Roy Conli Discusses Disneynature’s Born in China
For the past several years, Disneynature has been releasing a new documentary around Earth Day that discusses various species of animals from all across the world. Disneynature released its first documentary, Earth in 2009 and since 2009 has released a new nature-inspired documentary almost every year. Today, April 21, 2017, Disneynature has released it’s newest documentary, Born in China, into theaters here in the United States.
While doing press for Disney’s box office juggernaut Beauty and the Beast, I was invited to attend a very inclusive roundtable discussion with Roy Conli about Born in China. Roy, who has previously produced several other animated hits for Disney, was new to the world of Disneynature but spoke very highly about the experience as a whole. He shared with our group many interesting experiences from the experience as well as plenty of behind the scene secrets from the shoot.
Below you will find the information that Roy shared and be sure to check out and support Born in China in theaters because some of the film’s proceeds go to support the World Wildlife Foundation.
Question 1: How did you arrange the story with all these wild animals?
Roy Conli: Essentially, the animals give us their story. I generally work in animation, and animation has been an interesting path for me. I had never worked within this structure before, and when you’re working in animation, you start off with whole cloth. You start off with a script and you storyboard it and then you screen it and then you tweak it and you end up with an image.
In this particular case, you start with an image and you work backwards to kind of track what that story is. Fortunately, within this structure, you have these amazing cinematographers who are out in the field journaling literally everything that they see through the day. So you’re really getting the history of what happened on the set per day.
Now then you add to that this amazing director, and really probably the biggest reason I was really interested in working on this project, Lu Chuan. Lu Chuan is probably, I think, one of the greatest living Chinese directors, a great storyteller. He was on set some of the times, but you can’t be on set all the time because literally, we had multiple crews working throughout the country at any one time. So the unsung heroes here are those cinematographers. When they come back with the journals and the footage, we start putting together the story and start looking …
Now we also get footage over a year and a half period of time. The process is kind of fascinating. Shane Moore, who’s the cinematographer on the snow leopard unit, he went out. First of all, he’s going to one of the most inhospitable places on this planet. The Qinghai Plateau is 16,000 feet above sea level. It is often below zero. As you can see, it’s amazingly rugged and [refune 00:03:05] out there. He did not get any shots of show leopards until his 90th day.
So there were big conversations in Los Angeles and in Bristol and in Beijing: “Are we doing the right thing here? Is this going to happen?” To further compound that, he’s on a journalistic visa. It lasts for three months. So he had to actually leave the day after he got that first shot.
We spoke with Shane, thinking, “Okay, are we on a fool’s errand? Is this not what we should be doing? Should we be looking for another animal?” At that point, Shane, who has tracked big cats throughout the world, said, “No. I now know what their paths are.” There’s a whole process in terms of these cinematographers. They get to know their animals. So when you look at the magic of those stories, it’s those cinematographers that are really handing to it. They’re the unsung heroes.
Question 2: Speaking of the snow leopards, how devastating … What were your decisions on possibly showing that? Usually just to see nature movies, you’re like, “No, no. No one ever dies.”
Roy Conli: We talked a lot, but the feeling was that the investment in that story and how people fell in love with Dawa, it was important. I look at it and when we saw the outcome, we were all very emotional.
But I also, as a filmmaker, am not afraid of sharing that with kids. I kind of live by what I call the Pinocchio Principle. The first film I saw as a kid was Pinocchio, and I was terrified and I was scared and I cried, but I think I came out pretty healthy in the end. I think that in this particular case when you’re dealing with nature, you have, to be honest. You just have, to be honest.
I don’t think, given what kids see after eight o’clock at night on the television … This, I think, is healthier than probably anything that they will ever see.
Question 3: The cubs live though, right?
Roy Conli: Yeah. Let’s just say that.
Question 4: One thing that I really liked, especially in that shot, was the fact that it really does tell the story about nature. Birth, life, and then death, going back into the ground. For the cinematographers to be able to get that close and to get that type of footage, how was that balance between not trying to interfere with what nature is showing, but yet trying to get that shot?
Roy Conli: That’s a great question. First of all, we are committed to not interfering with nature. It gets a little hard with monkeys, because monkeys are so interested in you and they will actually perform for the camera, so in that case, you have to work to keep them away from you.
But with snow leopards, it’s the most elusive animal on this planet. Not only because they stay away from humanity, but because you can’t see them. Some of those shots still astound me. When we first looked and I was going, “Where is …? Oh, there’s the snow leopard.” So within the structure of that, Shane, who, as I said, shot big cats everywhere, started off at about 400 meters with incredible lenses and got shots.
