Walt Disney began shooting true life adventure movies in 1948. Now, almost 70 years later, comes the studio’s newest nature adventure, Born in China.
Narrated by John Krasinski (The Office, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi) it tells three stories of surviving in the wilds of China; an overprotective giant panda mother named Yaya and her cub, Mei Mei, who wants to become more independent; a disgruntled two-year old golden snub-nosed monkey called Tao Tao, who feels displaced by his new baby sister; and a mother snow leopard named Dawa, who struggles to feed her two cubs in the frigid mountains of China’s Qinghai Plateau.
Born in China - Snow Leopard, Dawa
Born in China – Snow Leopard, Dawa ©2017 Disney
The movie is helmed by Chinese director Lu Chuan, who says of the film, ‘People will laugh – they might cry – but they will leave with a full heart.’
I spoke with producer Roy Conli (Tangled, Big Hero 6) at the press day for the movie, which premieres on April 21st 2017.
Born in China - Producer Roy Conli
Born in China – Producer Roy Conli ©2017 Judy Sloane

Is this the first true life adventure film that you’ve produced?

Yeah, this is the first time that I’ve gone into this style. I originally came from the theatre, and then about 24 years ago started working in animation.

I’ve done quite a few animated films now, and coming out of my last animated film, Big Hero 6, I was asked if I would be interested in helping out (on Born in China). The next thing I knew I was producing it.

Did you see Disney’s nature films as a child?

I remember as a kid seeing Disney’s true life adventures. Between 1948 and 1960 Walt Disney produced 13 true life adventures and won 8 Academy Awards with them.

I remember seeing The Living Desert and Jungle Cats. It was my introduction to nature. That legacy is so important to the company, and I feel very dedicated to the legacy.

The strength of the Disney nature films is that we bring them into a narrative structure. They are stories and I think everyone should be allowed to have that story evolve and unfold.

Born in China - Cinematographer Justin Maguire filming golden snub-nosed monkeys
Born in China – Cinematographer Justin Maguire filming golden snub-nosed monkeys. ©2017 Disney
Cinematographer Justin Maguire filming golden snub-nosed monkeys.

What was it about producing this film that you found intriguing?

I’ve fallen in love with this process and working with these amazing cinematographers and Lu Chuan.

But it’s the cinematographers who are the unsung heroes. Shane Moore, who was the cinematographer for the snow leopard unit, was literally in the field 253 days, four trips over about a year and a half in a two year period. He did not get his first shot of snow leopards until the 90th day. The snow leopard is probably the most elusive animal on this planet.

Shane has filmed cats in Africa and in South America. It was his expertise and his ability to withstand probably one of the harshest places on this planet, where this was shot 16,000 feet above sea level. There were medics and oxygen on the set. It’s Shane understanding cats that allowed the footage to take place.

Were the monkeys and pandas as hard to shoot?

The monkeys were probably the easiest of the animals to infiltrate, only because they want to play for the camera and they’re not as afraid of humans as a snow leopard.

But you’ve got to stay away from the pandas. It’s an 800 pound animal with a cub. Our cinematographers literally donned panda suits and put panda scent on them in order to blend into the hillside and be able to get the shots that they did.

Born in China - Golden snub-nosed monkey Character: TaoTao
Born in China – Golden snub-nosed monkey Character: TaoTao ©2017 Disney

What’s the process in the storytelling? Do you get the footage first and then try to craft a story out of it?

With animation you start from the beginning and you write a script. You storyboard it and you eventually end up with a final image.

With a nature film, what happens is, the cinematographers are journaling the behavior that you see. There are people on set that record what’s going on. We then start getting massive amounts of rushes.

On this film, which is 75 minutes, we have over 400 hours of footage. Our process is, Chuan, myself, our writer David Fowler and (producers) Brian Leith and Phil Chapman, then start crafting the stories.

The structure of the three stories really comes from Lu Chuan. He did an amazing job encompassing, within a parenthetical aspect, the spiritual which is the cranes and the earthly, which are the chirus, to bring these three beautiful stories to life.

Born in China - Panda Character: YaYa and MeiMei
Born in China – Panda Character: YaYa and MeiMei ©2017 Disney

How difficult is it not to intervene and help an animal in the wild who is suffering?

I think one of the things that we adhere to is, this is a true life adventure and we cannot go in and script it in any way. We take the footage and build the script, and really I think in any way as a filmmaker you can’t intercede in that. You’ve got to allow nature to take its course and that’s the way you’ve got to report it.

What do you want children to take away from this film?

I don’t find that much difference between the animal world and our world.

I think it’s wonderful if not only kids but parents walk away and understand that a familial structure is a really important thing, and that even a monkey can get jealous of his baby sister. That a mother can be worried about the fact that their child is eventually going off into the world and that survival is tough.

So I think the messages in this piece really reflect on our everyday lives.

Born in China - Golden snub-nosed monkey Character: TaoTao's young sister
Born in China – Golden snub-nosed monkey Character: TaoTao’s young sister ©2017 Disney

Producer Roy Conli Soundbyte

I asked Roy why he chose John Krasinski to narrate the movie – click here to listen to his reply
NOTE: If you attend the movie during its first week (April 21-27, 2017) a portion of every ticket sale goes to the World Wildlife Fund, to help protect snow leopards and pandas in China.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.