BORN IN CHINA: How They Got Those Amazing Shots

A look at the making of this weekend's latest Disneynature doc.

Born in China from Disney Nature is in theaters now. Before it's release, we had a chance to speak to producer Roy Conli (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Tarzan and Tangled). The film, directed by Lu Chuan, is the story of a number of animal families in China, including pandas, snow leopards, golden snub-nosed monkeys and chiru. The shots are incredible and Conli spoke to us about the stories, showing death in a film for children and how they managed to film so close to the animals. FYI: 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.

Conli explained that the animals very much told their own stories. He said, “You start with an image and you kind of track back to find what that story is. Fortunately, within this structure, you have these amazing cinematographers who are out in the field, journaling literally everything they see during the day. So you’re really getting the history of what happened on the set per day. Then you add to that this amazing director, probably the biggest reason I was interested in working on this project, was Lu Chuan. Lu Chuan is probably one of the greatest living Chinese directors. Great storyteller. He was on set some of the time, but you can’t be on set all of the time. Really, we had multiple crews working throughout the country at any one time. The unsung heroes are really the cinematographers. When they come back with the journals and the footage, we start putting together the story.” He said they had footage from over a year and a half to deal with.

Conli told us that the Chinese government was easy to work with because they were “happy with our interest in their wildlife.” This was a co-production with China. The film premiered in China and was the biggest box office for a nature film or documentary that they’ve ever had in the country.

Conli also told us about the extreme lengths these people would go to for shots. He said, “Shane Moore who is the cinematographer on the snow leopard unit — first of all, he’s going out to one of the most inhospitable places on this planet. The Qinghai plateau is 16,000 feet above sea level. It’s often below zero. As you can see [in the film] it’s amazingly rugged and rough hewn out there. He did not get any shots of snow leopards until his 90th day!” He explained that these guys get to know their animals.

The lengths the cinematographers would go to get the right shots were remarkable. Conli explained, “You’ve got Shane Moore who was living in a shack next to a little monastery up on the Qinghai plateau with a team of maybe six, seven guys. Uninsulated. You’re at 16,000 feet above sea level in an uninsulated shack that has one stove in the middle. They would leave before dawn and come back after dark, and they would light a fire and that was their heat for the night. You’ve got Rolf Steinmann who you see in the end credits. He’s the one who’s doing the time lapse photography. Rolf was in areas that no Westerner has ever been. Those shots where the chair are, the lake and whatnot, that’s incredibly remote. And he’s probably the roughest of them all. He would dig a hole in the ground and cover himself, and sit there and shoot for days. He’d sit in that hole and it’s below zero every night. That’s probably the extreme physical difficulty."

There is a shot in the film of one of the animals who doesn’t make it and it’s rather traumatizing. Conli spoke about the decision to show that moment. “We talked a lot. But the feeling was that the investment in that story and how people fell in love with [the animal], it was important. I mean, I look at it and when we saw the outcome, we were all very emotional. But I also, as a filmmaker, am not afraid of sharing that with kids…I think that when you’re dealing with nature, you have to be honest.”

Conli told us about keeping a distance from the animals. “We are committed to not interfering with nature,” he said. “It gets a little hard with monkeys because monkeys are interested in you and they will actually perform for the camera. In that case, you have to work to keep them away from you.” He explained what it took to get shots of the snow leopards. “Shane started off at about 400 meters with incredible lenses and got shots. Slowly but surely when [the snow leopard] was becoming familiar with him, and knew that he was not a threat, he was able to get closer, until a couple of shots, he was able to get in at about 40 to 50 meters.”

Conli also spoke about the pandas in the film; a mother and young cub. “The pandas, sweet, little, cute, beautiful — and 10 pounds. A mother with her cub, you don’t want to get that close to. And they are, as the film portrays, very solitary kinds of animals. They like being alone. The cinematographers literally donned panda costumes. Panda suits. They kind of smeared themselves with ‘panda scent.’ Essentially they’d get closer than you could to the snow leopard, but you had to keep your distance.”

With the monkeys, we see a story of a young male named TaoTao and how he’s ostracized by his family. Conli explained that most of these stories are of a mother and daughter(s). The plan was to do a story on TaoTao’s younger sister, but when they watched the footage, this story was what stood out. “We kept getting this footage back with this young monkey trying to get back to his family and that’s what stood out.”

Born in China is narrated by John Krasinski (The Office​) is in theaters now.