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EARTH from DisneyNature – Director’s Roundtable

Director Alastair Fothergill took part in a Virtual Roundtable for DisneyNature’s EARTH today. They also showed the ‘Earth Diaries” film that will be a special feature on the Blu-Ray Disc. It took over 5 years to complete the film, so there is a lot of territory covered in the feature, but it really lets the creators put some umph behind what is otherwise just the story of the movie.

The next two films Fothergill is working on for DisneyNature are Big Cats, projected to release early in 2012, and Chimpanzee, which should arrive early in 2013.

For those interested in the nitty gritty, I’ve included the full transcript below.

Q: How did you get into Disney Nature? Was it planned to release Earth like this?

Alastair Fothergill: Earth was originally produced by BBC Worldwide,the commercial arm of the BBC, who did deals with different distributors in Europe and Japan. We were delighted that when Disney launched their new label Disney Nature they decided to acquire the rights for the US. We re-edited the movie slightly for the US audience and recorded a new narration with James Earl Jones.

Q: What’s the difference between working on “Planet Earth” and on Disney Nature’s Earth?

Alastair Fothergill: The main difference is the fact that people go to the cinema for a very different experience than they want from a television documentary. They expect a strong narrative,an emotional experience, to escape their everyday lives. We know the images we were filming would work brilliantly on the big screen and we were fortunate that the movie was commissioned at the very start of our work on the TV series. All the time I was looking to tell a clear story through the eyes of our three key characters.

Q: Making the production for release in the U.S. by Disney, how did you balance the grim reality of nature with a family-friendly story. (In other words, how did you plan to cover the more violent scenes?)

Alastair Fothergill: From the very start we were aware that Earth contain some powerful scenes that might upset a younger audience. We were very careful with the editing to cut away at just the right moment and we tried when ever possible to put the predation in context. We had no complaints either in the US or anywhere else worldwide.

Q: Could you speak about why you chose the story of the sun and the three animals as the narrative?

Alastair Fothergill: Earth was a portrait of the whole planet and we needed a story-line that would unite the whole planet. The sun’s journey does just that but also has enormous emotional resonance to all of us who experience the seasonal cycle each year. The three characters took us on that journey-the polar bear in the north,the elephant in the tropics and the humpbacked whale from the tropics to Antarctica.

Q: What was your favorite country to film in?

Alastair Fothergill: I am particularly fond of the frozen north and Svalbard and to get warm again-Botswana and the Okavango delta.

Q: What did you achieve with “Earth” that you believe sets it apart from other nature documentaries? It has to be an incredible challenge to come up with fresh material.

Alastair Fothergill: I think Earth’s key achievement compared with other nature docs for the cinema was its scale. We wanted to do the “epic” nature film. Films like Marching With Penguins have been played out on a far smaller canvas.

Q: Did you have any idea that the MOVIE would be as successful as it was?

Alastair Fothergill: No -I do not think you can ever be sure particularly if the movie is not well marketed. Global Earth has now done a box office of around 110M$ which is very pleasing.

Q: How did you attempt to differentiate Disney’s Earth from Planet Earth?

Alastair Fothergill: Over 30% original footage , a completely new and different story-line centered round three key characters,a new score and new narration etc.

Q: How close to death did you feel in the face of the polar bears? Did any one ever get seriously hurt?

Alastair Fothergill: Polar bears are one of the very few animals that actively want to eat you so you have to treat them with immense respect. As you saw from the behind the scenes we were well armed with flares,pepper spray and ultimately a powerful rifle or pistol. More importantly we work with people who know polar bears very well .I am proud we never had to shoot at a bear.

Q: The visual presentation of “Earth” on Blu-ray is stunning. Even though you were there and had the best view of all of us, were you still taken aback by the film’s amazing look and sound in the format? It has to be as close to the real thing as it gets.

Alastair Fothergill: We were delighted with the picture quality on the big screen particularly considering the enormous number of different formats we shot on-an enormous amount of post production went into achieving that uniform high quality. The sound track was completely new because we wanted to take full advantage of the surround sound you get in cinema to completely submerge our audience in the natural world.

Q: Do you plan on working more with Disney Nature?

Alastair Fothergill: I am delighted to be working on two new movies for Disney Nature-one on the Big Cats in East Africa-the other on chimpanzees.

