The Warner Bros. / IMAX Entertainment co-production Island of Lemurs: Madagascar has arrived at an important time for the animals, whose long-term survival is being threatened on several fronts.
The film reunites narrator Morgan Freeman with Drew Fellman, writer and producer of the 2011 IMAX 3D documentary Born to be Wild and director David Douglas (who worked as the DOP on Born to be Wild).
Madagascar is situated in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Southeast Africa and the film took four months to complete out of cyclone season, which would have made travel to the island virtually impossible. “Nevertheless, we had a lot of tough conditions,’ says Fellman.
“We spent a lot of time standing around in the rain waiting for the sun to peek out. Fortunately, the lemurs like the sunshine as much as we do and they’d often greet the sun with outstretched arms like they were sunbathing.’
The world’s more than 90 species of lemur all live on Madagascar and most are endangered, primaily as a result of deforestation. The filmmakers’ goal was to showcase the variety among the species and had to carry their specialised IMAX 3D production gear to remote locations over difficult terrain.
The IMAX D3D camera, used to shoot the movie is smaller, quieter and less intrusive than the camara used previously, which weighed almost 136kg and held only three minutes of 65mm film. In contrast, the D3D stereo remote-sensor camera weighs about 23kg only and offers real mobility, crucial to a shoot of this nature.
A pontoon on the open ocean, a motorised hot air balloon (called a Cinebulle) that enabled the first-ever aerial shots in IMAX 3D and a hydraulic mast (the MAT-TOWERCAM XL) which can lift the camera 12m into the forest company served as shooting platforms.
Fellman says while filming Island of Lemurs, the D3D had not been field-tested and was the only one in existence. “Its sensor technology is based on the (Vision Research) Phantom 65 because it’s the largest high-speed sensor out there and the closest match to the IMAX format.
He adds: “The IMAX digital camera system takes a unique approach to 3D that avoids using a cumbersome beam-splitter rig. It uses a stereo lens system, and the lenses can shift laterally, which makes for easy convergence setting and lets us keep our crew size down. It also greatly reduces the setup time needed between shots.’
According to director and cinematographer Douglas, the production represents the state of the art in large-format photography in various ways. He comments, “Diverse and subtle advantages made possible by the new digital camera made the difference between success and failure on this challenging production, (which was) shot on a remote island without any infrastructure or a functional government.’
IMAX 3D has been designed to project a deep viewing area beyond the screen plane and Douglas and Fellman are excited about the immersive quality of the technology.
“The RAM buffer records continuously in loops up to 90 seconds long. This single fact changes everything for the wildlife filmmaker,’ says Douglas. “Only desired moments are kept because we’re keeping action that we’ve already seen, rather than guessing what will be and betting film stock it will happen before we run out.’
“Couple this with high speed, a small form factor, and the performance of new IMAX remote-sensor 3D technology, and we have a whole new game in wildlife image capture for the giant screen,’ he continues. “Lens changes now happen in the same amount of time as 2D. And alignment and convergence are real-time adjustments, rather than a separate milestone in the setup.’
Douglas elaborates: “Employing the same core team as the Born to be Wild production was crucial to stepping forward with a camera technique that yields results through a different approach than other IMAX documentaries.
“Drew and I were determined to capture a content-driven movie experience by spotlighting real-life characters – both human and animal – with a spontaneous candour that’s new to the giant screen.’
The documentary pays tribute to the extensive research undertaken by Dr Patricia C. Wright, an American primatologist, anthropologist and conservationist considered one of the world’s foremost lemur experts.
Fellman says that lemurs arrived in Madagascar about 60 million years ago and for most of that time had no predators or competition of any kind. “But since humans arrived about 2,000 years ago, more than 90 percent of Madagascar’s forests have been destroyed – mainly by a culture of slash-and-burn agriculture.
Continues Fellman: “Even though Madagascar is famous for its lemurs, they tend to be few and far between, living mostly in remote places. For us, that meant spending a year of prep to find groups of lemurs that had been habituated enough by researchers and scientists that we could approach them with a large crew.’
Determined to find humour and joy in the images of the animals, in addition to the practical science and survival issues, Douglas says in press notes: “Connecting to everything that is positive about lemurs, and there’s a lot, lets people take on the larger threatening and potentially tragic picture far more readily.’
A scene in which sifakas – large, slender lemurs that mostly live in trees – are shown dancing is particulary enthralling, as the mammals are not built for walking but rather jumping. And when they travel on the ground, they “skip and dance from side to side’.
With a new Madagascar government elected since the film was shot, Fellman and Douglas hope the ongoing and unsustainable practice of burning and logging, which threatens the lemurs’ existence, will be seriously addressed.
View the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YP0i3clBFHE&feature=kp.