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Film-makers' reply to the Palmer Veltre Chimpanzee Debate
From Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield
June
2013


Last month, filmmakers Tom Veltre and Chris Palmer published their debate on issues stemming from an article in a German magazine about the film Chimpanzee - Read it here. The directors of the film, Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, have asked us to publish their response:

DisneyNature Chimpanzee

The last addition of Wildlife Film News published an email conversation between Chris Palmer and Tom Veltre concerning a recent article in the German magazine Der Spiegel about the DisneyNature movie Chimpanzee. It is unfortunate that before their email conversation was published neither of Chris or Tom contacted the directors as we could have given them better information. We feel it important now that the readers of Wildlife Film News get the truth behind the Der Spiegel article and Chris and Tom’s speculations.

The movie centers round one key character, a young chimpanzee that we called Oscar. The extraordinary story we filmed was the adoption of a young chimp we called Oscar by a dominant male called Fredy, after his mother had died. Der Spiegel places great weight on the fact that “Oscar didn't lose his mother -- nor was he ever adopted by any male chimpanzee whom he didn't know” and uses this as a cornerstone of its allegations. However Der Spiegel was not even talking about the same chimpanzee. The scientists we worked with had named our young chimpanzee Victor - commonly an old man's name in the UK; as a consequence, when Fredy and Victor where together, test audiences assumed that Fredy was the infant and Victor the older male and this caused great confusion. Clearly we had to find another name. There was another young chimpanzee in the forest named Oscar, we liked the name, so we borrowed it. The 'Oscar' that Der Spiegel are referring to is the chimpanzee we borrowed the name from. A name is simply a label and changing one so an audience can better follow a story is not misleading the audience. It is standard procedure in our profession.

Der Spiegel goes on to state that “A young male chimp was in fact orphaned during the filming and was adopted by an older male chimp, but this animal died a few months after losing its mother”. In fact, Fredy successfully looked after Oscar for 7 months before going missing. The film covers those 7 months of Oscar's adoption by Fredy and is true to events in this period, it never sought to deal with Oscar's life after that period and had no obligation to do so.

The Der Spiegel goes on to criticise the film because “the orphan star was played by five different chimpanzees”. However their claim is misleading because it implies we were juggling animals at random. In reality, the key story line is played by just one young chimpanzee. In a couple of instances we used stand-ins for generic scenes and some of the back-story. For instance, the tiny newborn chimp at the start of the movie is not the same young chimp that features in the large part of the movie. Mother chimpanzees are extremely shy with their newborn babies and you very rarely see them in the wild. We were extremely lucky to film a newborn of any chimpanzee mother at all and since the scene was generic we felt the use of a stand-in was justifiable. In reality, chimpanzees are sufficiently distinctive that we would have struggled to 'cheat' identities to any significant degree. In fact, we would suggest that most mainstream natural history TV documentaries that follow animal characters are a great deal more 'flexible' with the identities of their named animals than was Chimpanzee!

Der Spiegel go on to claim that some of the footage was shot in Uganda and intercut with the main location in the Ivory Coast. This is something we never sought to hide, indeed we drew attention to in the credits, the DVD extras and extensively in the book. The sequences Der Spiegel were referring to are the battles between the males in our group and rival males in a neighboring group. These battles are an important dynamic of chimpanzee society and we did observe and film them in the Ivory Coast. However, the forest in this main location is so thick and the light so poor, that we were unable to film more than a few grabbed moments. However in Uganda there is a location where the forest is much more open and the behaviour happens more frequently making it possible to film the same behaviour more comprehensively. We could have chosen not to include footage of these hostile encounters but we felt the audience would benefit from seeing this part of the story correctly illustrated with appropriate material, rather than not seeing it at all - especially if we did not attempt to conceal it. Which we did not.

A big organization like Disney will always be an attractive target for journalists searching for a story, but it is worth stating that Disney behaved impeccably throughout our collaboration and allowed us to make exactly the film we wanted to make. We enjoyed exactly the same editorial freedom as if we had been working for a respected TV broadcaster – in other words, we came under no pressure from the studio to ‘sex things up’.

