Following The Lives Of Chimpanzees On Screen Filmmaker Alastair Fothergill spent three years in Western Africa, following a group of wild chimps. His Disney nature film Chimpanzee showcases a baby chimp named Oscar and the relationships he develops within his clan.

Following The Lives Of Chimpanzees On Screen

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Alastair Fothergill, has been working on nature documentaries for television and film for nearly 30 years. He's now the co-director, with Mark Linfield, of the new Disney nature movie "Chimpanzee" which is drawn from three years of remarkable footage taken of a group of chimps in Western Africa. Narrated by Tim Allen, the film tells the story of a baby chimp named Oscar and his changing relationship with adults in the group.

And it chronicles the group's sometimes violent conflicts with a rival group of chimpanzees. The film premiers tomorrow. Alastair Fothergill served as executive producer of the BBC Natural History unit with series producer for the series "Planet Earth," and executive producer for the series "Frozen Planet." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor, Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Alastair Fothergill, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, this film has a group of characters and, you know, a plot line as people who watch movies will be familiar with. There's conflict. There's family tragedy. Did you go in looking for a story?

ALASTAIR FOTHERGILL: Absolutely. I mean, we don't like to call this a documentary. Although it's a true story, absolutely true story, it's a movie. And I think people go to the cinema for a different experience from that which they want from a TV natural history documentary. And I think, more than anything else, they want an emotional, engaging story with key characters. And when we started this project four or five years ago, we wrote a classic 60, 70-page Hollywood script.

Disney wanted to see that before they actually gave us the green light on the movie. And we did that based on lots of years of experience working with chimpanzees and also with fantastic advice from Dr. Christophe Boesch, the scientist who'd worked with the chimpanzees that we spent most of our time filming. And of course, the chimpanzees never read the script. And so our skill as directors was to constantly say it's got to have a narrative. I mean, first of all, you need a hero.

We had a wonderful hero in a little guy called Oscar. We knew we wanted our hero to be a newborn chimpanzee, because in the first five years of their lives, 50 percent of chimpanzees die. And we knew those early years would be dramatic. And of course, baby chimpanzees are very cute. Obviously, the other star had to be his mother. And our other key star was Freddie who is the alpha male, the big guy, the big macho boss of the whole group.

The other thing that's always important in a movie is to have a baddie or baddies. And in our case, the baddies were the rival chimpanzees that lived close by. And unfortunately, the leader of that group, we could call Scar, because he had a very distinct harelip. And those were our characters. The story that finally played out and the story that we finally filmed turned out to be far more amazing than any one could possibly imagine when we started on our journey.

DAVIES: And I guess one of the things that's great about following a young chimp is that they have to learn. I mean, they learn to use tools from their parents. What were some of the things you observed there?

FOTHERGILL: I mean, tool use is fascinating, as I'm sure you know. In the '60s, Jane Goodall, for the first time, saw chimpanzees using tools. And at that time, it was a revolutionary discovery. I mean, Professor Louis Leakey, who was her mentor, said at that stage, we now have to redefine the meaning of the word tool, or possibly, the meaning of the word mankind, because at that stage we were known, you know, as man, the toolmaker.

The interesting thing about Christophe Boesch's group of chimpanzees in West Africa, is they use an amazing range of tools, over 50 different tools for different tasks. And the most dramatic of those is probably rock and stone hammers that they use to crack nuts. They have a nut there, a number of different types of nut, but these have very, very hard shells. And in order to crack into the lovely, nutritious material within the nut, these chimps have learned to create anvils, literal anvils.

In the roots of the trees, they hollow out little sort of holes, really, into which they put the nuts and then they use these stone and wooden hammers to crack the nuts. It's an extraordinary, dexterous process. An experienced adult will crack many nuts in a minute. But interestingly, it takes over seven years for the young chimps to learn. And it's very, very funny and a lovely part of our movie where we film our little guy Oscar, who's our star, desperately trying to copy his mother cracking nuts.

And he understands the process, but he doesn't have the dexterity, or the experience or the skills. And he goes on, and on, and on, and on, literally, for over half an hour cracking away, trying to crack, anyway, before he finally gets himself some nut flesh.

DAVIES: And they actually carry some of these tools with them. It's not just picking up something you find.

FOTHERGILL: No. What's extraordinary is that these nut trees are in groves in the forest, and the only fruit at certain times of the year. And the stone hammers, which are particularly precious, stone is very rare in rainforests. And it's so rare that the stone hammers, which are particularly important to crack, a large or very hard nut, called a Panda nut, the chimps will carry these stones with them for a long time, through the forest, looking for new Panda nuts. And more than anything else, making sure that none of the other chimps nick their favorite tool.

DAVIES: One of the more fascinating scenes in the film is where this group of chimps hunts for monkeys. I mean, you mentioned that we now know that chimps will kill and eat monkeys when they can catch them. Do you want to explain how they managed this hunt and how hard it was to get on film?