Q: How often did you record live production sound, and how often did you rely on looping and foley for the soundtrack?

Alastair Fothergill: We always try and record as much natural sound as possible. However microphones do not have the magnifying power of the powerful lens we use to bring the animals “closer too us” . This means that for close up sounds like the footsteps of polar bears in the snow we do use foleys.

Q: With such a long production schedule, did you have a plan for the “story,” or did you just let things unfold?

Alastair Fothergill: We had a strong story-line and detailed script from the start. However animals of course do not read the script and we were constantly making small changes as we went along. However we were pleased that the basic story-line did last pretty well unchanged right until the end.

Q: You said you had five years of filming. How much of that time was spent just setting up and waiting for the shot and how much resulted in usable footage?

Alastair Fothergill: A team of over thirty people worked to help set up the shoots. In all we spent a record 2000 days in the field and only about one in every 200 shots we filmed made it into the final cut.

Q: On Earth you worked with Mr Mark Linfield. Are you two working together again? How was it like? Tell us a little about this partnership, please.

Alastair Fothergill: Mark was not only my co-director on the movie but also a producer on the Planet Earth TV series. We work very well together and have different strengths.

Q: In the ‘extras;’ infrared lions sequence, what protections were taken against attack?

Alastair Fothergill: We took no real protections. It is an amazing fact that lions very rarely jump onto open vehicles -if you were to walk out in the open it would be a different matter and they would probably attack you. The real danger on that shoot was very upset elephant mothers who could hardly see in the darkness smashing into our vehicles.

Q: Did you look to some of the Disney nature documentaries from the 60s and 70s for inspiration in making Disneynature Earth?

Alastair Fothergill: I found those early movies very inspirational as a child but we did not look at them again while making Earth.

Q: When did you start working with BBC and how things evolved into what you achieved today?

Alastair Fothergill: I joined the BBC Natural History Unit nearly 26 years ago and have worked on a wide variety of programs-many with David Attenborough. I first became involved with cinema when my TV series on the oceans, Blue Planet , was turned into the movie Deep Blue.

Q: Is there any other project you initiated on BBC and you plan on taking it to Disney Nature?

Alastair Fothergill: No-the new movies I am working on for Disney Nature are original commissions with not relationship to TV series which I am very pleased about.

Q: Which of the three animals featured in the film was the most difficult/challenging to shoot?

Alastair Fothergill: They were all challenging in different ways. Working in very extreme conditions always makes filming polar bears difficult. The aerial images of all three characters were totally new and very tricky.

Q: The introduction gave us a wonderful look at how involved the filmmaking process is, and of the potential dangers; whether it be trying to capture a polar bear on film up close, or when you’re ballooning in order to get overhead shots. When such peril is involved, how difficult is it to sell the idea to get the film made?

Alastair Fothergill: To be honest those that kindly commission a TV series or movie have little knowledge of the dangers involved. That is where our specialist knowledge comes in. We are in fact very careful about all safety issues and only work with very experienced field people. Animals are very rarely dangerous.I always a say the most dangerous part of our work is driving to the airport on British motorways.

Q: I’m certain you need to expect the unexpected when going into a project like “Earth.” But were there any moments during filming that you truly did not expect?

Alastair Fothergill: Animals always produce the unexpected and there were many such occasions while making Earth. The skill is to turn those to your advantage. A good example would be the dust storm that occurred while we were filming the elephants in Botswana.It almost caused the helicopter to crash. It also provided us with a wonderful new story twist of the elephants forgetting lost in the storm.

Q: You mention that this might have been the LAST TIME this doc might be made. Why?

Alastair Fothergill: Two main reasons-firstly I think it very unlikely that anyone will get the chance we had to throw so many resources at one project. And secondly-our world is changing very quickly-particularly in the polar regions where we filmed the polar bear and humpback whales.

Q: There’s a tendency in all films — docs and narrative features — to anthopormorphize animals. You’ve done so here, by designating three lead ‘characters’ on/in Earth. Why is this necessary? And, in docs, do you this is misleading and misrepresents — fictionalizes –animal behavior? As a rule, Disney anthropormorphizes frequently — ranging from Mickey and Minnie to your Earth . Who;s idea was the anthropomorphism for Earth?

