born in china

DisneyNature has been continuing the tradition Walt Disney started many years ago of producing animal documentaries filled with story, excitement, adventure, and fun. Their latest release, Born in China, ventures into the wilds of China to capture intimate moments with a panda and her growing cub, a young golden monkey who feels displaced by his baby sister, and a mother snow leopard struggling to raise her two cubs.

Whenever I’m watching a DisneyNature film, I sit there wondering how they create these films. The subjects are not as predictable and are much harder to photograph than the subjects of a traditional documentary. Are the stories crafted before the filmmakers head out into the wilds? Or is a narrative constructed in the editing room?

Last month, I talked with Born in China producer Roy Conli to find out the answers to these questions. Conli also serves on the Walt Disney Animation Studios Story Trust and has also produced films ranging from Treasure Planet to Frozen to Big Hero 6. As you’d expect, the nature documentary process is fascinating. Did you know that it took them 90 days to even get the first shot of the cubs in this movie? We discuss that and more in our Born in China interview.

Born in China Interview: Roy Conli

disney nature

Peter Sciretta: I’m really interested to learn how these Disney nature films are made.  Because it seems to me that this is a much different process than a normal documentary…

Roy Conlu: Yeah, well it’s interesting because this is the first one I’ve been involved with.  And it’s been a great journey.  The idea on this was that we wanted to explore China as a region.  And as opposed to the other films up to this point, we wanted to do multiple animals.  And then so I think we follow all the kind of documentary rules of shooting in the sense that we do not interact with the actual unveiling or unreeling of nature.  But we keep massive journals.  The cinematographers, who are really the heroes of these films, keep massive journals of the behavior and the relationships that they’re seeing.  And then from that, we are able to kind of derive what the storyline is.  So in a weird way, the animals give us the story.

So when the idea of Born In China came up, did you guys narrow down the specific animals you wanted to feature? 

We actually sent multiple crews out.  We looked at certain animals that didn’t actually end up in the film.

Yeah, there’s some stuff in the credits that seems to suggest some of the–

Yeah, absolutely. You see the credits. You’ll see we followed some wolves.  We followed the snow leopards.  We actually had a crew filming elephants in Southern China.  There’s actually elephants that actually live in that area.  But what happens is as these stories evolve, the film crews are getting footage to you with their journals.  And we as a team are starting to craft a story and start culling through the massive amount of footage that comes in.  And then these are filmed over a year and a half period over multiple visits.

And so the next time you get the next shipment of film in, that story may change, or it will open a new avenue that you kind of follow.  I think an excellent example of that is Tao-Tao, the story of the monkey.  ‘Cause it originally as many of these films do, we were going to follow the sister, the baby and the mother.  And follow kind of the first year and a half of a baby’s life.

Our cinematographer Paul Stewart started being absolutely fascinated by Tao-Tao, the brother.  And seeing how the brother was falling into the whole lost boy situation.  Which from a natural history standpoint, is a regular activity within these tribes, these monkey tribes.  But then he followed this monkey and was seeing that he kept on trying to come back to the family.  And that became a much more compelling story than the sister.

And it also gave us an opportunity to expand the storytelling ’cause if you have two stories of kind of mother-daughter and mother-cub relationship and then that third story then became a brother-sister relationship that really ties into I think a huge, universal thematic.  Who doesn’t know a kid who is all of a sudden visited by a younger sibling and then pushed out and feeling somewhat on the side.  So from a connection standpoint and from a kind of familial perspective, it was a great story that we could tell.

Born In China

With documentaries, the filmmakers go in, they’ve narrowed down the subjects and they have an idea of the outline of what they’re hoping is going to happen.  But things change.  Does that happen going into this? Do you have an idea of a story and then it evolves?  Or is it just like “we’re going to get the footage and we’ll figure out the story as it happens”?

I think it evolves from the animals themselves.  We certainly know behaviors are going in.  It’s interesting because I would refer to these as true life adventures as opposed to documentaries.  Only in the sense that the narrative itself is a major component to what I think the mandate of DisneyNature is.  We wanna educate.  We want to inspire.  And we want to entertain.  And we feel that that entertainment element of it, that telling the story that is going to capture the heart, the imagination of both kids and adults is going to get people more aware of the natural world than if it’s more clinical in a sense, you know?

Yeah.

But I would say that the story as we go into it, we know behaviors, we are aware of the relationships.  But no one has ever filmed snow leopard cubs before.  That’s there’s no film of snow leopard cubs.  So it’s kind of hard to tell a story until you actually get up there and get that on screen.  When we found that we were able to track this family, it opened new doors to us.  ‘Cause we had an idea of snow leopard behavior, but we’d never actually seen this or it had never been documented before.

So Shane Moore came on as the cinematographer and has filmed big cats all over the world.  He’s actually from Wyoming.  And he’s done the Rockies, and he’s done Africa, and he’s done South America.  But in China, the idea of doing a snow leopard was something that he jumped at because they are the most elusive cat in the world.  Not only are they hard to track, but they’re hard to see even if they’re standing in front of you.  And they blend right into the rock.  So to him, the first goal that he had regarding filming them was to actually figure out their behavior, what their packs were, where they congregated, where their hunting trails were.  And he does this by doing a series of what we call camera traps.

He had about two dozen cameras that record digital imagery in a very kind of low res feel and he glimpses those so that on a daily basis they can pick them up, go back and survey what may have walked by that particular location.  When you hit something, you know you have it.  And when he hit the cubs, and he saw that there were cubs in the area, he was overjoyed.  Unfortunately, he didn’t get a shot of those cubs until 90 days into his shoot.

born in china

Wow. That’s a long time to find your characters.

Yeah.  Oh, it’s this is mind boggling.  And we’re back in Los Angeles and in Bristol and in Beijing where we’ve got Phil Chapman and Brian Leith of Brian Leith Productions overseeing the cinematographers.  And then Chuan is managing the whole editing process.  We were having conversations whether we were on a fool’s errand or not.  And thank goodness Shane Moore urged us, he said, I’ve got this figured out.  I know what’s going on.  And it was through persistence that we got this amazing footage.  So we now have more footage of snow leopards and the only footage of snow leopard cubs that exists.  And it’s and out of that is where your story comes, because there was no way to tell that we were going to get actual cubs.

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