Friday, 18 July 2008

DisneyNature Launched

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The Walt Disney Studios has launched Disneynature, a prestigious new production banner that will literally go to the ends of the earth to produce major big screen nature documentaries, Studios Chairman Dick Cook announced.

In the great tradition established by Walt Disney himself, Disneynature will offer spectacular entertainment about the world in which we live. The significance of the new banner goes beyond the studio, with The Walt Disney Company embracing this new initiative around the world through a number of its businesses, including publications, licensing, parks and educational outreach. Disney veteran Jean-Francois Camilleri, who has served as senior vice president and general manager for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures France will head the new unit. Disneynature will be based in France, where Camilleri and his team will oversee the initiation, development and acquisition of high quality feature projects.

Among the first films to be released domestically under the new label will be Earth, from awardwinning British producer/director Alastair Fothergill, whose credits include the landmark Planet Earth series for the BBC and The Discovery Channel and The Blue Planet. Earth, which is produced by BBC Worldwide and Greenlight Media and co-directed by Mark Linfield, will take us on a tour of our home planet as we’ve never seen it before. It will be narrated by renowned actor James Earl Jones and will premiere theatrically on Earth Day, April 22, 2009. The film will also be released under the Disneynature banner in Latin America.

“We love balancing heritage and innovation and Disneynature is a perfect example of this. We are placing the legacy of Disney’s ‘True-Life Adventures’ in the hands of great modern filmmakers using dazzling technology,” said Robert A. Iger, president and CEO, The Walt Disney Company. “Disneynature is a concept we look forward to building across the company and across the globe for years to come. And, we hope these films will contribute to a greater understanding and appreciation of the beauty and fragility of our natural world.”

Dick Cook added, “Our goal is for Disneynature to offer event films that will appeal to everyone who is captivated by the grandeur of nature and the wonder of great filmmaking. Thanks to today’s stateof-the-art creative tools, filmmakers have an unlimited ability to tell nature’s limitless stories. These stories are as engrossing as any works of fiction and are of a scale and scope that can only be fully appreciated on a big screen. At Disneynature, the sky is truly the limit.”

"Nature invents the most beautiful stories. Our role at Disneynature will be to tell these stories with passion and enthusiasm to the largest public possible around the world,” said Camilleri. “By working with the best wildlife directors, we will offer nature as never seen before, help the audience to discover the incredible beauty of our world but also understand the challenges for the future generations."

Alastair Fothergill added, “This is especially exciting because, thanks to the wide-ranging appeal of Disney, we can expect Earth, as well as Chimpanzee and Big Cats to be seen by the broadest possible audience. Disney has been an inspiration to wildlife documentarians for generations and it’s a genuine thrill to advance this extraordinary legacy under this new label.”

Among the other Disneynature projects currently in development or production are :

Mystery of the Flamingos – Co-directed by Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward, and produced by Paul Webster (Kudos Pictures), this film will take viewers to the isolated shores of Lake Natron in northern Tanzania for a birds-eye view of the mysterious lives of flamingos. Worldwide roll-out begins December 2008

Nearly three-quarters of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans. French codirectors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud have set out to capture the full expanse of these waters that have played such a crucial and constant role in the history and sustenance of man. The deep and abundant oceans are places of great mysteries and dangers that this film will dare to explore. Domestic release 2010

One Minute to Midnight – Directed by Charlie Hamilton James and produced by Frédéric Fougea, this film tells the true story of a six-year-old male orangutan and his little sister, who must take an incredible journey to find a home and a family. Worldwide release 2010

Audiences will get to meet three mothers – a lioness, a leopard and a cheetah – as they explore their world on the great plains of Africa. Co-directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill and produced by Alix Tidmarsh, this film will show how these magnificent animals survive on their power and their cunning, while they protect and teach their cubs the ways of the wild. Worldwide release 2011

