There have been many wildlife documentaries released into theatres over the last couple of years, but Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is certainly a highlight among its peers. It follows Dr. Patricia Wright, an accomplished American primatologist, anthropologist and conservationist who has been instrumental in helping to save lemurs from extinction.
The movie documents how the lemurs first arrived in Madagascar millions of years ago as castaways and how nowadays, they are an endangered special. For those who aren’t familiar with the animal, it’s a real eye-opener and will no doubt leaving you wanting to learn more. Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is also beautifully shot, showing off both the lemurs and their environments in stunning IMAX 3D.
It was a privilege to talk with David Douglas who directed Island of Lemurs: Madagascar. David is a cinematographer and director who has given us a number of great documentaries including Fires of Kuwait, Born To Be Wild, and the Rolling Stones concert film Live At The Max. The majority of his documentaries were filmed in the IMAX format, and we talked about how making movies in that format has improved over the years. We also discussed the ways of making a successful wildlife documentary, what it was like working with Dr. Patricia Wright, and the numerous risks he and the crew had to face filming in Madagascar.
Check it out below and enjoy!
Most of the movies you’ve made in your career have been in the IMAX format, which has become increasingly popular recently. Has filming in IMAX become easier or harder for you from movie to movie?
David Douglas: I think bringing interesting content to the screen has gotten easier in some ways because of the evolution of the technology. I think that it’s probably gotten a little bit easier to get financing for these projects, but that’s just because I feel like we’re lucky right now. We’re on a bit of a roll with a couple of really strong demonstrations of what kind of entertainment in relation to wildlife can do in terms of drawing in an audience. The tide goes in and the tide comes out again, and so we are trying to find subjects which people are gravitating and responding to and try to make a crossover between documentary and commercial movies.
With this documentary you had a new kind of IMAX camera to work with that is considerably lighter than the typical camera that is used. Did that make a difference in shooting this documentary?
David Douglas: Yeah, we’ve been working with IMAX for some years now to bring about a new camera that could lead us to shoot 3D in wildlife situations because there are so many beautiful wildlife subjects around the world that looks so great in 3D if you can actually capture them. The hard thing has been capturing them while we were married to the film technology because the camera was big and heavy and noisy, and the one we have developed now is none of those things.
I kept hearing that IMAX cameras very noisy. Christopher Nolan had said that he wanted to make a Batman movie entirely in IMAX but that the limitations of the technology and the sound problems kept him from accomplishing that.
David Douglas: An IMAX film camera is doing extremely heavy lifting as far as a motion picture camera goes just because the rolls of film are so big and heavy and the frames are so gigantic that it’s repositioning. It is still the highest resolution motion picture camera on the planet, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is something that scares the subject away. So the transition to digital has been a welcome one in terms of just being able to finally let the content drive the story in the film rather than trying to make a film out of what you can get with the limitations of the film camera.
I imagine the secret of making a documentary like this is filming the animals without disrupting their natural habitat. How did you and your crew managed to accomplish that, and did you have to change your ways of filming at all?
David Douglas: The team that I work with I’ve had with me for 20 to 25 years, so we all do these films because we have a great deal of respect for the animals and for the situation that we are in. We’re very careful not to disturb these animals in any way. I think in Madagascar we were lucky enough to work with Dr. Patricia Wright, whose knowledge of the lemurs themselves and the science teams that were actually doing studies with these animals in the field helped us greatly. That series of connections gave us the advantage we needed to find and work with animals that were already used to having people around them watching them. We really did wander around the country with Pat selecting specific animals that seemed to be relaxed around people.
What was it like working with Dr. Patricia Wright?
David Douglas: Well, Patricia Wright is a fantastic character who’s a perfect subject and a perfect ally in telling a story like this. She knows everything and everybody, and she has been facing many of the challenges that we needed to face. Because she’s been educating graduate students and building an enormous logistical center of ValBio, which is a big multistory scientific research base in the jungle in Madagascar. That’s an enormous undertaking and achievement to get that done. She knows a great deal about big logistics and what it takes to get these things done.