Nobody does interesting and amazing wildlife documentary work like Disney Nature and nobody is more apt to capture such guarded animals in their natural habitat like filmmaker Mark Linfield. As the Co-Director/Producer of the new to Blu-ray doc "Chimpanzee" (available now from Walt Disney Studios), Mark also made the amazing film "Earth," as well as some various animal docs on everything from Gelada Baboons to Orangutans. His latest Chimpanzee tells the story of Oscar, a young chimp living and growing up in the heart of the African forest. All under the playful narration of "Toy Story’s" Tim Allen, Chimpanzee is a wondrous combo of fascinating animal behavior and beautifully lush landscapes rarely seen. We got a chance to talk with helmer Mark Linfield one-on-one and he talked about finding young Oscar and his group, the perils of shooting in Africa and his choice of Allen as the voice behind the Chimpanzee clan. Here’s filmmaker...
How did you come across Oscar and his group?
Mark Linfield: The Chimpanzees themselves were well known to us through a scientist who has worked out there for thirty years and because of his work the Chimpanzees are ever so relaxed around people. Which I think is really important because if you went into a completely virgin forest and you found Chimpanzees that had never seen a person before there would be constant looking over their shoulder and actually running away - you wouldn't get any natural behavior. It takes quite a relaxed Chimpanzee to give you natural behavior because scientists have followed them for thirty years. As far as they're concerned the people are things that are really boring and that means they can get on with their business, which is fantastic.
How were you able to get so close to the group yet not interfere with their everyday lives?
ML: People are just not very interesting to them, but we had to be quite careful with how close we got. So it looks like we were incredibly close, but actually we had very good telephoto lenses, so generally speaking we're not as close as we look.
Was there ever a point during shooting after Oscar’s mom had been killed and prior to being accepted by the leader of the group that you considered taking the shunned Oscar out of the wild?
ML: (Laughs) That's a very good question and you're not the first person to ask that. We always have a golden rule that we don't interfere and while that may sound very heartless I think this is a really good example of why we don't interfere. Because if you think about it if I had gone and picked up Oscar and taken him back to camp and fed him milk and tried to raise him, he would have lost out on the opportunity to be raise by Freddy. And frankly Freddy's going to make a much better Chimp parent to Oscar then I would! (Laughs) You can never predict what's going to happen.
It was an interesting choice to use a playful narration by Tim Allen – what made you choose him as your storyteller?
ML: Interestingly we were really keen on having a narration that captured, and this might sound strange, a modern contemporary view of Chimpanzees and Chimpanzee science. Let me explain what I mean by that. We wanted something that felt deliberately fun and made the Chimpanzees feel like they were kind of like us. They had personalities, sentiments and they had a sense of humor and thought things because actually that is the modern contemporary view of Chimpanzee science. The narration is light and friendly, but we wanted something that was actually quite true to Chimpanzee character.
How harrowing was it to shoot in Africa and what was the biggest challenge?
ML: There were some technical challenges like we were working in the middle of the forest a long way from what you might call civilization and we had to build a camp. The logistics behind it were enormous - walking miles through the forest carrying lots of screws and building, which was an extraordinary undertaking. The other thing was Africa is a politically dicey place. More then once we had to suspend filming because of civil unrests and uprisings. We had people come into the forest with guns, rebels with guns and we had UN Peacekeeping forces in there by the end - it was a very difficult place to work. People say aren't the animals in the forest dangerous, but snakes, scorpions, that sort of stuff, even angry Chimpanzees you don't have to worry about them. It's people that you have to worry about. Teenagers with AK-47's you have to worry about - not Chimpanzees.
I adore that a portion of the first week of sales goes to the incredible Jane Goodall Institute – can you describe for the uninitiated what they do to help Chimpanzees?
ML: Jane Goodall has done enormous amounts to bring Chimpanzees and their plight to everyone's attention. If you go to her website you'll see that money from that initial box office push went to a number of initiatives that Jane has going in Africa. One is to extend the size of a Chimpanzee reserve enormously - natural forest for wild Chimpanzees so they are more protected. Also money is going into educating local children in Africa and also taking care of orphaned Chimpanzees.
What’s next for you?
ML: I'm not allowed to say actually! (Laughs) I think what I am probably allowed to say is that we are making something new for Disney Nature - I think I'm allowed to say that! And obviously it's a wildlife subject and I think it's going to be fantastic or I wouldn't be doing it.
"CHIMPANZEE" IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON DVD/BLU-RAY FROM WALT DISNEY HOME ENTERTAINMENT.