Slowly but surely, as Dawa was becoming familiar with him and knew that he was not a threat, he was able to get closer and closer, til a couple of shots, he was able to get in at about 40-50 meters. That’s about 150 feet or so away. He knows what his limit is and at the same time, he didn’t want to overstep it.
The pandas. Sweet, lovable, beautiful, cute, 800 pounds. So a mother with her cub, you don’t want to get that close to. They are, as the film portrays, very solitary kind of animals. They like being alone. The cinematographers literally donned panda costumes, panda suits, and smeared themselves with panda scent, and they’d get closer than you would to the snow leopard, but you had to keep your distance.
It is the cinematographer who understands and these guys are brilliant. They’ve worked in the field and worked with animals. Some of these guys have been to Oxford and studied natural history for their entire life, so they know what they’re doing.
Question 5: I was going to ask you about the monkeys because I think over the credits, that was really interesting to watch everything that was happening. I saw the monkey in the camera. How difficult was something like that, trying to keep them away?
Roy Conli: First of all, they’re not a danger, and they’re pretty damn cute. But I think that they really tried to separate themselves using geography, sometimes. Every so often, if they saw and they knew you were there, they were going to come on over. Then again, there were times when they’d just go and hang with their … When Tao Tao was with the lost boys, breaking branches was a lot more fun than playing with the camera.
Question 6: With all the footage that you guys get … And the cinematographers being out there, obviously, with the pandas and the snow leopards, it was one family so it was easy to pick out which story to focus on. But with the monkeys, how did you guys determine Tao Tao would be the story that you were going to focus on?
Roy Conli: It’s interesting because I think for me, one of the things that we wanted to make sure was that we didn’t just have a mother-daughter or a mother-son story. A lot of times that’s the meat of our relationships in these films.
Initially, we were looking for that with the monkey shoot. We started getting footage back of this monkey that kept on trying to get back to his family. We were kind of taken with it, watching those reactions. That’s when, as we went through, it became clear that Tao Tao was telling us the story that we needed to tell.
The animals always tell us the story. We have a lot of footage of the baby sister with the mother, but Tao Tao was way more fascinating. One of the things that I love about this process is the animals are so reflective, in many ways, of our own being. This is a personal observation. This is not, by any means, a scientific observation. To see a little boy who felt ostracized or pushed out of his family, what little kid who hasn’t had a baby brother or sister hasn’t felt that way? You could really understand that.
Question 7: Fall in with the wrong guy, fall in with the wrong friends, right?
Roy Conli: Yeah. Exactly. I did that for a couple years!
Same thing with Ya Ya and Mei Mei. What mother isn’t a little concerned with her daughter or son going off into the world? To me, that’s really an amazing opportunity to reach to kids and to adults alike, and make them understand that we all live on one planet and we all are, in the long run, creatures that are trying to protect our family.
Question 8: Would you mind talking about John Krasinski‘s involvement? And about how he was chosen to narrate.
Roy Conli: Yeah. Actually, I was the one who suggested John. I knew we needed someone who could be dramatic, I knew we needed someone who could be heartfelt, and I knew we needed someone who could be comedic. I was looking and listening to voices and as soon as I was watching John, – or listening to John because you do divorce yourself from the face when you’re doing this – I understood that he was perfect for this. He’s a really, really good actor, and yet he’s an amazing comedian as well.
He has this amazing ability that I thought would pair with our writer David Fowler quite nicely. David has a very wonderful, subtle wit. If you’ve ever watched Krasinski, Krasinski’s wit is so good. I just said, “Okay, I think that’s a marriage that we’ll make.” That’s how that came about.
WLE Question 9: What’s the biggest struggle with making a documentary like this? You can’t really control the environment like you can with actors.
Roy Conli: For me, the biggest struggle is it’s on three continents. All right? My cinematography team is coming out of Bristol, England, my director is in Beijing, and I’m in Los Angeles. Essentially, I believe, there’s an eight-hour difference to London and a nine-hour difference on the other side. The only time we could all talk together was about 2 o’clock in the morning Los Angeles time. That’s not fun.
That aside, because that’s just logistics, I think the cinematographers who … You’ve got Shane Moore, who was living in a shack next to a little monastery up on the Qinghai Plateau with a team of maybe six, seven guys, uninsulated. You’re at 16,000 feet above sea level in an uninsulated shack that has one stove in the middle. They would leave before dawn and get back after dark and they would light a fire, and that was their heat for the night.
