Filmmakers don panda suits in their trek through China for animal close-ups
DISNEY’S documentary “Born in China,” out Friday, takes audiences into that country’s most inaccessible landscapes to get very close to cuddly creatures. But capturing cuteness in the wild isn’t as easy as it looks.
The intrepid team was out in the field nearly three years, often for months at a time, observing baby giant pandas, snow leopards, golden snub-nosed monkeys, red-crowned cranes and Tibetan antelopes playing, snuggling and hunting with their parents.
“You can see there is an emotional life with these beings,” Roy Conli, the film’s producer, tells The Post. “I was absolutely in awe. These are really phenomenal creatures.”
This was the first documentary for Conli, producer of Disney’s “Tangled” and “Big Hero 6.” The man knew how to tell a tale, but this time he went in cold. “It was unnerving!” he says. “We truly do not head out with a script,” adds Lu Chuan, the movie’s director. “The story comes to us.”
As the team covered about 1,000 miles documenting what they saw, main characters began to emerge: Dawa the mama snow leopard, Mei Mei the baby panda and Tao Tao, the loner monkey who just wants his family to love him.
“In the beginning, [we] captured a lot of footage of the [monkey] troop, paying special attention to the baby — because those faces are pretty tough to resist,” says Lu.
“But then [the cameramen] noticed Tao Tao and how he reacted when his little sister arrived. His evolution to being an outcast happened over time.”
When Mei Mei the panda wasn’t hugging his mom, he was desperately attempting to climb trees. The day a baby panda finally learns to scale a trunk, he can evade predators — and move out of his parent’s home.
“By the time [pandas] are 2 years old, they leave the mom. And then the mom is solitary again until she has another cub,” says Conli.
“The maternal instinct is really impressive.”
To snag superclose shots of the chubby bears being affectionate and noshing on bamboo, the team actually wore panda suits.
However, the documentarians’ greatest challenge was filming the snow leopards of the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau. Not only are the leopards elusive, blending in seamlessly with the icy hillsides, but the environment is one of the planet’s most inhospitable. It took the team eight days to acclimate to the climate — 16,000 feet above sea level. It took a full 90 days before they got their first shot of Dawa and her two cubs. But for Conli, the effort was worth it. “We are the first team to have ever captured wild snow leopard cubs on film,” he says. “It’s never been done before.”
Mom Ya Ya cuddles with Mei Mei, while Tao Tao (inset) monkeys around with a camera.