An important point to make is that we were not trying to make a scientific documentary for the cinema; we were trying to make a movie. Cinema is a very competitive market and we believe that natural history will only succeed in this space through very strong story telling and really engaging characters. But that does not mean the story in Chimpanzee is not scientifically accurate. From the very start of the DisneyNature label, its founder and executive producer at Disney, Jean –Francois Camilleri, has been totally supportive of our need to ensure that these movies are 100% scientifically accurate. In fact, in our contracts with Disney, we retain the right of “scientific veto”.

Chimpanzee was a great success in the US and introduced chimpanzees to a large audience of cinema goers who rarely watch natural history on television. We know from audience research that viewers came out of the cinema with a new appreciation and love for chimpanzees and the rainforest. A key part of this success was the massive amount of marketing effort Disney puts behind these movies. Further, we were delighted that both in the US and a number of European countries, Disney gave a proportion of the box office in the opening weeks to the Jane Goodall Institute and the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation. All of the DisneyNature movies have had similar “Give Back Campaigns” and all of these have made very significant contributions to conservation. The sheer scale of these contributions and the care with which they are administered is unmatched by any other media distributer that we are aware of. If you are interest to learn more please go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=MA6_gDPsiok

We are proud of Chimpanzee - not so much for ourselves but for the amazing team that worked on the movie. In particular, we are proud of our two key cameramen, Martyn Colbeck and Bill Wallauer as well as their team of field assistants who overcame extraordinary challenges to capture this material. We have no doubt that working in that rainforest with those animals was the most demanding job we have ever asked of a camera team and the story they managed to film surpassed even our most optimistic dreams at the start of production. Making wildlife movies that work in cinema is extremely difficult for all those involved and it greatly disappoints us to read such misleading press being perpetuated on these pages.

In future we hope that Chris and Tom will contact film makers directly to get the story first-hand before publishing their speculations.

See the Official Chimpanzee Trailer above. Make comment below.

Note from the editor: In response to "it greatly disappoints us to read such misleading press being perpetuated on these pages.", we simply wish to point out what is clearly stated on all web pages and in Wildlife Film News, i.e. "Wildlife-film.com publishes information and opinions as a service to its' members and visitors/readers. The producer does not recommend or endorse any particular method, institution, product, treatment, or theory. Opinions expressed on Wildlife-film.com are not necessarily those of the producer." We believe that the debating of contentious wildlife film issues is important however and will continue to publish articles submitted by members on a wide range of wildlife film-related topics unless we deem them to be wholly irrelevant or inappropriate. We are 'for' ethical and creative wildlife film-making, not against it. We are open and available to all wildlife film-makers, as an information resource and as a platform for getting their voices heard and we are proud of that.

Response from Tom Veltre:

"Hello Alastair & Mark:

Thanks for taking the time to write out your thorough response to the article in Der Spiegel for the readers of Wildlife Film News. I hope that the posting of our e-mail debate did not cause you any discomfort, and I am sorry for any inconvenience you may have experienced.

We took the occasion of the publication of the article in Der Speigel to launch into e-mail debate about the larger issue of where one draws a line between practices that are common storytelling techniques, and those which skirt the line of being “deceptive”. Chris and I are both academics as well as film makers, and we have engaged in friendly debate regarding ethical issues in filmmaking, on and off for years.

As you can see from our edited colloquy, Chris and I hold very different positions on this issue which lie on a spectrum that runs from completely laissez-faire to rigidly dogmatic – although (thankfully) neither of us is an extremist. In reading your response above, I was pleased to see that you and I share a similar position, which I characterize as that of a pragmatic film maker who takes the necessary steps to tell an honest and worthwhile story with the best possible images. At the same time, I do respect many of the points Chris raises (although I will continue to engage him in other debates as the opportunities arise).

Perhaps the most useful lesson I have learned from this exchange is that, to many members of the general public (including Herr Jörg Blech of Der Spiegel) Natural History and Wildlife Films are a lot like sausages; if you enjoy them, you probably shouldn’t see how they get made.

Best regards, Tom Veltre
The Really Interesting Picture Company, Ltd.
www.thereallyinterestingpicturecompany.com"

 
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