Mark Linfield is the co-producer and co-director of DisneyNature’s Earth Day release, “Chimpanzee.” I talked to him about some of the challenges of filming in the rainforest and how scientists who had been following the chimps for years saw things in the movie they had never seen before. NOTE: Disney will make a contribution to Jane Goodall’s institute to care for the rapidly declining chimpanzee population for every ticket sold this weekend.
In the midst of a leafy, wet, rainforest how do you find enough light to get those perfectly focused shots of the chimpanzees?
It’s all down to the cameras. We would not have been able to make this film 10 years ago. You’d have needed 35 mm film cameras, which are big and bulky and you’d still have had quite a grainy image. Even the early digital cameras could not do it. The latest digital cameras are really good in the dark and really good at capturing very bright things and very things in the same composition. So it is only recently that the technology has finally caught up with the subject matter. So it’s all natural light. And you don’t see the shots that didn’t make the movie. It’s incredibly difficult to hit critical focus in the near dark. But the shots that did work were so good that the scientists who had been studying the chimps for years told us we showed them thing they never saw with the naked eye. With this film, audiences can see what the scientists have been thrashing through the bush to see and see it better.
All the animals in the film appear to be completely natural. How did you keep the chimpanzees from interacting with the people making the film?
We worked with a group that had been followed for 30 years by scientists. You need an animal that is totally oblivious to people. The last thing you want is an animal looking nervously over his shoulder. They had a level of comfort so they just get on with their everyday life. It sounds counter-intuitive but if you want to get really natural behavior from an animal, you need to an animal that is totally oblivious to people and doesn’t react or respond to the people in any way. To get that level of comfort so you don’t get a response to being filmed but they get on with their everyday life, you need them to be used to people. But they’re individuals just like us with different personalities. Some are just camera shy. We had one who was perfectly comfortable with people but whenever we pulled out the camera she turned her back. That’s when we moved on to Oscar and Isha.
We wanted the process of filmmaking to vanish. We really wanted to make a film that felt like a film crew wasn’t there. It would be much easier to film with a camera on the shoulder. The chimpanzees travel great distances, often travel 10 miles in a day and we would like to chase after them. But then the camera is always moving around and wobbling a bit and you’re always reminded of the cameraman attached to the camera and by inference thinking about the process and not the story. We decided early on even though it was sheer hell to carry tripods through the rainforest we needed to do that so that the audience isn’t conscious of the camera. We wanted beautiful, static, unobtrusive shots with the chimpanzees doing whatever they were doing in the frame and just kind of unfolding within it.
There must have been moments when you wanted to interfere with what was going on.
We had to have a golden rule of not intervening. Its not uncommon for something to happen that makes you want to step in and help it. But if we had, we would have ruined Oscar’s chance of being adopted by Freddy. On the face of it, it looked hopeless. But as it turns out it would have been much worse for him if we had. It’s quite a good lesson on the dangers of stepping in and doing what you think would be a good thing and it wouldn’t be.
What was the biggest challenge in filming?
Any time in the wet season is a hard day. Rainforests have a rainy season and it’s like standing under a shower for half a day. It wears thin being drenched all day and having your clothes eaten by a fungus, especially when it seems that nothing is happening. Then they will do something really magical out of the blue – make a tool or always surprising you. With chimpanzees, you can always be sure it’s going to be something exciting.