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Bug’s Life

Entomophobics need not apply to watch Learning to See; all they’ll see is their fear paraded across the screen. Everyone else gets a unique peek at various insects living in the Colombian rainforests, as photographed by a quiet, gentle eccentric Robert Oelman.

Psychiatrist turned psychotherapist turned photographer Oelman found his calling in discovering the miniature world of bugs. Hobby turned profession, his work discovers previously unknown species while Learning to See, the work of Oelman’s son, makes a plea for conservation.

It’s an often gorgeous documentary, made so by the bountiful color of the arachnids, mantids, and other wildlife. Live footage and still photography sandwich between interview clips. Oelman’s easy-going personality suits this reticent feature, and scenes of him at work in makeshift studios shows how difficult this work is.

The calming nature of the music and nature photography pair for a nearly meditative watch

Learning to See begins with Oelman recounting his younger days and careers. It skips that Oelman’s father sat atop National Cash Register as CEO, in case it’s unclear where $40,000 came from to purchase a wide swatch of Colombian land. The initial focus then is on Oelman, as if his son is making a personal family documentary. Soon, Oelman is wandering through forests, camera and bug net in tow, snapping all manner of exotic life.

Just over an hour, the calming nature of the music and nature photography pair for a nearly meditative watch, at times anyway. Cutting away to scientists and insect specialists is a mood killer, but critical to appropriately frame the work. Oelman’s catalog is more than beautiful – it’s helping to find unknown species, recording them before financial agendas wipe them out.

Some will find Learning to See preachy. But, it’s sensible and real. Oelman glides down Colombian waters, on one side preserved jungle, on the other a growing oil complex. By visuals alone, Learning to See communicates the elevated concern of protecting these lands. In the first chapter, it’s shown how essential insect life is to Earth. Later, when that’s being smoked, burned, and torn down, it’s a tragedy. To play “what’s in a name,” Learning to See puts up a warning flare to notice what’s missing. Look at the small things, not only the large.


Great as Oelman’s work is, this Blu-ray too often degrades his images. Learning to See is in a constant struggle against compression, awful enough to battle early MPEG-2 Blu-ray outings on the bottom rungs of Blu-ray quality. That’s not fair to these sights.

This impacts both stills and live action. Photographs introduce banding and rough digital texture. Interview subjects appear to fend off bugs, but that’s only the artifacting swarming around their heads.

All of the bright coloring only introduces further visible compression problems. At least saturation is high to offer some reprieve. The litany of colors coming from the wildlife shows off a full palette of greens, browns, and reds.

Oelman’s work is often set against black. Learning to See uses the full depth afforded to Blu-ray for that cause. Contrast is likewise high.


For the 5.1 effort (Dolby Digital), various jungles send insect calls into the surrounds. Even into the few city scenes, ambient effects reach the rear speakers.

Dialog doesn’t play around with any creativity, locked to the center. There’s little challenge to this mix, and the lack of lossless audio is of no concern.


A making-of fills in additional backstory while delving into the project as a whole. Five deleted scenes run a few minutes each at the most, including a great one with a caiman. Panoramic photography and slides matter here more than on most discs and it’s a fine collection in spite of the murky compression. There’s a music video too if you so choose.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Learning to See: The World of Insects
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras


Robert Oelman’s dazzling insect photography is used in Learning to See to tell a story of discovery and a warning as to potential loss.

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