Born in China's Roy Conli on first-ever footage of rare cubs

Published By Alexandra Heilbron on Apr 20, 2017

Born in China Panda and cubOscar-winning producer Roy Conli has worked on many major Walt Disney films, but Born in China is his first in the Disneynature series. It takes place in the breathtaking vistas of the Qinghai Plateau in China, which is home to species such as Snow Leopards, Giant Pandas, Chiru (Tibetan Antelopes) and Golden Monkeys, all of whom we meet in the movie.

The movie opens this Friday, April 21 and a portion of all tickets sold during the movie's opening week will be going to the World Wildlife Fund for the conservation of Pandas and Snow Leopards.

Filming Born in China must have been such a massive undertaking. How did you decide to focus on animals of China?
Well, the legacy of this goes back to Walt Disney himself, who started True-Life Adventures back in 1948. I am of a certain age (laughs) that I remember seeing these things as a kid through the 1960s and ‘70s because they would repurpose them for  The Wonderful World of Disney. That was really how I learned about nature, coming from the suburbs of Los Angeles. From 2008 we have been in every continent essentially but we really felt that we had not spent any time at all in China. We knew that China had a massive amount of wildlife that Westerners had never had options to see and we also knew that it had animals that were absolutely compelling and fascinating. We decided that this would be a great opportunity to share this part of China. Little did we know that many people in China haven’t even seen some of these areas because they are in fact the most remote places on Earth.

That was something I wanted to ask about because we never see any people in these areas during the movie.
That’s interesting because the Qinghai Plateau, where the Snow Leopards are and where you see the Chiru, that’s the highest plateau on the planet. It’s 16,000 feet above snow level and we were the first Western film crew to have gone in there to film. During the summer, shepherds from nearby communities allow their flocks of yak and sheep to go up there to graze, and obviously these guys live up in that altitude so they’re very comfortable, but for our film crews it took eight days from Beijing to get up there because acclimating to that height is very difficult.

Born in China - Chiru mother and babyDid you do any research about these animals before filming?
Research is a huge component of this and my director, Lu Chuan, who is a phenomenal artist in his own right and generally works in live action -- this was his first nature documentary -- he was quite familiar with the Chiru because of a film he made about 10 years ago called Kekexili: Mountain Patrol. It was about the Chiru and a group of locals who actually stopped the poaching of these animals. The Chiru were near extinction and if not for these amazing people who stopped the poaching, we could have lost them.

Were there animal experts on hand to advise how to approach the animals?
Essentially, yes, going into it you work with the experts and the biologists and natural historians just in terms of who the animal is. But also, when you hire cinematographers to do this kind of filming, they’re experts in their fields. For the Snow Leopard, for instance, a fellow by the name of Shane Moore was the cinematographer. Shane is from Wyoming and he’s been doing this since he was 13 years old and now he’s shot big cats in every continent. He’s worked in Africa, in North America, South America and for him, this was going to be the penultimate challenge because probably the most elusive animal on this planet is the Snow Leopard.

Paul Stewart, who did the Panda and the Red-Crowned Crane is an expert at camouflage, because with both those animals they’re very skittish around humans. When they were filming the pandas, they would don panda suits and smear themselves with panda scent. You can imagine what panda scent is made of (laughs). Same thing with the cranes. The cranes are amazingly skittish.

Justin Maguire and monkeyWhereas the monkeys, Justin Maguire who was the cinematographer, is an expert with simians. He’s filmed monkeys all over the world. In one sense, you could say he has the simplest job, because the monkeys love to perform and they love to interact, but then he has one of the most difficult jobs because he also has to detach himself from them because one of the rules we film under is that we do not in any way affect the behavior of the animals. Whatever happens in the field, we’re documenting, we’re not in any way trying to put a scene together. The dramatic core of this piece is derived from the stories the animals give us themselves.

What was it about these animals that most surprised you?
For me, the Snow Leopard story is probably the most touching and understanding the fact that when we started shooting them we were probably around 400 metres away from them and as the cinematographer became more and more well known to the animal they actually allowed them within 40 metres. We’re the first film team to have ever filmed wild Snow Leopard cubs. There’s no footage in the world of them. We were able to get within about 300 feet of the mother when she had the cubs but if the mother was alone, she would let us in about 120 feet.

Which of these animals was your favorite?
That’s a good question. Each of these animals becomes part of your heart but I think my favorite story in the film is the Snow Leopard story and my favorite moment in the film is when the Chiru gives birth. That little moment within the film always touches my heart.

What was the most difficult aspect of filming? Was it trying to stay warm during the winter months?
Each of the film crews had their own difficulty, but Rolf Steinmann, who was the cinematographer for the Chiru -- you see him at the end of the film, he’s the one who’s trying to get the time lapse shot -- he digs a hole in the ground about a metre and a half wide around and he sits in that and covers himself with tundra and then stays there sometimes for weeks, just filming. These guys are, I would say, monks of cinema. They go out and they’re really passionate about getting the best shot they possibly can.

Many of these animals are endangered, what can people do to help them?
What Disneynature does during the first week of release, is that a portion of all ticket sales will be going to the World Wildlife Fund. And they will be focusing that donation towards the conservation of Pandas and Snow Leopards. It’s so important. Tell everyone to go out that first week to see the film because we’ve done such amazing great films -- they’ve done this with every film and the focus on this one is Pandas and Snow Leopards.

