For director Lu Chuan and producer Roy Conli, the Disneynature feature Born in China represents an enormous amount of preparation and production, with multiple crews enduring the harsh environment of western China to photograph rarely seen wildlife. Following the stories of three separate animal families, the film intercuts among a panda bear mother as she guides her growing female baby, a two-year-old snub-nosed monkey displaced in his family by a new baby sister, and, lastly and most uniquely, a mother snow leopard raising her two cubs in one of the most unforgiving of earth’s environments.
According to Conli, one prerequisite for filming in this rarely seen part of the planet involved getting special permits from the Chinese government. “Chuan made sure it moved smoothly,” he said. “We have phenomenal cinematographers who have tracked big cats and photographed them all over the word. Paul Stewart is an expert in working with skittish animals – pandas. Justin Maguire, who did the monkeys, knows how to deal with them. That’s so incredibly different than what a snow leopard would do. With Shane Moore in the Qinghai plateau doing the snow leopards, he had to
create a trust to get within 120 feet.”
Chuan explained how the group of three cinematographers plus other filmmakers captured 500 hours of footage for 75 minutes of screen time. “We spent almost one year to work out the whole movie, and about a-year-and-a-half in the field. Shane was in the field for 253 days; he was 90 days in for his first shot of a snow leopard. He got his first shot, then had to leave the country and renew his visa to come back. In Burbank, we are trying to figure out, ‘Will this work for us?’ He figured out how the animal thinks.”
With five teams in the field simultaneously, plus one team focused on aerial photography, each shooting over a-year-and-a-half, Born in China was as mammoth an undertaking, if not more, than any narrative feature. Chuan explained how it was cheaper to purchase the latest version of the Arri Alexa than to rent it for 18 months. “The lenses were two feet long,” he said. “We started shooting at 1200 feet away. [The snow leopard is] the most elusive animal on this planet. When the mother was with the cubs, he got 100 meters away.”
Small remote-control cameras were used for intimate shots inside of the animals’ dens. For the panda sequences, Chuan, who became a father during production, wondered, “How can I compose the story and put the footage together to make a dramatic story?” While he was editing the panda storyline, Chuan saw his wife feeding his newborn child. “My wife looks like the panda mother,” he said. “I went back to the editing room and watched the panda footage again — the power can melt my heart. I just followed my feeling to re-edit my part, and you see a quite different story.”
Conli noted that Chuan became a different filmmaker during production. He also explained how Stewart would don panda suits and his crew would smother themselves in Panda scent in order to get as close as they could to the 800-pound animal.
The final result in Born in China is a stunning onscreen account of exotic animals rarely if ever seen by most humans, even rugged adventurists. As with every Disneynature True Life Adventure, a portion of all the Born in China proceeds will be donated to the World Wildlife Fund for the conservation of pandas and snow leopards in the wild.
Born in China will be playing at Disney’s El Capitan Theater in Hollywood from April 21 to April 30 only and will be in general release in other theaters from April 21 onward.