In a world whose destiny lies in finding a balance between economic development and environmental catastrophe, nature always speaks loudest for itself. While activists complain, politicians wonk, and industry spin-meisters cover tracks, the plants and animals go on living their amazing lives, using fascinating techniques to overcome countless challenges-manmade and otherwise-in their cyclical, millennia-old quests to carry forth the miracle of life. Thanks to patient, hard-working wildlife photographers and filmmakers, the public gets to see even the rarest, most bizarre of these species in action, thereby inspiring emotional campaigns to save the whales, stop the slaughtering of fur seals, feed the pandas, free the elephants, and so on.
This Earth Day, nature is speaking louder than ever, as one of the grandest wildlife filmmaking efforts ever conducted comes to the big screen in nearly 2,000 theaters nationwide. Simply titled earth, the 90-minute, five-years-in-the-making documentary-narrated by James Earl Jones, directed by lens vets Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, and related to the BBC’s award-winning Planet Earth television series-features an entertaining year in the life of polar bears, elephants, and humpback whales, plus scores of footage of other fascinating critters from all over the planet. The movie is the first release from the brand new Disneynature label and marks a return to form for The Walt Disney Company, which won eight Academy Awards between 1948 and 1960 with their True Life Adventure series. Those were some of the first nature films ever popularly disseminated, and with Disneynature, the company is officially back in the wildlife business.
As part of their occasional SBCANNES Movies with a Message series, the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN) is sponsoring the April 22 premiere of earth and hosting a panel of environmental experts afterward. To help get the word out about the event-which is being cosponsored by the Fund for Santa Barbara, Metropolitan Theatres, and this newspaper-the film’s directors took a break from the cross-country promotional tour to chat about earth.
What are you hoping earth brings to viewers?
Mark Linfield: Hopefully, they are going to find it a very engaging, entertaining movie with good character development from our three stars. I hope they come away with the sense that they are taking a journey that you couldn’t do with several lifetimes and an unlimited holiday budget.
If you want to see the far-flung reaches of our plant and find incredible diversity, give us 85 minutes of your time. I think that’s what people will feel this achieves. In the advanced screenings, we really got that sense. It’s great to see something about the whole planet and how the planet ticks. Plus, unlike many nature documentaries, this one is true to life and it’s not especially didactic. It’s an engaging, emotional tale of our three stars and their migrations across the planet. There are also great performances from B-list actors and actresses, and plenty of humor. So even if you’re sort of bah-humbug about nature documentaries, I think there’ll be something in this to warm your heart.
Will the film make more people care about our supposedly imperiled planet?
Alastair Fothergill: We do hope it will, but this movie doesn’t have an overt environmental message. You could argue that An Inconvenient Truth and The 11th Hour tried to do this. We’re not totally convinced that the cinema is the best media or the best forum for that message to be rammed down people’s throats. I don’t think people go to the cinema for that. I hope it’s a celebration, a journey, a very rich emotional and engaging experience.
ML: That’s fine [if it does], but that’s a bonus. It isn’t the driving aim of the movie.
The film features some never-before-seen animal behavior. That must take a lot of patience to capture.
ML: As you would suspect, things that haven’t been filmed before have not been filmed for a reason. There is a reason why it took three years-well, five years, but three years in the field, and a year of that just spent contacting scientists who were working out where our best stories were. : Once on location, a very dedicated team of cameramen, who have great patience, and great skills, stack the odds in their favor. That’s why we have [more than] 2,000 days in the field of filming. That’s a great thing for the audience. For instance, you may well go to Papau New Guinea, but in all likelihood, you’re not going to see that kind of display [from the bird of paradise]. So it’s a great chance for people to see the planet’s highlights without all the toil.
Is earth the movie version of the Planet Earth TV series?
AF: That’s not true at all. Let me explain exactly what happened. The movie and the TV series were commissioned together at the same time. We always had a separate script and a separate budget. We were going to concentrate on three key characters that made the movie. There is some shared material between the TV series and the movie. If we shot the whole movie independent of the TV series, the budget would have been astronomical. The movie shows a range of habitats and extraordinary new behavior. The two projects benefited from each other’s budgets, but there was always separate vision. The experience on the big screen, with surround sound, is much richer and different from the TV at home.
Tell me about Disneynature.
AF: It’s Disney’s first new label that they’ve released for 60 years. There are already six movies commissioned. The long-term vision is that they will release a movie every year. Mark and I are involved in two more. It’s great that Disney is returning to the original traditional of True Life Adventures. It’s also great because it’s a very bold move. Earth is being released on 1,800 screens. It’s not a quiet release. We know that there’s a real market for family movies and they’re the masters of the family movie. I’ve got young children and once you’ve seen the latest Pixar, the latest Narnia, and the latest Harry Potter, there are not a lot of great movies out there. We hope that Disneynature will provide a real true life adventure that people can come and see time and time again.
And nature movies remain fascinating even after you’ve already seen them.
AF: It’s subject matter that literally appeals to everyone from a four-year-old to a 94-year-old.
What can people in Santa Barbara do to make our own nature films?
AF: First of all, you couldn’t be in a better place. I’m a great fan of Santa Barbara, and there are an awful lot of very good filmmakers there. And the film festival there is extraordinarily good. What I’d say is buy yourself a really cheap digital camera, put it in some underwater housing, get in your scuba gear, and go dive off the Channel Islands. Then go up into the mountains. Shoot something in your own backyard. There’s an awful lot of wildlife in Santa Barbara, and it’s not all human.
SBCAN is hosting a special screening of earth on Earth Day, April 22, 7:30 p.m. as part of their SBCANNES Movies with a Message series. It will be followed by a panel discussion featuring representatives from the Environmental Defense Center, the Community Environmental Council, and the Ocean Conservancy. See sbcan.org.