Born in China opens this Friday, April 21 -- make sure to see it by Thursday April 27 to be a part of helping Snow Leopards and Giant Pandas through the World Wildlife Fund. ~Alexandra HeilbronSnow Leopard cub

Comments & Discussion

  1. Bev • 4/20/2017 9:20:29 AM

    It's wonderful more films are focusing on nature and animals. With the popularity of Planet Earth and other works like it, I really hope we (humans) understand that protecting our planet needs to be a top priority.

  2. Maveen • 4/20/2017 11:57:11 AM

    This looks like a beautiful movie, I love animal babies and we should do more to protect them.

  3. Kelly • 4/20/2017 12:20:20 PM

    I always see the Disney Earth movies in Cinema opening day...I always buy the movie as soon as it comes out...Absolutely looking forward to this particular choice of Disney Earth movies Born in China...it will be such a good learning curve for everyone who sees it...Happy Earth Day!!!

  4. Christine Hogan • 4/20/2017 1:10:38 PM

    Disney is held in such high regard and over the years, their commitment to preserving wildlife has been truly inspiring. I am looking forward to taking the group of ten to see this year's film...especially as part of Earth Day week- end.

  5. Helen • 4/20/2017 1:40:25 PM

    I am so excited. My sister and I are going to see it this weekend, as we do every year with the Disneynature movies. Every since Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, I have loved these type of movies.

  6. Erin • 4/22/2017 6:14:34 PM

    Did the snow leopard cubs survive?

  7. Rae Finan Schumacher • 4/25/2017 6:55:53 PM

    Born in China was stunning. I absolutely loved it. I'm very interested in knowing if the orphaned snow leopard cubs were helped in any way to survive. If anyone has information in that regards please let me know.

  8. Sheri N. • 4/25/2017 9:32:29 PM

    I saw the movie yesterday and was supposed to go have lunch with friends afterward. The movie is beautifully filmed. I'm old enough to remember when Disney gave us nature films with no blood or death. I've been to Africa three times and seen lions and leopards make their kills to feed themselves and their cubs. But Disney humanizes the animals to such an extent I feel like my family is being killed. SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the movie I was sobbing so hard I couldn't join them and barely made it home before I was sick. Snow Leopards are endangered. Their mother dies and nothing is said at the end of the film as to whether or not anything was done to save her cubs. So we just assume they were left to starve slowly or freeze to death. I have been telling everyone I've talked to they need to be aware of this before seeing this movie.

  9. Vicki McElroy • 4/26/2017 12:46:13 PM

    I'm with Rae Finan Schumacher. I want to know what happened to the two orphaned snow leopards too. Did anyone help them out? Otherwise, this was a beautiful movie and I really enjoyed watching it. I'm glad I seen it opening weekend to help with the WWF funding to save these beautiful animals.

  10. mary just • 4/28/2017 10:59:01 PM

    My sister and I saw the movie today. What happened to the baby snow leopards?

  11. John • 4/30/2017 6:51:53 PM

    The director of the film said in an interview that the snow leopard cubs are fine and safe.

  12. Jackson • 5/1/2017 9:41:22 AM

    If you watch this interview from an expert in mammals, she says they were too young to survive on their own. http://www.tribute.ca/videos/toronto-zoo-curator-interview---born-in-china-v17285/

  13. Verna • 5/4/2017 9:05:47 AM

    I viewed the film today and was shocked and saddened by the outcome for the snow leopard family. I understand the lessons of the movie but would like to know: (1) After Dawa was seriously injured, was anyone with the film team able to do anything for her besides watch her die? (2) Were the snow leopard cubs rescued after their mother died? And if so, which organization (or who) took them in?

  14. Jannis O'Briant • 5/5/2017 10:56:27 PM

    I just want to know how the snow leopard cubs survived without their mother.

  15. Amanda • 5/5/2017 11:34:59 PM

    Did the orphan snow leopard cubs survive? If yes, what organization rescued them and is there a way to donate to the organization to support the offspring of this endangered species?

  16. Phoebe • 5/10/2017 10:50:15 AM

    Did the snow leopard's cubs survive? That part of the movie made me CRY!

  17. Evelyn Miller • 5/23/2017 2:32:06 PM

    Like so many of the comments I too would like to know what became of the snow leopard's cubs. Did they survive? I cried too.

  18. Christian K. • 8/29/2017 7:58:25 AM

    Just like many others, since I saw this movie I am also wondering what happened to the leopard cubs. I'm afraid the very vague versions circulating in the internet about the little cats "somehow" surviving or having been brought "somewhere" to be taken care of are not true, but simply an attempt of the producers to dilute and sweeten a sad story, that they were left alone to their own luck. This, as we all realize, is equal to a death sentence. What troubles me is to think of such a large project and a whole filming crew, not reacting in any way to help these little animals in their plight. And the whole argument that a filming crew "should not interfere with the natural process and the life and death cycle", to my ears barely conceals a chilling indifference and a thrilling utilitarianism of these beautiful creatures. Frankly, in the current times of massive extinction of wild species and a long list of animals in high risk of disappearance, the position of a "neutral" observer is no longer enough.

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