Interview: “Island Of Lemurs” Filmmakers

Posted on April 5, 2014 at 8:01 pm

I spoke with the humans behind the gorgeous new IMAX nature film, “Island of Lemurs 3D: Madagascar,” Drew Feldman (writer/producer), David Douglas (director/cinematographer), and Dr. Patricia Wright, about the challenges of making the film and the more daunting challenges of saving these precious creatures.

@ Warners
Copyright Warners

How do you get so close to the lemurs? What are some of the challenges that you face?

DD: We spent a lot of time scouting and looking for lemurs that would allow us to get somewhere near them.  We obviously picked the easiest ones we could find because our gear is big and heavy and it doesn’t take well to running after lemurs. So we found places where their movement was constricted by geological or geographical limits and that helped us to get closer to them and that often meant that we were working with the same lemurs scientists were studying.  Those lemurs had some experience with human beings already.

Patricia tell me a little bit about lemur families and the role of the females.

PW: There’s over 100 species of lemurs.  Each is a little bit different in their social structure except for one thing: they are all female dominant. The females are the leaders. They are the ones that call the shots.  When you watch a group, you can see the females are the first one to say “We’re going to move.”  Then she moves off and everybody just follows. And they follow her into a fruit tree and then she starts to eat the best fruits available at the tops of the trees and the males are required to just wait outside the fruit tree until the females have eaten the best fruits and then the males are allowed in. And if they don’t obey the rule, well then they are reprimanded. Sometimes it’s a slap across the face. Sometimes it’s just a vocal sort of “Don’t do that.”  And sometimes they bite them.

What other kinds of animals are unique to Madagascar?

PW: We have carnivores that are all related to the mongoose family. And they are very special to Madagascar, found nowhere else. There’s or no cats or no dogs on Madagascar. So instead, these kind of weasel-like creatures that have evolved into these much bigger predators. And most of the birds are found nowhere else either.

What is the Malagasy community doing to support the lemurs?

PW: When I first got there which now is well over 20 years ago, the Malagasy sort of had no idea that lemurs were special. And we spent, not just me but the environmental movement, spent a lot of time developing a National Park Service. There wasn’t anything like that before.  We also train tourist guides and work on getting the people themselves to really value the extraordinary wildlife that they have.  We have a education team that goes out to talk to the local villagers. We have a health team that helps them get healthier than they are now and we basically visit and talk and have meetings with the village elders and they get some jobs. Because at the end of the day it’s economics isn’t it? So we have been training them as artisans. We have been training them as construction, teaching them computers. The local people have really enjoyed the fruits of having a national park in their backyard.

You have a background in anthropology as well as primatology so I guess that applies to your work with the humans as well as with the primates.

PW: My first job was actually as a social worker. And then later, I got my PhD in anthropology. And I’ve always been interested in humans as well as primates. We are all kind of have the same emotions, the same goals and lives really. But to me, when I first got to Madagascar I realized that the lemurs lives are very closely related to what the humans are doing; partially because they’ve got both looking for natural resources. And if we can make some way that both humans and lemurs can live together peaceably and happily, that would be my goal for Madagascar.

Drew, tell me a little bit about how you first came to be interested in lemurs. 

DF: I’ve always been fascinated about Madagascar but to be honest I never really knew that much of lemurs growing up. Maybe they are just overshadowed by monkeys and apes and they’ve never really had their moment in the sun. And right after Dave and I finished Born to Be Wild I had a chance to meet Pat kind of by coincidence at some party. And after I heard her stories about lemurs, Dave cornered her and was like, “we’ve got to make a movie about Madagascar and lemurs.”

So, she invited us out and we went and she took us all around Madagascar for a month and showed us how extraordinary, fascinating, and just adorable lemurs were.

I was so struck by the eyes of these lemurs.  How do you capture that on screen?

DD: And it’s every color. The project that didn’t get done on this movie was that I wanted to do was a poster that was just pairs of eyes of those lemurs because there’s red, gold eyes and green eyes and blue eyes and every shade of in between. Crazy! Jewels! And yeah, just marvelous! So expressive also and of course because of the way they get around, they really need highly evolved stereo vision because they need very good depth perception to go blasting through the trees the way they do. They leap for long distances and actually get where they thought they were going to go. So they have a very, very well developed sight sense for sure as well as being pretty exotic and beautiful to look at in the eye department.