You’ve got Rolf Steinmann who you see in the end credits. He’s the one who’s doing the time lapse photography. Rolf was in areas that no Westerner has ever been. Those shots where the chiru are, Kifachili Lake and whatnot, that’s incredibly remote. He’s probably the roughest of them all. He would dig a hole in the ground, cover himself, and sit there and shoot for days, and sleep in that hole. It’s below zero every night, you know?
That’s probably the extreme physical condition that was the difficult part. Mine was more sleep deprivation.
Question 10: How about working with China and the government there? Were they fully welcoming of you?
Roy Conli: Yeah, they were totally cool. It was great because this was a co-production with Chuan Films and with Brian Leaf Productions, and the Chinese government was very, very happy about our interest in their wildlife.
In fact, we premiered the film in August in China, and they were so proud. It is the highest … What do they call it? The biggest box office of any nature film that they’ve ever had, the biggest box office of any documentary they’ve ever had. It was great to be there during that time because I met a lot of people, both civilian and government folk, who were just so proud of seeing this area that Westerners are just not aware of.
Most of the population of China lives along the coast. You get into the inland areas and even the Chinese don’t get in there that often. These are remote areas. You don’t take a vacation at 16,000 feet above sea level. This is the highest plateau on the planet. To share that, it was great.
What was really cool is that it actually started a dialogue with China about the preciousness of their wildlife and the importance of conservation, which is, I think, one of the great things that Disney Nature does. That’s why I would urge you to get your readers out to the film the first weekend, because that first weekend, a portion of all proceeds goes to the WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, and that money will be targeted specifically for snow leopard and pandas.
I’m so proud of the Disney company for what they’ve done on each one of these films. This is something that they’ve done from, I believe, the very first film. Right now, the company has helped support 130,000 acres of chimpanzee reserve in Africa, 65,000 acres of wildlife reserve on the Serengeti. They’ve got 400,000 acres at U.S. National Parks where we’ve got, basically, grants to help 75 both animal and plant life species that are shrinking. We’ve got a 40,000-acre marine reserve in the Bahamas. Anyone who goes that first week will be contributing to the betterment of this world.
Question 11: When I was reading through some of the press materials on the media file site, it kind of mentioned that the chiru populations are dwindling due to, I think, hunting, and then the pandas, it was estimated less than 2,000 left in the wild. The narrative of Born in China doesn’t mention that at all. Was there a conscious decision to not?
Roy Conli: Actually what’s really cool is the chiru population … One of the reasons that Lu Chuan was chosen to direct, he directed a film called, I think the English translation is ‘Mountain patrol.’
It is about a group of citizens who take up arms and protect the chiru population. Because they actually live in the highest regions of the world, they have the warmest fur of any creature. Since that film, chiru populations have increased significantly. I’ve been a member of the Snow Leopard Trust for many years. My wife actually pulled me into it, and the Snow Leopard Trust and the World Wildlife Fund both have programs that are really helping the population of snow leopards.
One of the biggest issues with snow leopards was human encroachment, the fact that they attack wildlife. What they have set up is systems in which they will pay herders for the wildlife that may be taken. The snow leopard is actually rebounding to a degree. I believe there’s 3500 left and it seems to be stabilizing.
Pandas, too, seem to be stabilizing. I was lucky enough to be at the panda shoot and be able to see what they do. I went in Chengdu, which is in the central China, there’s a reserve there. To walk in and see, literally, they are this big, in the incubators. Then you go to the next room where there’s the nursery and they’re this big, and there’s two dozen of them crawling around.
I do think that part of the importance of Disney Nature is to educate. It’s to inspire and to entertain. I think you call awareness to it by entertaining and not necessarily by preaching. That’s kind of our philosophy.
Question 12: So are you going to produce more Disneynature films? Or are you going back to do bigger scale projects?
Roy Conli: I will not leave animation, because that is a love and I’ve got, actually, two projects I’m working on right now. I am helping out on another Disney Nature right now. I’m not really producing this one, I’m kind of helping out in terms of structure.
I will come back and do another one of these. I’d love to produce another one of these, only because I think it’s so important. And the message that it should share and how it … Look, I know how I felt when I was a kid because I watched Walt Disney’s original True Life Adventures. Between ’48 and ’60, he produced 13 True Life Adventures and won eight Academy Awards for them. Those things were repurposed all the way into the ’70s on Wonderful World of Disney. I saw these things and for a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, this was my introduction to nature. This is how I learned about nature and how I became passionate and got into backpacking and all that kind of stuff because you fall in love with what the world has to offer.
So yeah, I’ll do another one of these. I’ll fit them in between my projects.
Disneynature’s Born in China is now playing in theaters everywhere throughout the United States.