Behind the Scenes: Born to Be Wild 3D

Behind the Scenes: Born to Be Wild 3D

Posted on April 11, 2011 at 3:53 pm

It was so much fun to talk with some of the people behind “Born to Be Wild 3D” following its Washington DC premiere at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.  Writer/producer Drew Fellman, cinematographer David Douglas, and Dame Daphne Sheldrick of the baby elephant rescue in Kenya spoke with me about making the movie.

3D and Imax requires some pretty extensive equipment — and yet you were able to get some amazing shots of the animals and the scenery.  What was your biggest challenge?

Douglas: We had two camera systems.  One of them weighs 300 pounds.  It’s basically a massive fridge, and it sounds like a sewing machine and it has three minutes of film.  So, that camera is used for certain scenes.  But to get up in the canopy, to get an orangutan’s view of the world, we basically had to invent a new camera system for IMAX.  And so we worked with IMAX to create their first camera that weighs less than 100 pounds, to get up on a 60-foot crane arm, and we build scaffolding in the middle of the jungle. Piece by piece, we trekked it up the river in small boats.

It sounds like “Fitzcarraldo!”

Fellman: I was actually reading Herzog’s book, Conquest of the Useless, his diary of the making of “Fitzcarraldo,” and it was really interesting because you’d read that book and think, “Okay, we’ve got it pretty good.”

Douglas: The shoot was really not just two animal but two challenges.  The elephants were almost like a dream in a sense, we could be at ground level, we could get around them and we could use the big camera.  But the orangutans, a big camera like that in the jungle is just too unwieldy.  That small camera ended up being massively useful.

Fellman: One of the biggest surprises for us was how the animals ended up accepting our presence and the cameras.  That was our biggest concern going in.  One thing we had in our favor is that if it was between the camera and a bottle of milk, the milk was much more interesting than the camera.

Dame Daphne: They were a little bit suspicious at first, curious about these strange people around them all day who weren’t a part of their human family.  But within a couple of days, it just became the norm and they were  happy to ignore them and concentrate on what they were doing.

In the movie it says that it took you 24 years to develop infant formula for elephants that made it possible for the first time to raise them without a mother.  What did you have to do to get it right?

Dame Daphne: Newborn elephants didn’t come in every day.  But whenever they came in very small we tried different formulas.  We knew elephant milk was very rich so we tried adding butter, cream, and then no fat at all.  We didn’t have access to sophisticated baby formula in those days.  We only had access to cow’s milk.  I tried skim milk and the calves lasted a lot longer but they just wasted away.  So I knew it was a fat problem.  I went scouring the shops in Nairobi and all the zoos and asked, “What can we feed an elephant that has no cow’s milk fat?”  Eventually, we settled on a base of SMA Goldcap.  It’s not ideal.  We still get stomach problems.  But elephants need milk for the first three years of life.  They cannot live without it.  When they first come in we have a lot of problems with dehydration, lots of them are wounded or psychologically disturbed and in a mess.  Stabilizing the stomach is the main challenge when they come in, getting them onto the new formula and calming them down.

Do you have to teach them about their natural predators so they can protect themselves when they return to the wild?

Dame Daphne: Fortunately for us, unlike the primates, elephants are born with a genetic memory, but in order to hone that, you have to expose them to a wild situation.  We’ve learned that the younger we can get them there, the easier the transition is.   We can keep them for as long as ten years.  Generally, the ones that came to us older, that have the memory of being wild elephants, leave us sooner.

Fellman: There are lions all over that place.  It’s part of Nairobi National Park, and the lions were walking around eating the warthogs.  These elephants see lions and react to them.

Dame Daphne: The elephants are very fearful animals.  They know the lions are there before the keepers do and they will run back to the keepers for protection.  They are getting bolder, too.

Fellman: We were on a scouting trip in Tsavo and we were walking with the elephants with their keepers in the bush, and suddenly they stopped.  This was a young group, maybe three or four years old.  There were maybe three buffalo  We didn’t know what to do.  We had been told that the buffalo can be quite dangerous.  We look at the elephants; the elephants look at us.  We look at the buffalo; the buffalo look at us.  And the elephants ran to go behind us!  We got tossed aside like nothing.

Douglas: We were told to get behind the elephants, that they would protect us.  But they had their own idea.

Dame Daphne: In the nursery, the keepers are very much a mother figure for the elephants.  But once they get to rehab there’s a gradual change.

Do they ever come back after they go to the wild?

Dame Daphne: Some of the bulls come back, even after eight years  One came back with a snare on his leg.  He stood very still while we removed it.

Fellman: One scene we could not squeeze into the movie had two that came back.  A whole group, maybe twelve, big elephants, brought them back.  One had an arrow in his nose and another had an arrow in her rump.  The mobile unit came by and treated them and then they went back.

Dame Daphne: One came back with a broken leg, escorted by another “ex-orphan.”  The “ex-orphans” come and visit him, just like he’s in hospital.  He’s made big friends with the small ones as well; they all have a hero worship on the big guy.  They want to be close to him.

I admire the way you made it clear in the film that these are not pets or domesticated animals but respected fellow creatures.

Douglas: They weren’t patients, they weren’t study animals; they were friends.

Fellman: The thing that struck me when we started looking at his project is this idea that there’s an enterprise happening between people and animals as equals for a common goal.