You had a big transition in technology between the last film and this one.  How did that affect the filming?

DD: This is a big thing. There’s three minutes in an IMAX film magazine but we’ve now transitioned to digital.  It makes an enormous difference; especially in 3-D because a 3-D film camera is almost a 300 pound instrument.  Two cameras built into one, enormous cost and weight and everything and in ways everything and noise. But now we’ve come up with a camera which is about 50, 55 pounds. So that’s like our old 2-D film camera and it’s a new kind of 3-D actually. We could put it on our backs and carry it down into the jungle as a single unit and put it onto a tripod and use it in a way that seems familiar.  The other thing that it has is the capacity to not run out of film.  When you’re working with wildlife, that’s a really good thing. The likelihood is if they do it and are pointed that direction, you’re going to get it. And that lets you plan for things and it also lets the crew relax. One of the things that I notice is that when the crew is all working, the crew is tensed up hoping an animal is going to do something in the near future that you want. Everybody gets a bit tense because once you can that big camera on, you’re basically spending a thousand bucks a minute as that camera is running and hoping that before three minutes, before $3000 goes by, that they did something that you like and they somehow ignored that floundering machine that you are standing with.  And not while you are changing magazines, which is the normal time for them to do things.

Drew, how do you go about imposing a narrative on this story?

DF: David and I spent a lot of time talking about that. Our first trip to Madagascar, I remember at the very end, we had some pretty interesting conversations about the just trying to piece together what this story is like about at its core; because obviously it’s about lemurs and the lemurs are amazing and all that but we are trying to make films that aren’t necessarily straight wildlife films that are more cinematic that have a sort of real cinema story to it. The thing we kept coming back to, really the defining characteristic of the lemur story is that they are really these accidental creatures in a sense. They came to Madagascar by accident. They found this Garden of Eden with no snakes and no apples and they flourished there for 40 million years before predators showed up.  It’s kind of this alternate reality of what happens, primate development in Africa. And the danger has finally reached them. All the troubles in the world after millions and millions and millions and millions of years have finally reaches their shores. And how are they dealing with that? And how are we going to deal with that? 

What have we learned about humans from studying lemurs?

PW: We have learned a lot of things. First of all, being primates, they live very long, maybe 30, 35 years in the wild.  So we begin to look at old age, what is old age in the wild? Does it slow them down? Are the older ones out-of-favor? Are they good grandmothers?  It was very charming to see they have great respect for their elders.  They don’t cast them aside. So that’s good and we’ve learned a lot about different kinds of social systems because some of that lemurs are monogamous pairs and others are kind of groups of males and females in one group. And we’ve learned about parent-offspring conflict and growing up.

Lemurs are good parents but they do it in different ways. I originally studied father care. I was very interested in that and we saw that a lot of these animals that lived in pairs and the father wasn’t doing anything at all for the first month. But then suddenly, when the baby got to be a certain weight then the dads chipped in and started carrying the babies which was very nice. And then if there was twins or triplets then they helped, so that’s definitely true.  The black and white lemur, the one that relaxes on that branch, they actually have day care, like kindergartens; where all the mothers come together and they put all the babies into this one nest and they let dad watch it while they go out and have food and have a good time and then they come back in a few hours.  We’ve never seen that in other primates. This is the first time it’s been described so that’s major news.

Anybody who sees this movie is going to be utterly enchanted by the dancing.

PW: Lemurs are extraordinarily leapers. I mean they are just really going from tree to tree and then if there is not a tree, they just come down to the ground very gracefully.  But it is the music that makes them seem to be dancing.  They are basically getting from one place to another and that’s just natural for them. They are just natural acrobatic dancers, just the way they move. It’s beautiful!

DF: Music choices are totally fun and we certainly threw a lot of choices up against that to see what stuck. I mean we went through James Brown and all sorts of things. I remember asking one of the researchers in Madagascar who works with (19:45 inaudible), “what type of music do you think they would dance to?” She was like, “Jazz, they would dance to jazz.”

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