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.

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