Dame Daphne: The elephants are teaching the keepers.  There’ve been occasions when one or two of the orphans have been left behind with the wild herds.  The keepers are worried.  They open up the gates and Yetta, the herd matriarch, sends two young bulls off and off they go to bring back the truants.  The scientific community have had this huge block about not attributing human emotion to animals — that is anthropomorphizing.  But I just came in as a lay person who loves animals.  I could see very early on that all animals indeed have the same sort of emotions.  We’re part of the animal kingdom and we’re not nearly as sophisticated as the elephants.

I have one adorable little stuffed orangutan to give to the first person who sends me an email at with “Born to Be Wild” in the subject line.  Tell me your favorite animal and don’t forget your address!

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Behind the Scenes

Born to Be Wild 3D

Posted on April 7, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Orphaned animals, references to predators (including humans)
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 8, 2011
Date Released to DVD: April 16, 2012 ASIN: B0071L6T24

One way or another you’ll find yourself saying, “Awwwwww.”  The adorable baby animals and the grace and kindness of the people who care for them are guaranteed to warm every heart in the theater.

In Borneo, Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas rescues orangutans orphaned by developers who cut down the jungle to produce palm oil.  In Kenya, Dame Daphne M. Sheldrick provides a home for the baby elephants orphaned by poachers.  More than five thousand miles apart, the two women care for different animals but share the same goal: to raise the babies without taming them, so they can return to a natural life in the wild.  Morgan Freeman narrates the story, taking us back and forth as we see the newest babies arrive and the adolescents “graduate.” The goal is to nurture them only as long as they need help and then find them a safe home in a nature preserve. They are “under human care but not human control; they need to retain their wildness.”

Some of the animals arrive traumatized.  A baby elephant who saw humans kill his mother has to learn these humans are different; they just want to feed and protect him.  Amazingly, the other orphaned elephants gather around to reassure him that he is finally safe.  They show him that a giant-sized bottle can be a good way to get milk.  The milk, by the way, is a special formula developed by Dame Daphne over 24 years, making it possible for the first time to raise an infant elephant without a mother.   Unlike mother elephants, humans are not big enough to cast protective shadows to prevent sunburn, so Dame Daphne and her colleagues rub sunblock on the tender ears of the baby elephants instead.  And elephants do not sleep well alone, so the keepers curl up near them at night. These are the cutest pachyderms on screen since the baby elephants marched to the Mancini soundtrack in “Hatari.”

The elephants are social creatures who create a community of their own.  In one very touching scene, when the now “ex-orphans” are brought to a sort of halfway house to get used to living away from the humans the current residents somehow sense that newcomers are arriving and come to the drop-off point to welcome them.  The orangutans interact more directly with their human care-givers, draping themselves along their backs and hugging their chests.  Dr. Galdikas and her crew have built a contraption for swinging and climbing to teach them the skills they need to find food and a safe place to sleep — a literal jungle gym.  She teaches them more than skills for survival; she makes each one of them feel special and cared for.  “As long as they feel loved,” she says, “they’ll have the confidence they need.”

The movie is empathetic but respectful to the animals.  It enlarges our circle of compassion by reacquainting us with our fellow residents of the planet.  Yet, it avoids getting cutesy or overly anthropomorphic.  These are not pets and they are not being tamed.  They are temporary guests, learning what they need to know so they can go home.  In the early scenes, we see the orangutans covered with shampoo and sharing a plate of pasta with Dr. Galdikas to the tune of bouncy American pop tunes such as Hank Williams’ “Jumbalya.”  Then as they return to the wild, the soundtrack turns African, more serious and stirring, and we share the mixed feelings of these dedicated people who have cared for the animals for so long.  We are happy that they are going home but know they will be missed.  We are hopeful for their future but worried that the wilderness left for them is shrinking every day.

This is everything a family movie should be: touching, funny, and inspiring.  And with a brisk 40-minute running time no one has to sit still for too long.  The IMAX 3D format may be overwhelming for children under five, but anyone older than that will find the baby animals hard to resist, the scenery breathtaking, and the devotion of Dr. Galdikas and Dame Daphne deeply moving.


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3D Documentary DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Environment/Green For the Whole Family

Great Movie Elephants and Donkeys

Posted on September 27, 2008 at 10:00 am

In honor of the upcoming election, a bi-partisan listing of classic movies featuring those two symbols of the political parties, the elephant and the donkey, with a tip of the hat to cartoonist Thomas Nast, who first assigned those animals to the Republicans and the Democrats.

1. Dumbo You’ll believe an elephant can fly in this charming animated Disney classic about the little elephant with big ears (NOTE: some ethnic humor that is insensitive by today’s standards)

2. The Adventures of Francis the Talking Mule WWII-era favorite Francis was an army mule who starred in seven popular comedies.

3. Billy Rose’s Jumbo Jimmy Durante, Doris Day, and Jumbo the elephant star in this circus story.

4. Shrek Eddie Murphy provides the voice for the talkative but loyal sidekick to the lovable ogre.

5. Fantasia Elephant ballerinas appear in one of the segments of this animated classic.

6. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh The anxious Eeyore the donkey is one of the most beloved characters in this movie based on the classic books by A.A. Milne.

7. Horton Hears a Who Tender-hearted Horton the Elephant (voice of Jim Carrey) saves the tiny speck of dust that is the home of the adorable residents of Whoville.

8. Au Hasard Balthazar This lyrical allegory is the story of a donkey-saint.

9. Hatari! Henry Mancini’s famous “Baby Elephant Walk” is one of the highlights of this genial John Wayne adventure-comedy set in Africa.

10. Pinocchio Pinocchio and Lampwick find themselves turning into donkeys when they neglect their responsibilities and families in this Disney animated classic.

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