The latest Disneynature film Born in China is funny, heartwarming, powerful and nothing short of spectacularly beautiful.

We once again get a birds-eye view of another gorgeous, mysterious and untouched landscape, filled with its endearing animal inhabitants. Filmed in the Chinese countryside, Born in China follows three stories – an elusive snow leopard mom trying to provide for her two cubs in the barren mountains; a majestic mother panda and her young daughter in the forest; and a golden monkey adolescent coping with family issues.

ScreenPicks was able to speak with Born in China‘s producer Roy Conli about making this magnificent film, the challenges they faced and the inspirational ways these Disneynature films teach us about the circle of life and the power of conservation.

How do you come up with the individual stories in the film?

Roy Conli: Essentially the animals give us their stories. I generally work in animation and animation has been an interesting path for me because I had never worked within this structure before and when you’re working in animation, you start off whole cloth. Start with a script and you storyboard it and then you tweak it and you end up with an image. In this particular case, you start with an image and you work backwards to kind of track what that story is.

And fortunately within this structure, you have amazing cinematographers who are out in the field journaling literally everything that they see through the day. So you’re really getting the history of what happened on the set per day. Then you add to that this amazing director and probably the biggest reason why I was interested in this project, Lu Chuan. Lu Chuan is probably, I think one of the greatest living Chinese directors. Great storyteller. And he was on set some of the times but you can’t be on set all the time because literally we had multiple crews working throughout the country at any one time. So really, the unsung hero here are those cinematographers. So when they come back with the journals and the footage, we start putting together the story.”

We also get footage over a year and a half period of time. The process is fascinating. Shane Moore who is the cinematographer on the snow leopard unit, first of all he went out to one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, 16,000 feet above sea level, it is often below zero. As you can see in the film, it’s rugged out there. He did not get any shots of snow leopards until his 90th day. So there was big conversation in Los Angeles, Bristol and Beijing, are we doing the right thing here, is this going to happen?

To further compound that, his journalistic visa lasted only for three months, so he had to actually leave the day after he got that first shot. We spoke with Shane thinking, “Okay, are we on a fool’s errand, is this not what we should be doing, should we be looking for another animal?” At that point, Shane who has tracked big cats throughout the world said, “No, I now know what their paths are.” There’s a whole process in terms of these cinematographers, they get to know their animals and so when you look at the magic of those stories, it’s those cinematographers… they are the unsung heroes.”

And about the snow leopard and what happens, were there discussions on what you would show?

Conli: We talked a lot. But the feeling was that the investment in that story and how people fell in love with Dawa [the mama snow leopard], it was important. When we saw the outcomes, we were all very emotional. But as a filmmaker, I’m not afraid of showing that to kids. I live by what I call the Pinocchio principle. First film I saw as a kid was Pinocchio. I was terrified and scared and I cried, but I think I came out pretty healthy in the end. I think that in this particular case, when you’re dealing with nature, you have to be honest. You just have to. And given what kids see after 8:00 at night on TV, this is healthier than probably anything else they’ll ever see.

How was that balance between not trying to interfere with nature but still getting close enough to get the shots?

Conli: First of all, we are committed to not interfering with nature. It gets a little hard with monkeys because they are so interested in you. And they will actually perform for the camera. In that case, you have to work to keep them away from you. But with snow leopards, they are one of the most elusive animals on this planet. Not only because they stay away from humanity, but because you can’t see them… Shane started out at about 400 meters and got shots. Slowly but surely, as the mama snow leopard was becoming familiar with him and knew that he was not a threat, he was able to get closer and closer. A couple of shots, he was able to get at about 40-50 meters. He knew what he could do but didn’t want to overstep it.

The pandas. Sweet, lovable, cute but 800 pounds. A mother and her cub, you don’t want to get that close to. And they are, as the film portrays, very solitary animals. They like being alone. The cinematographers literally donned panda suits and smeared themselves with panda scent. They could get closer to them than the snow leopards, but you still had to keep your distance. These guys are brilliant.

With the snow leopards and pandas, it was easy to concentrate on their one story, but how did you find the story with the golden monkey, Tao Tao, and the “Lost Boys”?

Conli: Initially we were looking for that mother-son relationship with the monkeys, but we kept getting footage of this monkey trying to get back with his family. And we were taken with it, watching those reactions. So, when we went through it, it was clear Tao Tao was telling us his story. We had a lot of footage with the baby sister and the mother, but Tao Tao’s story was way more fascinating.

For me, one of things I love about this process is that the animals are so reflective, in many ways, of our own lives. This is a personal observation, mind you, not at all a scientific one. But to see a little boy feeling ostracized and pushed out of his family, what kid who has a little baby brother or sister has felt that way. You could really understand that. And with the panda Ya Ya and her daughter Mei Mei, what parent isn’t a little concerned about their child going off into the world? To me, that’s really an amazing opportunity to reach to kids and adults alike, to make them understand that we all live on one planet. And that we are all, in the long run, creatures trying to protect our family.

Was working with the Chinese government a good experience?

Conli: Totally. The Chinese government was very happy about our interest in their wildlife. In fact, we premiered the film in China in August and they were so proud. I got meet so many great people, civilian and government folk, who were so proud of seeing this area that Westerners are just not aware of. Most of the population of China lives along the coast. And you get into the inland that most Chinese don’t even go to that often. These are remote areas. You don’t take a vacation at 16,000 feet about sea level. So, to share that was really great. And what was even more amazing is that it started a dialogue within China about the preciousness of their wildlife and the importance of conservation.

Can you talk about the conservation work Disneynature is doing?

Conli:  I would urge your readers to go out and see the film the first weekend because that first weekend, a portion of the proceeds goes to the World Wildlife Fund and that money will be specifically targeted for the snow leopards and pandas. I’m so proud of the Disney company on what they’ve done with each one of these films. Right now, the company has helped support 130,000 acres of chimpanzee reserve. In Africa, 65,000 acres wildlife reserve on the Serengeti. They’ve got 400,000 acres at U.S. National parks where we’ve got grants to help 75 both animal and plant life species that are shrinking. We’ve 40,000 acre marine reserve in the Bahamas. Anyone who goes that first week will be contributing to the betterment of this world.

Please go see Born in China for a wonderful movie-going experience — and a way to help the environment!

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