A Love Story that Feeds the Earth – In this film, nature is ready for its close-up … a very close-up, as exacting macro photography takes us to the realm of flowers and their pollinators. Acclaimed filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg introduces us to a bat, a hummingbird, a butterfly and a bumblebee, demonstrating their intricate interdependence and how life on earth depends on the success of these determined, diminutive creatures. Naked Beauty is produced by Blacklight Films and Alix Tidmarsh. Worldwide release 2011


Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield co-direct this intimate look at the world of chimpanzees, with Christophe Boesch, head of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, serving as principal consultant and Alix Tidmarsh as producer. To be shot over three years in the tropical jungles of the Ivory Coast and Uganda, Chimpanzee will help us better understand this exceptionally intelligent species. Worldwide release 2012.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Filming the 'Great Leap' of barnacle geese chicks, Arctic Svalbard

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Update 23rd Oct 2014: See the incredible sequence from Life Story here I am in awe of the crew that filmed this - Cameramen Mateo Willis, Mark Payne-Gill and Producer Tom Hugh-Jones. More incredible than I could ever have imagined!

SUMMARY: For the BBC series 'Life' producer Patrick Morris and I went to the Arctic island of Svalbard to film barnacle goose chicks on their epic journey from nest to feeding ground. Back in 1985, a landmark BBC series called 'Kingdom of the Ice Bear' managed to capture what must be one of the most remarkable natural behaviours.  It has hardly ever been seen and has not been filmed since. This is the story of our attempt to capture this rarely seen behaviour in full HD glory...

First, here is a clip from 'Kingdom of the Ice Bear' 1985. 

The Wild Goose Search Begins

The 24 hour daylight of the arctic attracts millions of birds from across the planet. They come here to nest and raise their chicks in the security of 24 hour sunlight, and for the lush vegetation that grows when the ground thaws. One of the most distinctive of the Svalbard migrants is the barnacle goose and every summer thousands of them make the 2000 mile journey from Caerlavernock in Scotland. I followed in their wake. I had one week with Norwegian field guide Lasse Ostervold, before my camera crew arrived.

The spectacular Sassendalen Valley

A Vast Wilderness

After three days of traveling by car, plane and boat I looked around at a colossal landscape and my heart sank. It suddenly seemed an daunting prospect to find a goose nest in this vast wilderness. However we did have a starting point... months of planning had at least allowed me to speak to scientists who had a rough idea of where these birds were nesting. In 1985 the crew of 'Kingdom of the Ice Bear' had traveled to Greenland, but there they had the help of the Norwegian military to get to a remote inland valley, and had the help of bird scientists already on the ground who had been finding and studying nests in advance. This time it was completely down to me and Lasse.

Barnacle geese usually nest on the ground, and further north scientists were studying hundreds of geese who had layed their eggs on small grassy islands surrounded by fast flowing water. Here they could raise their chicks isolated from predators such as the arctic fox.

Further inland and away from the islands of the fjords its a different story. Ground-nesting would be an open larder for any fox that could sniff them out. For our story we needed to find geese who sought the protection of high cliffs.

We had set up camp by the entrance to a large rocky canyon where my contacts had told me that they had studied cliff-nesters 10 years earlier! I was a little more convinced of our chances when a few boat captains, who frequently passed through this area, told me that they often see barnacle geese feeding on the shoreline and flying overhead.

Camping in a vast wilderness

The Cold Reality Dawns

Full of optimism we entered the canyon...  it wasn't long before we spotted potential nesting sites, all vacant but it was a promising start. But it was apparent that spring had not quite arrived here yet, and many of these ledges were covered in snow and ice - a few hours of trekking and searching and I became convinced that until the ice thawed this canyon was far from nest-friendly. We sat on a ledge, sheltered from the howling wind, and looked out as a small blue trickle of melt water crossed the white depths of the canyon. Nothing here except a ptarmigan in its winter plumage.

Ptarmigan in its winter plumage.

