Thanks to Disneynature, a new Earth Day tradition has evolved – we can look forward to another breathtaking film to debut every year on Earth Day. Previous years have taken viewers to the savannahs with “African Cats,” below the world’s great bodies of water with “Oceans,” and around the world and back with “Earth.” Now get ready for what might be the most amazing journey of all – getting to know our closest relatives, the chimpanzees.
Producer (and legendary Disney animator) Don Hahn was kind enough to speak to us about Disneynature “Chimpanzee,” and to give us the story behind its making. He also reminds us that for every opening-week ticket to “Chimpanzee” sold, Disneynature will make a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute, to protect chimps in the wild.
You’re legendary for your animation work – how did you come to produce documentaries for Disneynature?
It’s a pretty natural progression – I still do animation, and I’m working on “Frankenweenie” right now. But back in Walt’s day, all the True Life nature guys came from animation. The narrator for those films was an animation and story guy. Being a story-driven Studio, it seems really natural to me to go into that realm. And the movies have a lot in common – Disneynature makes films that are very much family movies, and so many of Disney’s animated films are about animals. I’m always looking for a challenge, so I migrated into this as a chance to work with people like “Chimpanzee” directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, or the director of “African Cats.” And they welcomed me into the process, which I feel very lucky about. I was really honored to work with them, and with Tim Allen, who narrates “Chimpanzee.”
How did “Chimpanzee” come to be made?
It’s one of the first movies that we green-lit when Disneynature started. Alistair and Mark proposed the movie because chimps are at the top of the list of animals we’re interested in. They’re incredibly close to us in DNA – we can even take a blood transfusion from them! The movie had been shooting four years.
We shot in the Tai National Park in Ivory Coast, an area where the chimps had been under observation by students and scientists for about 25 years. They weren’t domesticated in any sense, but they were in an area where we knew where they were – we could find Freddy the alpha and his troop. They’re used to having people around, but it’s not like bears in Yellowstone where they come up looking for sandwiches!
The crew had to be trained not to make eye contact with the chimps and not to eat in front of them, so there’s no sense of threat to the chimps. If you can imagine looking through a camera lens at these huge animals running past you, and sometimes fighting in front of you, and not making eye contact. The biggest danger to chimps when humans are around is catching human viruses. Our cameramen had to wear surgical masks in the field – not to protect themselves, but to protect the chimps! It was one of the most difficult shoots Disneynature has ever done.
Because they’re so difficult to film, chimps take a little longer. You can be in a rainforest with chimpanzees all around you and not even know it, because it’s such a dense environment. And halfway through the filming, civil war broke out in Ivory Coast. We had to suspend shooting for a year.
What is special to you about this film?
I think the most amazing part of the film is the adoption moment – baby Oscar is abandoned when his mother is killed by a leopard, and is adopted by Freddy, the alpha male. That is authentic, not staged or made up. Typically babies in the wild are abandoned because other mothers don’t have enough milk or food to sustain them, so to have Oscar adopted by this male is amazing. It became what the movie was about – you don’t go out looking for that behavior, but a few months into the shooting it happened. It’s such a Disney story, and very lucky, and we had the best cinematographers on Earth there to film.
What is uniquely Disney about the Disneynature films?
It grows out of doing the highest quality film, where nature is the storyteller. Story is the core of any Disney film, and Disneynature tells stories that only Disney can. It’s also very important to us to promote the ethical quality of the films. We don’t stage things, we protect the animals, we keep our distance and don’t interfere with the course of nature. It’s miraculous when you look at the movie and you think “Oh they must have staged this” – but we didn’t! It’s just the way it happens.
We want to help people understand what a miraculous animal world we share the planet with. A lot of time that world is as complex and fascinating as our own, and how much human behavior can encroach on that world. We need to take care of these animals, and a lot of times it’s just by leaving them alone. We don’t want these movies to be our last chance to film these behaviors in the wild. And we don’t take a pessimistic view. You can leave and have a conversation with your kids about the characters we share the world with. Disney does it best because Bob Iger cares about it and Disney’s Animal Kingdom cares – it’s part of the culture of this Company to care.
How does Disneynature help take care of the wildlife around us?
Disneynature does really concrete things to help – we like being able to point to a migration route we helped to save, for instance. As an audience member you can say “I contributed to that.”
“Chimpanzee” supports the Jane Goodall Institute. The work Dr. Goodall does is far beyond the chimps in one preserve – it’s really about educating kids about the greater world they’re part of. It’s an amazing thing to take part in.
Want to help even more? In addition to seeing “Chimpanzee” opening weekend, play Disney Animal Kingdom Explorers online. The game combines hidden-object fun with wildlife knowledge – and Disney will donate 20 cents to the Jane Goodall Institute for each Guest who finishes the game’s tutorial.