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Born in China: Roy Conli on Making the Newest Disneynature Film

Born in China opened this Friday and we recently got a chance to chat with producer Roy Conli about how Disneynature gets us up close and personal with the natural world. This is pretty cool, guys! If you see the film this weekend, a portion of all proceeds go to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), with the funds earmarked for helping snow leopards and pandas.

Roy Conli, (TangledBig Hero 6) makes a jump from animation to live-action producing with director Lu Chaun’s animal adventure Born in China. “Animation is my field. I feel that this type of storytelling though quite different than animation is so incredibly important and strong. You start with an image and you work back and somewhere you meet in the middle and you create the story.” He continued, “You’ve got these amazing cinematographers who are out in some of the most remote  places in the world, filming this stuff and journaling everything they’re seeing. Lu Chuan spent a lot of time on location but you can’t be everywhere. There’s a crew for the snow leopards. There’s a crew for the monkeys. It’s all over the place. You depend on those incredible cinematographers to feed you the information you need to tell that true life adventure.”

Centering on the lives of pandas, the snub-nosed monkey and snow leopards of China, audiences are invited to get an up close look at a part of the wild that is rarely seen. The lengths that the crew had to go to was an adventure itself. Conli explained, “Shane Moore, who was the cinematographer for the snow leopard, he spent 253 days shooting over four trips, over six seasons. You know, he was living in a little shack next to a monastery with his small team. They would shoot straight. They really track these animals to understand their movement and what their thoughts are. Same with the pandas. Pandas are incredibly isolated so, what they cinematographers on that crew did was don panda suits, and put panda scent on, and stayed a significant distance away.”

Conli recalled how the monkeys started to become aware of this fact. “One of the things you need to do when working with monkeys is distance yourself, because you don’t want them to become too familiar, because then all of a sudden, you’re doing the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do, which is let nature take its course. They want to involve you in their tribe.” He laughed, but stressed that they wanted to keep the core of the monkey story to family, and not about them realizing they were being watched, “Chuan is a master storyteller. He was a kindred spirit and as we were watching the footage, that story became very important to us. In this particular case, it was a brother and sister relationship that we were able to talk about–and who hasn’t, if you have a younger sibling. In the structure, I think Disneynature has an inspirational and educational mandate and that’s encompassed in the entertaining mandate. So when you look at that story, you start to understand humanity in a sense as well. The animals give us the story. It’s a great process.”

The film took a few years to make, and quite a while for them to capture. They didn’t shy away from the more heartbreaking moments. “Its part of life. We won’t go in and alter what’s happening in nature,” Conli said. He spoke about the need to be hands off with the filming, even when it was hard. “It’s incredibly beautiful and necessary to protect. That’s how we have to be. You cannot go in and do something that’s gonna upset the balance of nature. I’m a crier. I cry at the same moments at the same time all the time. We saw this footage and were all crying. I think that we’re servicing the audience and servicing nature by doing the right thing.”

Born in China is in theaters now.



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Sabina Ibarra

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