Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Challenges of 'Chimpanzee'

Chimpanzee's principal photographer Martyn Colbeck
You can't watch the home video release of  Disneynature's Chimpanzee without gaining an incredible respect for the talent and grit of its film makers. Take time to view On Location: The Making of 'Chimpanzee' on the Blu-ray disc and you'll witness firsthand the extreme conditions they had to endure just to capture a few seconds of usable footage each day. High humidity, torrential rain, relentless swarms of bees and all manner of poisonous snakes and insects were standard issue during the more than three years it took to film Chimpanzee in the remote rain forests of the République de Côte-d’Ivoire. Camera crews would often trudge for hours carrying heavy equipment through dense vegetation just to get to where the chimpanzees lived. Chimpanzee was a difficult, but rewarding, passion project for this committed group of professionals. As principal photographer Martyn Colbeck noted, "There must be easier ways to make a living, but they're not as much fun."

It was definitely not easy, but the results were exquisite. Chimpanzee is a stunningly beautiful film and the most emotionally compelling entry in the Disneynature series.

The documentary focuses on young Oscar, a baby chimpanzee being raised by his mother, Isha, among a group of chimps led and protected by the strong and dominant Freddy. Oscar is every bit as playful and high-spirited as his mother is doting and responsible. And he's also pretty darn cute. With his mother's guidance, Oscar learns the ways of the rain forest--how to forage for food, how to crack open the nuts that are the staple of their diet, and how to remain safe from predators. It's a largely idyllic existence. They eat, they frolic and play, groom, repeat. That is, until a rival group of chimpanzees challenges Freddy's turf and brings tragedy upon poor Oscar.

In wildlife documentaries, it's never enough to just find a group of animals, set up your tripod and start shooting. There needs to be a story to tell, with a helpful twist of fate or two to bring the story to life. And then, the camera has to be there to record it. There are no second takes in nature. When Isha was killed, director Alastair Fothergill thought his film was through. Unprotected in the wild, Oscar wasn't expected to survive. And without him, there was no story. "We thought the film was over," said Fothergill. "We were about to ring up Disney and say, 'Guys, we haven't got a movie.'"

Then something remarkable happened. Freddy began looking after Oscar, an act rarely scene among chimpanzees and never before caught on film. Here was the alpha male of the group essentially adopting the young chimp and caring for him as his own. Freddy protected Oscar, groomed him and made sure he was fed. And the cameras caught every moment of it.

These are very sweet, very tender and very real moments that give Chimpanzee its life. Certainly, there are gorgeous wide shots of the lush green rain forest (the tracking shots of the forest canopy from specially-designed cable rigs are amazing), but it's when the cameras get down to ground level amid both the serenity and chaos of chimpanzee life that special things happen. It's proof that even with the determination of talented film makers in a harsh natural environment, sometimes it's still better to be lucky than good.

A clip from The Heart of Chimpanzee Blu-ray bonus feature:

Chimpanzee is available now on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Packs and digital download. Make your purchase by August 27 and Disney will donate a portion of the sale to the Jane Goodall Institute to help save chimpanzees in the wild.

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