I phoned the scientists further north who had believed this area might be a hotspot for cliff-nesting geese. They were surprised at the lack of life, but it had been an unusually cold spring, and a late thaw must have resulted in far fewer geese nesting than usual. 'There should be some... somewhere' I was told. Lasse and I were the first people to reach this valley since the sun appeared in early March, the winter was holding on.

-5 degrees and still smiling

A discovery in the nick of time

We were reaching the end of five days of searching and things were looking bleak. Soon the team would arrive with fifty cases of kit.

Having exhausted all hope of finding geese in the canyon, Lasse and I left camp early one bitter morning. We headed out towards a bird cliff that I had spotted as our boat passed on the way to setup camp 5 days earlier. Several hours later we arrived to be greeted by a party of puffins spinning through the air, and little Auks laughing and waddling around on high ledges.

Puffin, Svalbard

Holding my breath as the wind blasted my face, I peered over the cliff. Could this be the moment of reckoning? Elation eased the pain of my wind-chapped face. Less than fifty metres below me, male barnacle geese stood tall and proud overlooking the icy Fjord, and tucked neatly behind them were females cosily wrapped around their eggs. I could hardly contain my emotion. It was a huge relief.

The next morning, the crew arrived and I confidently led them to the nest.

Spot the barnacle geese nest

Goose Watch

Once little baby chicks had been spotted we knew that we had less than 48 hours before they would need to get to the feeding grounds below. So if we kept poised for action it should all work out beautifully.

Adult barnacle geese watch for predators while standing guard over their little chicks.

My hours of watching were certainly enlightening - sitting atop a freezing wind-blasted cliff as the 24 hour sun circled above me. It may sound cliched, but I was sitting on top of the world. The vista constantly evolved as clouds and shadows swept by... 24 hours later and I handed over to Gordon and Justine who took shifts sleeping on the top of the cliff. Exhausted I crawled into my sleeping bag, safe in the knowledge that the key shot would be bagged by that time tomorrow.

Middle of the night and 24 hour sunlight. Gordon tries to sleep by his camera as the crew take shifts to watch the nest

Several hours later I woke and excitedly radioed to get the news... there was a brief silence and then clearly but painfully 'we didn't get it'... I paused as reality dawned.

Apparently the chicks had jumped from their nests so fast and unexpectedly that they didn't even have time to press record on the camera. Contrary to what we had believed the adults had given no warning at all - no beckoning or encouragement to their young. The chicks all simply tumbled over and fell down. We could see them below - tiny specks walking about at the base of the cliff, but we had nothing on film.

Exhausted and cold we remained optimistic. Peak hatching season was upon us - surely this was just the first of many? We had learned a lot about the barnacle goose. Every minute we had spent watching the little family had provided a further insight into their behaviour. Next time we would be prepared.

An expedition up stream

Justine and I decided the time was right to venture out even further, extending our search to an area 15kms away. Trekking across the icy peaks, and following the canyon that I had searched a week earlier. Wearing thermal waders we then entered the glacial stream. Deep down in the canyon it was a whole new world. As water swept past us, huge blocks of sculptured ice and giant snow bridges lined, and sometimes blocked, our passage. Every footstep was one of trepidation. From here the canyon appeared higher and more daunting then ever.

Eventually we turned a bend and the whole mood of the canyon changed. Towering curved cliffs provided an amphitheater for soaring fulmars, and there nestled high on pinnacles and ledges of rock were families of barnacle geese - the sun highlighting their splendid black and white plumage. I couldn't believe it. 

Lasse and I braving the melt water and giant blocks of ice

Justine and I taking a rest in the river

Struggle to escape

From this vantage point it wasn't long before Justine filmed a pair of barnacle geese leading their baby from the grass into the water - the chicks first paddling lesson. It's skill they would need if they were to leave the canyon and join the other geese who were gathering by the green edges of the fjords in preparation for their return to Scotland in a few months time.