Alastair Fothergill: I disagree with you that Earth anthropomorphizes its stars and certainly all the behavior we filmed was accurate and in no way misleading. Yes we looked for a strong story-line that we hoped would emotionally involve our audience. Yes we choose key characters that we felt would have emotional power with the audience -but that does not mean we anthropomorphized them. I believe strongly that there are such powerful new stories in nature that we all we need to do is tell them straight -and I know this is the philosophy behind Disney Nature.

Q: What was the hardest scene for you to personally film?

Alastair Fothergill: Although I was not there myself I know that filming the dying male polar bear ,fatally wounded by the walrus, was a very difficult thing for the cameraman involved.

Q: Do you feel that films such as this make a difference in public opinion about conservation?

Alastair Fothergill: Earth very deliberately did not have a heavy environmental message.I do not believe people go to the cinema to be told off! However I do know that films like Earth do a get deal to raise peoples’ awareness of the natural world. Most of us live an increasingly urban life and will never see the animals or places shown in Earth-if you have never seen them, it is difficult to see how you can care.

Q: You studied zoology in school, what was your original intended career? When did you realize that your interest in animals would translate to a filmmaker with animals as a subject matter?

Alastair Fothergill: I studied Zoology because I had a passion for animals and the natural world. I thought about becoming a research biologists but at University made a film about a trip a few friends and I made to the Okavango swamps in Botswana. I know then that I wanted to share my passion for the natural world via the medium of film and television.

Q: On Svalbard, what support did you have from the Norwegian government?

Alastair Fothergill: The government gave us access to Kong Karls Land-a very remote island that nobody had visited for twenty five years. They had closed the island because it has a very high density of denning polar bears. This enormously increased our chances of filming the magic moment when the cubs first emerge into the day light.

Q: How much equipment did you invent or inventively adapt to be able to film as you did? What were the inventions, adaptations? Are you making them available to other filmmakers?

Alastair Fothergill: The key piece of equipment was the cineflex aerial camera stabilization system which allowed us to use lens four times more powerful than had ever been used before. This allowed us to fly four times higher and still get the close ups we needed.In this way we filmed completely new animal behavior like the wolf hunt or swimming male polar bear. We also used a very high speed HD camera,running at 1000 fps,to film action like the great white shark and the hunting cheetah. Both these technologies are now being used by other producers at the BBC Natural History Unit.

Q: With climate change as such a hot political topic of debate, how do you tackle your films- do you represent or endorse one side of the issue or the other? Or do you try to stay neutral? How do you set about achieving either of these in production?

Alastair Fothergill: I have absolutely no doubt that climate change is happening. But earth was not a heavy environmental film-it was not “An Inconvenient Truth”. Rather we made our message a subtile one which-in my view-can be even more powerful.

Q: Can you describe your experience shooting in HD 35mm as opposed to the other formats you’ve shot in previously?

Alastair Fothergill: We sadly can not use 35mm HD-such a large chip means the lens we use are simply not powerful enough for our needs. 35mm HD cameras are really only suitable for controlled studio situations. We used Panasonic Varicam cameras and the Sony equivalents. That meant our start resolution was lower than we might have liked but we worked very hard to ensure the final picture quality was exceptional.

Q: What do you prefer: cinema or TV? What do you think about the increasing audience of documentary movies?

Alastair Fothergill: If love the two different mediums for different reasons. Television allows you to make long series like Planet earth which week after week on television and later on DVD,can really engage an audience. Cinema is wonderful because the images look so wonderful on the big screen and the surround sound is such a powerful part of the experience. I am delighted that audience seems to be growing but we must work hard to keep up the quality.

Q: Is there a projected timeframe for when we can expect to see BIG CATS and CHIMPANZEE released? Also, will they be storylined as well?

Alastair Fothergill: Although this is far from confirm we expect Big Cats to release early in 2012 and Chimpanzee early in 2013. Both films have very strong story-lines and we have particularly chosen these stars because we know they will be very engaging.

Q: Have you encountered any animals that have proven almost impossible to shoot?

Alastair Fothergill: In my whole career I have tried twice to film the Giant Squid-the largest invertebrate in the sea and then size of a London bus. This giant remains totally unfilmed in the wild.


2 thoughts on “EARTH from DisneyNature – Director’s Roundtable”

  1. Pingback: DisneyNature: Earth on Blu-ray and DVD — The Disney Blog

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