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Once more with feline: Alastair Fothergill talks about how the third Disneynature film, "African Cats" actually came together

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Once more with feline: Alastair Fothergill talks about how the third Disneynature film, "African Cats" actually came together

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When it comes to Take-Your-Kids-to-Work day, I'm afraid that Alastair Fothergill has us all beat.

Alastair Fothergill, Executive Producer in the BBC Natural History Unit
Copyright 2011 BBC. All rights reserved

You see, last year as this UK-based executive producer was working on "Frozen Planet" (i.e. Fothergill's latest long-form documentary for the BBC. Which follows in the footsteps of his earlier highly acclaimed multi-part productions, "Blue Planet" and "Planet Earth"), Alastair took one of his sons along with him up to the Arctic.

"Unfortunately, this was my 17-year-old. Who's entered that phase of adolescence where he's not all that impressed with what Dad does," Fothergill laughed. "But hey, at least I tried."

Well, while Alastair's son may not be impressed by Daddy's doings, anyone who catches "African Cats" (i.e. Fothergill's latest film for Disneynature. Which opens in theaters nationwide this Friday) is sure to wowed by how Alastair's latest effort blends epic scale with intimate storytelling.

Sita with a panorama of Africa behind her. Photo by Keith Scholey
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"I kept the crew that was working with me on this production to think cinematically. That - because 'African Cats' was going to be a theatrical release, rather than something that we were shooting for television - that we had a far bigger frame to fill this time around. And to please always keep that in mind whenever they were setting up their shots," Fothergill explained.

Which isn't to say that - even though they had the luxury of more time to shoot the felines that are featured in "African Cats" than a typical television production might have had -- it wasn't like Alastair's team of cinematographers had it all that easy during the two-and-a-half years which they spent shooting in Kenya's Masai Mara Nature Reserve.

"You have to understand that - while you can write a script for the sort of nature documentary that you want to make -these animals are not directable actors," Fothergill continued. "Which means that you have to be very careful when you're selecting the subjects of your movie."

Sita and her cub on top of a termite mound. Photo by Keith Scholey
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which is why Alastair and his team zeroed in on Sita and her five cubs. Given that this mother cheetah was clearly going to be challenged as she tried to feed and protect a litter of that size ... Well, Fothergill knew that there'd be drama there. Likewise - after carefully observing the 20 different lion prides that call the Mara home - the "African Cats" settled on the one being led by the elderly male Fang.

"Given Fang's rapidly deteriorating health, we assumed that - at some point during the three years that we'd be shooting this film - that there'd be a change in leadership within that pride. And as it turns out, we were right," Alastair stated.

Which isn't to say that all of Fothergill's ideas for "African Cats" eventually panned out. Back in April of 2008 when this Disneynature production was initially announced, this film (which was then titled "Big Cats") was to have been the story of ...

Photo by Keith Scholey. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... three mothers - a lioness, a leopard and a cheetah - as they explore their world on the great plains of Africa ... this film will show how these magnificent animals survive on their power and their cunning, while they protect and teach their cubs the ways of the wild.

When I asked Alastair about what happened to the Leopard portion of "African Cats," he was pretty straightforward about why this particular Big Cat didn't make the final cut.

"To be honest, we were getting such spectacular footage of the cheetahs and the lions that their stories wound up being the primary focus of 'African Cats,' " Fothergill said.

Photo by Owen Newman. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And one of the main reasons for that was that Alastair and his team were able to get such great footage was by adapting some of the innovative technology that they initially used while shooting "Planet Earth."

"On that project, we used something called a Heligimbal. Which allowed us to get these rock-solid close-up shots of animals while we were flying high above them in a helicopter.  And we then took that technology and put it on the end of a camera crane that was attached to the back of a truck," Fothergill revealed. "This allowed us to put our camera right down at the same height as the lions & the cheetahs and then move along with them. In essence give the viewer the sense of what it must be like to walk side-by-side with these magnificent creatures."

But even with this tremendous technology at their disposal (More importantly, because they had award-winning wildlife cameraman Owen Newman behind the lens. Who - because he's been shooting the big cats in Masai Mara Nature Reserve for nearly 20 years now - knew exactly what he needed to do in order to get the very best shots of the lions & the cheetahs), it still came down to whether not Alastair and his team actually got all of the shots they needed in order to tell the sort of story that they wanted to tell with "African Cats."

Some of the truck-mounted technology that was used to shoot "African Cats."
Photo by Keith Scholey. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"As I always say: 'if you don't go into editing know what your story is, then you've got a bad story,' " Fothergill said. "Which is why we kept rewriting right up until 'til the end of production as we tried to find our happy ending. That's why we were so thrilled during the last few weeks of the shoot to get (SLIGHT SPOILER) images of Mara reuniting with her lioness sisters after three years of being apart. "

And speaking of reuniting with one's family ... Alastair had his two boys with him yesterday in NYC while this filmmaker was in the US doing press for "African Cats." And as we chatted about all the hard work that went into the creation of this particular Disneynature production, Fothergill talked about how things had changed since he first began working on wildlife documentaries.

"Back in the early 1990s when I was down in Antarctic working with David Attenborough on 'Life in the Freezer,' I once went 12 weeks where the only outside contact I had with friends & family was a single Telex that I got from my then-girlfriend," Alastair recalled. "Nowadays, cell phones and Skype make it that much easier to stay in touch with my family. Though I still manage to always pick the exact wrong time to ring them up."

Actress Brooke Shields joined directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey at a special
screening of Disneynature's newest big-screen adventure, "African Cats." Which was
held this past Saturday at the Crosby Street Hotel screening room in NYC.
Photo by Marion Curtis / Startraksphoto.com

And - with that - Fothergill wrapped up our talk about "African Cats," the new Disneynature production which had been shot out on the great plains of Africa. Explaining that - as we were talking on the phone - his sons were somewhere out there exploring the concrete canyons of Manhattan " ... and I should probably go find out where they've gotten to."

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  • Can't wait!!

    Looks amazing!!!

  • Ever since they took the plot point of the robot out, I've been totally turned off by this movie.

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