Within moments the little chick looked overwhelmed as it fought the fast flow, its small feeble wings paddling desperately. For a moment it sank beneath the icy water, Justine filming its every breath. Suddenly a huge gull swept down, plucked the little ball of fluff from the water and swallowed it whole. The lesson was over. A heart-wrenching moment and we had caught the harsh reality on film. After months of care this pair of barnacle geese that had lost their little chick in one mouthful.

The Final Great Leap

Spectacular clouds over distant hills, a view from our camp

With more and more barnacle geese gathering together we had less than six days before leaving Svalbard. Only one nest remained in reach, only one nest on which to put all our hopes. If it worked it would be nothing short of spectacular. We had found a goose sitting on eggs 150 metres up, on the edge of a long ridge jutting out over the canyon.

A couple of days later, and with five chicks hatched, the adults became more and more anxious, pacing back and forth over the ledge, the male occasionally flying off to feed himself. It seemed to me that their predicament had struck home. How on earth would the chicks get down to the feeding grounds alive - from such an incredible height? Either a straight drop of 150metres down one side - surely suicidal, or a bumpy but slightly less suicidal tumble down the other. Whatever happened it was going to be dramatic.

Over several hours the mother kept peering over one edge. Was she working out the safest way down?  We positioned our cameras to give us the prime view, and waited.

Spot the Cameraman! - Gordon Buchanan is in position opposite the nesting barnacle geese

As I waited and watched, a young arctic fox appeared, was he interested in my cheese sandwich or searching for barnacle geese chick. It was a welcome distraction from watching geese.

 The young Arctic fox curiously approached me. I grabbed my camera, which had a 70-300mm lens attached but by now he was too close to frame up, as I slowly moved back I took this shot before he dived for my lunch and ran off with a cheese sandwich.  

After 60 hours I was exhausted and the chicks must have been getting hungry - the severity of their extremely high nest position no doubt responsible for their delay in fledging. Gordon was on tenterhooks. I was rushed with adrenalin and sitting on another ledge some distance away. From there I was able to survey the situation with a clear view of the steep suicidal side of the ledge, which the geese were wisely keeping away from.

Adult geese with their nests on the ridge on the opposite side of the canyon

Suddenly, with no warning the parents flew away and abandoned their chicks. Left alone, they looked so tiny and vulnerable. I could see the parents fly down and join the other geese feeding. They had obviously exhausted their resources and had no choice but to abandon their chicks. We waited, I could feel my heart pounding. Were we going to film them jump? And under even more extraordinary circumstances? This was going to be a powerful story.

Gordon was ready and in position, but without an adult to show them the left hand side of the ridge - and safest route down, the confused chicks started walking towards me... towards the right hand side, a shear drop. Horrified I radioed Gordon, but he had already grabbed his camera and was scrambling to get to where I was. I fell to my knees looking through the binoculars. This was the the scene I had pictured - playing out in slow motion before me. Five little chicks all jumped, plumeting down 150 metres. One disappeared as it hit the rocks, another was grabbed by a gull, the remaining three fell into the river and were washed away. In a matter of seconds the chicks had gone.

Cameraman Gordon Buchanan waits for jumping chicks

In four weeks we had seen our cold wintery valley be transformed. The sun was shining, the rocky tundra slopes were now lush meadows speckled with tiny yellow and purple flowers, and the ice fields were velvety streams trickling across the hillsides. We had gone from winter to summer in a few weeks.

It had been an emotional rollercoaster. No matter how much planning or how much equipment you have, to capture extraordinary animal behaviour is never guaranteed.

I hope that one day this incredible behaviour is filmed again - if it's anything close to what I saw through my binoculars I think it will knock people's socks off!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Photography: Filming Barnacle Geese on Svalbard

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Photographs from my trip to film Barnacle Geese on the Arctic island of Svalbard for the BBC One series 'Life', narrated by Sir David Attenborough. See my video posts and blogs uploaded live from the Arctic.

Created with flickr slideshow.