Disneynature Born in China will be released in theaters just one day prior to Earth Day, on April 21, 2017. The movie takes viewers into the “wilds of China”, following three animal families – pandas, golden monkeys and snow leopards. We were invited to participate in a roundtable in Beverly Hills with producer Roy Conli, who is known for producing animated films for Disney (like Tangled and Big Hero 6). He gave some insights into making the documentary (and urged everyone to see the movie opening weekend, when a portion of the proceeds go to the WWF conservation fund to help pandas and snow leopards).
Conli was asked how they chose stories for the movie, and he said to that, “Essentially the animals give us their story”. He said that he’s worked mostly with animation, and that it was an interesting path because he’d never worked within this style setting before. With animation or any other movie, there tends to be storyboards and a script, but he felt it was more of working backwards to tell this story. Cinematographers journal all day, so the film is really just a history of what happened while focusing on a number of particular animals.
Conli praised director Chuan Lu as being a great storyteller, but said that cinematographers were the “unsung heroes” because they were on the set all the time (there are multiple cameras at any given time). Footaged is collected over about a year and a half, including from some very rugged places. Conli gave an example of Shane Moore, a cintematographer on the snow leopard unit at the Qinghai pleateau. Moore has been filming wildlife for over thirty years, so he brings a lot of experience to the film. The conditions were below zero much of the time during the shoot, 16,000 feet above sea level while living in an uninsulated shack. Moore did not get any footage of snow leopards until he’d been there 90 days. He was also on a journalist visa, which is only for 90 days – so he had to leave after that first snow leopard shot. It seems that filming got easier for him after that, as he understood more the path of the animal.
Working with snow leopards was different than working with monkeys, because “snow leopards are the most elusive animal on the planet”. Monkeys prefer to perform for the camera and are interested in what is going on. Moore started at 400 meters away from the snow leopards, and he was eventually able to get 40-50 meters (150 feet) from Dawa, the main snow leopard. Pandas are very solitary, so the cinematographers wore panda suits and added panda scent so they could get closer while still having to maintain a distance. (This should make very interesting bonus footage when it arrives to Blu-ray!)
Conli said that the film made China more aware of conservation. Born in China opens April 21st, and we recommend seeing this opening weekend! John Krasinski narrates.