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ISLAND OF LEMURS: MADAGASCAR

Into the Wild
"I love lemurs. And you should too!" -Dr. Patricia C. Wright

Science and conservation are inseparable in Madagascar. The lemurs are so close to extinction that scientists must actively participate in their survival. While on her first trip to Madagascar in 1986, Dr. Wright realized the local slash-and-burn agriculture was destroying the lemurs' rainforest habitat. Working closely with the Malagasy people, Dr. Wright garnered support for and raised the necessary funds to establish Ranomafana National Park.

Inaugurated in 1991, Ranomafana National Park provides 112,000 acres of protected rainforest where lemurs have a chance to live in peace as they did when they first arrived in Madagascar.

The island's isolation led to lemurs forming their own parallel branch of primate development. Part of a "super continent" consisting of Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, and India, Madagascar moved away from Africa as the mainland broke apart roughly 160 million years ago. Scientists think the lemur-like ancestor that originated in Africa likely washed across the Mozambique Channel in a storm and landed on Madagascar some 60 million years ago, where they thrived for millions of years. Since the island was cut off, there were no other primates to compete with, unlike in Africa, where monkeys, apes, and eventually hominins, prevailed. So lemurs adapted to fill every ecological niche, like pollinating and seed dispersal, across the island's myriad habitats.

That same isolation, however, proved logistically challenging for filmmakers.

Fellman describes the first scout with Dr. Wright. "Pat brought us out to these limestone pinnacles, the Tsingy Stone Forest. You can only get in a few months out of the year, if at all. We rented a car but ten hours later had only gone 60 miles. Eventually the road just turned into a muddy river with stuck, abandoned cars. We walked to the ferry but the ferry wasn't running. The only way across the river was lashing two canoes together and paddling against the current while lightning and a rainstorm whipped around us. We actually had to hold the canoes together with our hands at one point as water started rushing in. We could go no further once we made it to the other side, so we took shelter with a couple of ducks under a lean-to while the storm raged."

Even the travails experienced during scouting did not prepare them for the 56 days they shot in terrain ranging from mountains, beach, desert and rock to ancient rainforest.

The remote locations and difficult terrain required alternatives to the usual equipment like cranes and large cameras. They needed something that would allow the entire production to stay light on their feet-literally. Douglas also knew the second half of the shoot would be aircraft-dependent, with longer jumps between locations. So they needed a camera package that could strip down small enough to fit in one small Cessna single engine aircraft. The size of the plane also meant numerous trips moving the crew, leapfrogging with only the bare essentials onto unsurfaced dirt airstrips.

Fortunately, the IMAX D3D camera Douglas used is smaller, quieter and less intrusive than its predecessor, which weighed close to 300 pounds and only held three minutes worth of 65mm film.

At a trim 50 pounds, the D3D stereo remote-sensor camera offers real mobility that proved crucial in Madagascar.

The first two days of shooting proved quite a test for any camera. Douglas recalls, "We had it mounted on a stabilizer on the bow of a small open boat, bouncing across the open ocean off a little island east of Madagascar called Ile Saint-Marie. We were trying to capture images of breaching whales for the opening sequence of the film."

The idea sprang from a drawing Douglas had made in his notebook of the lemurs passing waving whales while floating across the sea to Madagascar. Fellman remembers, "We imagined what adventures lemurs encountered, what they saw on their original journey to island. We wanted to create a sense of adventure worthy of their experience."

The entire sequence was filmed in live action on the sea. So filmmakers had to create a floating island that would be seaworthy and survive being towed through three-foot swells. In order to prepare, they worked with a local whale research station that helped them build the island and locate the whales.

Douglas notes, "Drew was the architect. He worked for days on end and we brought over a serious amount of equipment to stabilize the camera to be able to shoot in the open water."

They constructed an eight foot-by-eight foot platform on a pontoon and draped its sides with vegetation. A diver in the water could lift the vegetation and rotate the pontoon.

"In retrospect," Fellman says, "it was a ridiculous notion that we could just summon a whale from the sea to hit a mark on command. But we had to try because we knew it would be so awesome if we pulled it off."

To film the lemur voyagers, the filmmakers turned to the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina and their small population of fat-tailed dwarf lemurs. "The dwarf lemurs are the only animals in the film not playing themselves," says Fellman. "They're portraying the first proto-lemurs that arrived in Madagascar 60 million years ago."

These dwarf lemurs at Duke are the only captive population in the world. Their enclosure was transformed into a mini film studio and the tiny lemurs were filmed in front of green screen, making history as the first-ever lemur special effects unit!

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