Science on Film: A Metamorphosis

Close up of a monarch butterfly sitting on a tree branch in Sierra Chincua, Michoacan, Mexico. Photo credit: Koh Terai

In his new film, Alexis Gambis uses the monarch butterfly to symbolize issues such as identity, migration, and climate change

  • Son of Monarchs stars award-winning actor Tenoch Huerta from the hit Netflix series Narcos: Mexico.
  • Alexis Gambis' film crew got access to the hibernating butterfly colonies in the sanctuaries of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, normally not open to the public.
  • Film release is expected in late 2019.

Alexis Gambis is a filmmaker and biologist whose interdisciplinary work aims to communicate science through visual storytelling. Gambis has written and directed over a dozen shorts and two features that have played at festivals worldwide. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Nature, Cell, and VICE.

Following the success of his 2014 feature film The Fly Room, Gambis has turned his attention to production on his latest science-film project, Son of Monarchs. The film tells the story of Mendel, a Mexican evolutionary biologist named after Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics. After living in New York for many years, Mendel decides to return to his small hometown of Angangueo, Mexico, to reconnect with his brother and confront the suppressed, painful traumas of his childhood. After realizing that the only way to resolve these issues is by closely inspecting his own genetic, physical and spiritual identity, Mendel turns to the Monarch butterflies he studies to find answers.

Filmmaker/biologist Alexis Gambis. Photo credit: Renée Xie

Son of Monarchs explores the theme of identity from a genetic, cultural and societal perspective. Mendel, a young Mexican biologist, is the perfect force to lead us into this multifaceted and colorful world, where science, rituals, politics and culture intersect,” Gambis explains.


I inject curiosity and wonder into my storylines as a reminder that scientific research is not only about application and output, but also about a noble desire to learn how nature works.

Alexis Gambis, NYU Abu Dhabi Assistant Professor of Biology, Film and New Media

The Cast

Cast in the lead role is the very talented actor Tenoch Huerta. Notable for his recent portrayal of Rafael Cara Quintero in the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico, Tenoch has an impressive list of acting credits to his name. Working closely with Alexis, along with postdocs, graduate students and faculty from NYUAD and NYU NY, Tenoch was fast propelled into the world of an evolutionary biologist and was soon scanning butterfly wings in the microscope dark room and carrying out pupal dissections.

By placing a strong focus on working scientists in his feature films, Gambis seeks to promote scientific discovery as a diverse and collaborative effort, highlighting the contributions of graduate students, researchers and postdocs who invest a huge amount of time, thought and energy into the scientific process.

“As part of my films, my goal is to create realism in scientific contexts. It was therefore important to have real scientists actively involved in the film and to shoot the process of doing everyday research,” says Gambis.

Actor Tenoch Huerta plays Mendel in Son of Monarchs. Photo credit: Renée Xie
Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) looks through a microscope. Photo credit: Renée Xie

Art responds to the technological advances and scientific discoveries of the present moment. When we mastered the earth and soil, we made paintings. When we learned how to break rocks, we made sculptures and built architecture and with the industrial revolution, cinema was born. Cinema represents the modern union between science and art.

Actor Tenoch Huerta, plays lead character Mendel in Son of Monarchs

The Set

After filming in New York for several weeks, the production team moved to the town of Angangueo in Michoacan, Mexico, an area notable for its location close to the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries.

With the support of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, who have been involved with the film since the early days of pre-production, Gambis says the crew got special access to the butterfly colonies, usually not accessible to the public.

“This year there was a record high of butterflies that arrived in the sanctuaries. We were able to arrive in the mountains early enough in the morning to eavesdrop on the millions of monarch butterflies hanging from the branches, still sound asleep in the oyamel fir trees of the Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary. We spent the morning and early afternoon filming in silence to not disturb them.”

Actor Tenoch Huerta and Writer/Director Alexis Gambis test butterfly projections on screen. Photo credit: Renée Xie.

Gambis uses the monarch butterfly as a symbol for the film’s many topical themes, including identity, migration, and climate change.

“The film speaks directly to my trajectory navigating through a myriad of careers and identities," he explains. "I am a French-Venezuelan, currently living and working between New York, Paris, and Abu Dhabi. I spent my 20s in New York dissecting fruit flies in a laboratory in the day and taking filmmaking courses in the evenings.”

Meandering between science and art, and effectively fusing the two through the medium of film, Gambis encapsulates the very spirit of NYU, embracing diversity and encouraging movement and collaboration between the disciplines.

The Crew

Scientists from NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU New York played a significant role in the film, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

“I found out that making a movie is just like doing research: you have to be patient, not be scared of tedious work, collaborate with a team, and you have to repeat your experiment/scene ad nauseam," said "Professor of Biology and Global Public Health Elodie Ghedin and director of NYU New York's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology.

Postdoctoral Fellow Mike Perry from Claude Desplan’s Lab at NYU New York played an integral role behind the scenes, helping to teach Tenoch Huerta the basics of butterfly rearing and giving him a crash course on CRISPR and egg injection.

Alexa Mena and April Xiong, both NYUAD graduates, assisted with the production, while NYU New York PhD graduate Nick DelRose donated and prepared a bench as part of the film set. He also joined the art team and was a scientific adviser on the film. Maria Altamirano, a recent graduate from NYU's highly selective MBA/MFA dual degree program, a conjunction of Tisch School of the Arts and Stern School of Business, is one of the producers and this is her first feature.

Currently in the post-production phase, much of which is taking place at NYU Abu Dhabi, Son of Monarchs will be released by the end of 2019.