This Earth Day, Disney will launch its new film label, Disneynature, with the movie Earth, a film shot in conjunction with the ground breaking television series Planet Earth. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, both winners of multiple awards, graciously chatted with us about making the movie, their hopes for raising conservation awareness, and the environmental impact of filming.
Fans of the BBC and Discovery Channel series Planet Earth will not want to miss this movie. Filmed in remote locations around the world from the Okavango Delta in Botswana to the Svalbard archipelago between Greenland and Norway, viewers can expect to see the wonder of nature as they have never experienced it before. In addition, for every ticket sold in the opening week of the film, Disney will plant a tree in the endangered rainforests of Brazil.
Fothergill says that the big screen is really the best place for natural history documentaries because it can help transport people and truly give them a sense of what it’s like to be in the environments filmed. Both directors are very excited about Disneynature’s promise to produce at least one major nature documentary each year. The directors of Earth have already been contracted for the next two releases. This gives them both an ongoing larger scale forum to produce quality films that raise awareness about the environment. According to Linfield, Earth is intended to be “a celebration of our planet,” one he hopes will empower people to preserve it.
Although Linfield says it was necessary to film the movie and the television series in conjunction “because of the logistics of what we were trying to achieve,” the film does offer new, never before seen footage. Fothergill says they kept both projects in mind during the filming and slated “key scenes” to be “unique to the movie.” In addition, the big screen and surround sound and “eighty-five uninterrupted minutes make a great deal of difference.”
“There is a real desire for Disney to keep these films absolutely true to nature to the extent that it’s actually [written] in our contracts,” Fothergill says. Therefore, they made a conscious effort not to break what he calls “the first rule” of documentary filming, never to interfere. Although they may edit scenes, they always strive to depict the stories in nature strictly as they were observed.
Fothergill admits there seems to be a desire for “high-octane, biting, snapping, teeth type movies, [where] every animal in nature is dangerous, and you have to make sharks horrible. You have to make snakes poisonous.” He calls these “crocodile strangling movies.” But, this does not depict the true sense of things, so he’s not interested in making this kind of film.
“There are some very tough sequences in the movie, you know, and we don’t shy away from that at all. But, we have chosen not to show blood and gore because, frankly, these are family movies…once the wolf has run down and grabbed the caribou, you don’t need to dwell on it.” He takes what he calls his “privileged position” of coming into people’s homes very seriously. Regardless of the pressures in today’s market to produce exciting fear monger drama, he chooses to show the true stories of nature without the use of this kind of sensationalism.
Linfield follows this up by adding, “We made a very conscious effort to not make a finger wagging, heavy handed, environmental movie.” He feels there are enough of these kinds of films already. He says, “This can be a little bit paralyzing, and it reaches a point where you actually feel that people have an excuse just to hold up their hands and give up. It’s the, “Oh, well, it’s too late already” factor. “Let’s not bother. Let’s just get that new SUV.” Instead, he and Fothergill have chosen to go for an “emergent effect of seeing all that wonder, all that fantastic diversity, all those fabulous things so that people will realize what’s at stake.” They want people to see there is still plenty left out there to preserve and protect.
Most who have seen the series Planet Earth would agree with both directors that this approach indeed made quite an effective conservation piece without the need for heavy handed messages. The series focused on showing the planet as a whole, and by doing so, it also showed the issues which have negatively impacted the planet’s health. The movie Earth promises to take this same innovative approach to the next level by showing our planet on the big screen, bringing nature’s stories to the diverse and potentially enormous audiences generated by Disney.
Of course, the filming of these documentaries carried a heavy carbon footprint. Although they did not calculate the exact amount, both Fothergill and Linfield freely admit that they would not have been able to film in these remote locations nor show the incredible aerial photography of the wildlife “crucial to the movie” without the use of helicopters and airplanes.
Fothergill points out, “You can’t normally follow a polar bear out into the open ocean. You obviously can’t walk on the ice because it’s melted, and you can’t get close on a boat really without disturbing them.” In addition, with the use of a new special stabilized camera system mounted to the helicopters, they are able to zoom in incredibly close and then pull back and pull back until you see the polar bear as a tiny white dot in a huge expanse of ocean. These types of scenes really give the viewer a sense of the wonder of our planet as a whole and push them towards a more ecological mind set where every tiny speck of life on the vast expanse of earth has an equal stake in its health for their survival.
In order to offset their heavy carbon footprint and give something back to the planet, the directors of Earth and Disneynature have taken some important steps. First and foremost, Fothergill says that on future projects they will be calculating their carbon footprint. Regardless of the oversight on this project, he says “As a team, we were very conscious of wastage and, wherever possible, tried to minimize those things.” For example, “we travel very, very light [in small crews], and do simple things such as watching paper wastage and being very careful that we leave things exactly as we found them.”
Fothergill adds, “We’re delighted by the fact that Disney has an initiative around the release of this movie that in the first week, for every person who buys a ticket, they’re going to plant a tree in the North Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil,” a highly threatened rainforest area. The initiative also includes looking after those planted trees in the long- term.
In addition, the Disneynature website will be providing links to many of the conservation and science organizations that helped them during filming. Organizations like Elephants Without Borders, who Linfield says “helped us with the filming of the Okavanga Delta elephant story.” Upon browsing the site, you can also find links to suggested teaching tools and classroom activities which will help educators teach their students about the important environmental and scientific concepts shown in the film.
Earth allows viewers to experience the wonder of the changing of the seasons, the magic in a transformation from the dry season to the wet season, and the majesty of wildlife across our planet, from polar bears on ice flows near the North Pole to Birds of Paradise on the rainforest floors of New Guinea. One can admire predator/prey relationships like that of the Cheetah and the gazelle for what it is, a part of the circle of life that is necessary for survival. One can admire the natural world for its beauty and power, from each unique individual to their intrinsic part in the make-up of the whole of this planet.
Be sure to see Earth during its opening week in a theater near you starting April 22nd. By doing so, you can help the planet by helping to plant a tree in the rainforest. For more information, visit Disneynature. Please remember, it takes the viewers and consumers of earth to keep the issues of conservation and the need for preserving our natural world in the forefront of public awareness. Please continue to support organizations that are working to raise awareness, and help to keep those organizations on track to ensure they are truly continuing to work for the good of our planet, for this is a job that belongs to us all.
Special thanks to Meg Roberts of New Media Strategies for making this interview possible.
Production images appear courtesy of Disneynature.