Oscar-winning producer Roy Conli has worked on many major Walt Disney films, but Born in China is his first in the Disneynature series. It takes place in the breathtaking vistas of the Qinghai Plateau in China, which is home to species such as Snow Leopards, Giant Pandas, Chiru (Tibetan Antelopes) and Golden Monkeys, all of whom we meet in the movie.
The movie opens this Friday, April 21 and a portion of all tickets sold during the movie’s opening week will be going to the World Wildlife Fund for the conservation of Pandas and Snow Leopards.
Filming Born in China must have been such a massive undertaking. How did you decide to focus on animals of China?
Well, the legacy of this goes back to Walt Disney himself, who started True-Life Adventures back in 1948. I am of a certain age (laughs) that I remember seeing these things as a kid through the 1960s and ‘70s because they would repurpose them for [the TV series] The Wonderful World of Disney. That was really how I learned about nature, coming from the suburbs of Los Angeles. From 2008 we have been in every continent essentially but we really felt that we had not spent any time at all in China. We knew that China had a massive amount of wildlife that Westerners had never had options to see and we also knew that it had animals that were absolutely compelling and fascinating. We decided that this would be a great opportunity to share this part of China. Little did we know that many people in China haven’t even seen some of these areas because they are in fact the most remote places on Earth.
That was something I wanted to ask about because we never see any people in these areas during the movie.
That’s interesting because the Qinghai Plateau, where the Snow Leopards are and where you see the Chiru, that’s the highest plateau on the planet. It’s 16,000 feet above snow level and we were the first Western film crew to have gone in there to film. During the summer, shepherds from nearby communities allow their flocks of yak and sheep to go up there to graze, and obviously these guys live up in that altitude so they’re very comfortable, but for our film crews it took eight days from Beijing to get up there because acclimating to that height is very difficult.
Did you do any research about these animals before filming?
Research is a huge component of this and my director, Lu Chuan, who is a phenomenal artist in his own right and generally works in live action — this was his first nature documentary — he was quite familiar with the Chiru because of a film he made about 10 years ago called Kekexili: Mountain Patrol. It was about the Chiru and a group of locals who actually stopped the poaching of these animals. The Chiru were near extinction and if not for these amazing people who stopped the poaching, we could have lost them.
Were there animal experts on hand to advise how to approach the animals?
Essentially, yes, going into it you work with the experts and the biologists and natural historians just in terms of who the animal is. But also, when you hire cinematographers to do this kind of filming, they’re experts in their fields. For the Snow Leopard, for instance, a fellow by the name of Shane Moore was the cinematographer. Shane is from Wyoming and he’s been doing this since he was 13 years old and now he’s shot big cats in every continent. He’s worked in Africa, in North America, South America and for him, this was going to be the penultimate challenge because probably the most elusive animal on this planet is the Snow Leopard.
Paul Stewart, who did the Panda and the Red-Crowned Crane is an expert at camouflage, because with both those animals they’re very skittish around humans. When they were filming the pandas, they would don panda suits and smear themselves with panda scent. You can imagine what panda scent is made of (laughs). Same thing with the cranes. The cranes are amazingly skittish.
Whereas the monkeys, Justin Maguire who was the cinematographer, is an expert with simians. He’s filmed monkeys all over the world. In one sense, you could say he has the simplest job, because the monkeys love to perform and they love to interact, but then he has one of the most difficult jobs because he also has to detach himself from them because one of the rules we film under is that we do not in any way affect the behavior of the animals. Whatever happens in the field, we’re documenting, we’re not in any way trying to put a scene together. The dramatic core of this piece is derived from the stories the animals give us themselves.
What was it about these animals that most surprised you?
For me, the Snow Leopard story is probably the most touching and understanding the fact that when we started shooting them we were probably around 400 metres away from them and as the cinematographer became more and more well known to the animal they actually allowed them within 40 metres. We’re the first film team to have ever filmed wild Snow Leopard cubs. There’s no footage in the world of them. We were able to get within about 300 feet of the mother when she had the cubs but if the mother was alone, she would let us in about 120 feet.
Which of these animals was your favorite?
That’s a good question. Each of these animals becomes part of your heart but I think my favorite story in the film is the Snow Leopard story and my favorite moment in the film is when the Chiru gives birth. That little moment within the film always touches my heart.
What was the most difficult aspect of filming? Was it trying to stay warm during the winter months?
Each of the film crews had their own difficulty, but Rolf Steinmann, who was the cinematographer for the Chiru — you see him at the end of the film, he’s the one who’s trying to get the time lapse shot — he digs a hole in the ground about a metre and a half wide around and he sits in that and covers himself with tundra and then stays there sometimes for weeks, just filming. These guys are, I would say, monks of cinema. They go out and they’re really passionate about getting the best shot they possibly can.
Many of these animals are endangered, what can people do to help them?
What Disneynature does during the first week of release, is that a portion of all ticket sales will be going to the World Wildlife Fund. And they will be focusing that donation towards the conservation of Pandas and Snow Leopards. It’s so important. Tell everyone to go out that first week to see the film because we’ve done such amazing great films — they’ve done this with every film and the focus on this one is Pandas and Snow Leopards.
Born in China opens this Friday, April 21 — make sure to see it by Thursday April 27 to be a part of helping Snow Leopards and Giant Pandas through the World Wildlife Fund. ~Alexandra Heilbron