FOTHERGILL: Very, very hard to get on film, because obviously, a lot of it's taking place high up in the canopy and we were glimpsing moments, largely down from on the forest floor. In the Ivory Coast in West Africa, the trees are very tall and the chimps have a problem in that they weigh substantially more than the Colobus monkeys that they like to hunt. And so an intelligent monkey would go to the end of a thin branch, a branch just capable of carrying its weight and say, come here and we'll both die.

And then, the chimps are bright enough to realize that they can't go to the end of the branch. So what the chimps do, and this is really, really interesting, is they hunt in a highly organized way, where different - it's the males that do it - take different roles. So typically, for instance, what they will do is they'll send what they call blockers up. These are chimps that go up into the canopy and make themselves very, very obvious.

And their job, really, is to close off escape routes for the Colobus monkeys. Now, another one called the ambusher who will be the chimp that will finally grab the monkey if they're successful, goes up ahead and hides just below the canopy so the monkeys don't know where he is. And effectively, they've set a trap. And once they're all in position, the last male comes in and he's the driver. And he'll come up and very obviously chase the monkeys into this trap.

And they'll avoid the blockers and run straight, they hope - the chimps hope - into the arms of the ambusher. And when the ambusher grabs the monkey, it's extraordinary. The whole of the chimp group scream with excitement. It's one of the most extraordinary bloodcurdling sounds I've ever heard in nature. But then, once they bring the Colobus down to the ground, they share it out in a very, very interesting way, whereby those who had taken part in the hunt get the lion's share.

And then some of the females are given meat ,and it's thought that possibly that is favors between the males and the females. And it's a very organized hunt. But what's interesting about it is that if you look at socially hunting animals, wolves, killer whales, animals like that that hunt in packs, there's very rarely role play. They all hunt together. It's not organized. It's not that intelligent.

But chimpanzee hunts, certainly in the Ivory Coast in West Africa, are highly organized and highly intelligent. And in a sense, they give us a real sort of a reminder or sort of a picture, really, of possibly what our own ancestors might have been like.

DAVIES: In the three years that the team was filming these chimpanzees, were there any new behaviors observed, things that people just hadn't seen before?

FOTHERGILL: I think the most amazing thing happened towards the end of the film. Our star, Oscar, when he was about three-years-old, his mother Isha was killed by a leopard. And that should have been a death sentence for little Oscar. And a three-year-old chimpanzee is totally dependent on his mother. And then, something happened which was completely extraordinary. The alpha male, Freddie, literally adopted Oscar.

Now, in 30 years of studying chimpanzees in the Thai forests, Professor Boesch and his fellow researchers have never seen anything quite like that. They've seen brothers and sisters adopt younger siblings, but for the alpha male, the big macho guy, the guy whose job is to defend the whole group to basically discover a, sort of, I don't know, soft almost feminine side to his character was amazing.

I mean, he allowed the little guy to ride on his back, which normally only female chimpanzees do. He cracked nuts for him and shared his food, just as only a mother normally does. And he even let this tiny little guy sleep in his arms. And that's at the final images of our movie are of this big bruiser, this great big alpha male sleeping quietly on the forest floor and wrapped in his arms, little tiny Oscar.

It was scientifically amazing. And for us, as filmmakers, it was a storyline made in heaven, to be honest.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Alastair Fothergill. He co-directed the new Disney nature film, "Chimpanzee." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with director Alastair Fothergill. He co-directed the new Disney nature film, "Chimpanzee" with Mark Linfield. Was there any concern that these chimps, since they were accustomed to human company, might behave differently than wild chimps?

FOTHERGILL: No. They are completely wild chimps. It's very interesting. They ignore you entirely. I mean, we're very careful. I mean, we and the researchers always wore green clothing. We're always very respectful. We never ate around the chimps and we actually always kept seven meters away, and always wore face masks, because one of the issues of working with chimpanzees is because they are our closest relations, it is very easy for them to catch human diseases.

And by keeping seven meters away, by wearing a sort of, you know, an operating face mask, we were doing our very best to minimize the chances of transmission of any diseases.

DAVIES: It was dark under the forest canopy and darkness is the enemy of good photography. How did you shoot this?

FOTHERGILL: We shot it all on the very latest and the very best high definition digital cameras. To be honest, we probably couldn't have even made this movie five years ago, because obviously the big screen requires very high quality images. And traditionally, that was only produced by 35 mil-film, which is big, heavy film, big heavy cameras, which we could never have carried through the forest.

And one of the other benefits of the latest high definition digital cameras, is they're also very sensitive in low light and have a very good, what we call, dynamic range. They can deal from dark, dark to bright white. Because the real challenge under the canopy is not only that it's dark and obviously chimpanzees themselves are dark, but here and there, you'll get these beams of bright light through breaks in the canopy that'll light up the forest floor.

And it's a nightmare for a camera to be able to handle bright spots of sunlight and dark eyes of chimpanzees and having a, what we call, a dynamic range, the ability to handle the brightest to the darkest in one shot is very, very rare.

