now they do, which has been really great.


THE FOLLOW-UP

Mullen: We are probably going to keep the format and roll that out for different topics over the next year — we just put up that green screen. We know that people love the costumes now. We’re trying to figure out other topics we can adapt to it.

I’m not going to go into it with the idea that we’re going to outdo ourselves because I don’t think that’s going to happen. We caught lightning in a bottle.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 | [email protected]


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