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Born to be Wild IMAX 3D – Director David Lickley and writer Drew Fellman on the logistically complicated shoot

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Born to be Wild - Morgan Freeman
Director David Lickley with an Elephant © 2011 Warner Bros, Photo by Drew Fellman

David Lickley is a scientist-turned-filmmaker, with over 30 nature films and science documentaries to his credit, directing such titles as Gold Fever, Bears and Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees.

Drew Fellman met his first orphaned orangutan in Borneo while traveling through Indonesia in 1994. Ever since then he has dreamed of bringing their story to the BIG screen – along with David Lickley, 17 years later, he has with his new IMAX 3D movie Born to be Wild.

Fellman and Lickley follow the stories of two incredible women, Dr Birute Mary Galdikas, who rescues orphaned orangutans in Borneo, and Dr Dame Daphne M Sheldrick, who saves baby elephants in Kenya.

David Lickley and Drew Fellman spoke with me about their stunningly beautiful new movie.

How hard was it to shoot this in IMAX and 3D?

Born to be Wild -  Writer Drew Fellman
Writer Drew Fellman with an orangutan in Borneo © 2011 Warner Bros

Drew Fellman: It was insane. Borneo was by far logistically much more complicated that Kenya, because a lot of the travel was on boats into very remote jungle locations. We actually had to transport 30,000 pounds of gear in small boats, up river into Borneo, hand carry everything into the jungle, piece by piece during rain storms and a hundred degree weather. For us, we wish it looked harder in the movie, but it was a very complicated logistical process to do it.

How did you get Morgan Freeman involved in the project to narrate it?

Drew Fellman: We asked him very nicely! Morgan cares very deeply about environmental issues and causes. When people see the film they respond and they want to help, and if they have the ability to get involved they want to, and he did. He knew about it and he jumped on board and really made a huge difference.

What was the biggest challenge for you shooting this movie?

Born to be Wild - Baby Elephant
Baby Elephant © 2011 Warner Bros

David Lickley: The hardest challenge as Drew eluded to was just the equipment size. Our camera is about 300 pounds and the size of a fridge and it sounds like two sewing machines going at the same time. So think about that in a wildlife context.

There are huge obstacles. And to set up the cameras in the air, because the orangutans live up in the high forest [trees] so there’s no point in filming on the ground, you have to get it up in the air. And then we’re in the middle of the jungle so it’s either scaffolding or it’s cranes, and it’s really tough to get up to their height.

When you’re doing a film like this how emotionally involved to you get with the animals?

Born to be Wild - Orangutans
Orangutans want to be held © 2011 Warner Bros

Drew: You get incredibly involved with them; you get very emotionally attached to them. We had many opportunities during the course of filming just to be holding the orangutans, because you’re there and they climb up and they want to be held.

David: We never picked up an elephant!

Drew: An orangutan is held by its mother constantly for the first few years of life, so it wants to be on your back or be in your arms, that’s where it’s comfortable. You look into their eyes and they’re just like our eyes, and they have little hands that are like our hands, it’s impossible not to be deeply moved by it.

Was there anything unexpected that happened while you were filming?

Born to be Wild - Baby Elephant
Baby Elephant © 2011 Warner Bros

Drew: While we were filming in Kenya we came upon this baby elephant whose mother had been killed.

David: It was totally serendipitous. We were out looking for bull elephants to film and all of a sudden they saw this little baby in amongst the bulls, and they said, ‘We’ve got an emergency, we have to shift from helping you to saving a baby.’ We said, ‘Can we film?’ They said, ‘Yeah, as long as you don’t get in the way.’ And that’s what we did. So you see it in the movie.

There’s so much money to be made on ivory and the palm oil that comes from the forest, did you ever have any problems with individuals or organizations who were trying to stop you from bringing out the truth of the situation there?

Born to be Wild - Elephants
Elephants play 'football' © 2011 Warner Bros

Drew: We ourselves didn’t have to deal with those obstacles, but these two women do every single day of their lives for the last 40, 50 years, that’s the battle they’re fighting, and it’s an exhausting battle that never ends.

The economic and political pressures are so great that are weighted against them, that you have to have such a tremendous determination and fortitude to get up in the morning and keep that up, because there’s so much money to be made with ivory and with palm oil and there’s no money to be made with orangutans.

The only thing you have is the wonder of an orangutan and that’s a hard thing to sell.

David: If everybody could go there and experience what we saw and be with these animals it would change their lives. Not everybody is going to do that. Borneo is very hard to get to, so this film is the next best thing to being there.

It’s IMAX 3D, you’re right there, so if anything can help in a film sense, this film probably can.

What was Daphne and Bruite’s reaction when they saw the film?

Drew: The both loved it because they spend their whole lives trying to explain to people why they should care so much, and this format allows us to convey that visually in a very short period of time, in a very deep emotional way, so they’re very pleased.

David: And you can imagine the impact, this is your life and it’s not just your life, it’s your life in IMAX 3D, so you are larger than life when you’re up there. It’s a really different way of looking at yourself when you see a film about yourself like that.