DAVIES: There are some scenes at the end of this film, with the credits, of the crew and some of the things they went through. And I have to say, they're really fascinating in their own way. Do you want to just talk a little bit about some of the difficulties they faced?

FOTHERGILL: I think the biggest challenge was just carrying the camera day after day after day. I mean, one of our cameramen, Bill Wallowa(ph) has worked with Jane Goodall in the Jane Goodall Institute in Tanzania for many, many, many, many years. Bill is built, in many ways, like a chimpanzee. He's extraordinarily tough. But why he was particularly useful and particularly talented and particularly suited, rather, for our film was that Bill understands chimpanzees like, sort of, no one else really.

And I remember working with him once and we were going along following, patrolling chimps and suddenly there was a distant all and Bill just ran. He just ran. He disappeared and I desperately ran after him trying to keep up with him and I thought, where are you going? Where are you going? And basically, Bill had predicted where the interaction would happen.

He knew what was about to happen. He got ahead. And when you're trying to film these group interactions, you need to get ahead. And our other cameraman, Martyn Colbeck, his challenge was we really wanted to keep the camera on the tripod for a lot of the time. We wanted to do very beautiful images whenever the chimps stopped, such that the audience never felt there was a sense of camera-work.

You know, we could've shot a lot of this film on the shoulder, with the camera on the shoulder, and we did for the interactions, you know, because it was happening so fast. But other times, whenever we could slow the action down, we really would because we didn't want the camera to get between the audience and being there. And one of the wonderful things, one of the most satisfying things about making this film is every night we'd come back - and because there was digital images, we could play them back to people.

And the researchers who'd spent years of their lives with those chimpanzees, were seeing things on our screen, through our cameras, that they'd never seen through their own eyes.

DAVIES: Can you think of something that was new to them when they saw it on film?

FOTHERGILL: Do you know, little things like scars on the faces, and because our lenses were so powerful they never get that close to the chimps, because they are very careful. You know, they don't want to get closer than seven meters. And just once you've got the, you know, on a big screen the face of chimpanzee, it's like taking one of those really powerful makeup mirrors and having a close up look yourself at your own face. It can be very revealing, rather.

DAVIES: In terms of difficulties, I have to ask you about the driver ants, because as I understand it, your team built an encampment closer to the chimps than roads would be and did it in such a way so that it blended into the natural setting, which meant that creatures, including ants, could find their way in. Right?

FOTHERGILL: Absolutely. I mean the location on the Ivory Coast - from the capital city Abidjan, it was a 10 hour drive on a tarmac road, another four hour drive on a dirt road, and then a walk of about an hour into the forest. Now, Christophe Boesch already had a research camp there, but there wasn't enough room. It was very small. It was just enough for his small team.

We built our own camp right in the middle and, yes, it was basically designed to let the animals come through. It was basically - it was a roof over the forest, really. And we had lots of visitors. We had gaboon vipers, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. We had bees, we had scorpions, we had whip scorpions, and on occasion driver ants or safari ants, which really have to be seen to be believed, actually.

These are social ants and where literally millions of these ants go on the move together. When you see them it looks like a stream of black, moving, moving, moving. And they'll eat anything, literally anything, in their way. And what we had to do with our camp is dig a shallow trench all the way around the hut and fill it with diesel fuel. And that was the only way that we could reliably ensure that the ants didn't come in and cause problems for us.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting that as you filmed such care was taken not to disturb their natural setting, not to interfere with them in any way, not to influence their behavior, to let them be the wild chimps that they are. And yet the film, as it's presented, in some ways makes them more human-like.

I mean they are given human names and there's a narration which, sort of, brings humor and music in a way - at times they appear to be kind of, you know, dancing with a song.

FOTHERGILL: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: And I wonder, is there a tradeoff there. I mean do you feel, in some ways, like in order to get a broader audience and develop the kind of appreciation for these animals and the preservation of their habitat that's so important, you do things that maybe as a naturalist you wouldn't want to do?

FOTHERGILL: To a certain extent. I mean, you know, we are making a movie for families. We want children, everybody to go, and the cinema is a very competitive world. And, you know, this movie in the States will go out in 1,500 cinemas and it'll compete against enormously competitive movies. And we don't want natural history movies to be, you know, sort of small audience documentaries.

We want them to have a massive appeal. That said, it's really important that we're really true to nature, and I'm very proud of the fact that the behavior and the factual information that comes in "Chimpanzee" is absolutely right. Yes, we play for the humor. Yes, we've chosen Tim Allen for the narration here in the States, because, you know, he gives it a great humor. But that's what it says, this is not a documentary.

I think that's what gives it a feeling of being a movie and a cinema experience. And I don't want it in any way to feel didactic. So I make no apologies for making it as accessible as possible.

DAVIES: Well, Alastair Fothergill, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

FOTHERGILL: Thank you very much for your interest.

GROSS: Alastair Fothergill co-directed the new Disneynature movie "Chimpanzee." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Coming up, music critic Milo Miles reviews two collections of bachata - music from the Dominican Republic. This is FRESH AIR.

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