DENVER — Nicolas Brown makes a dandy panda. Not as good as Tao Tao, but good.
Brown is a Vail native and his film, “Pandas: The Journey Home,” is a 3D IMAX production opening today at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
It’s a groundbreaking natural-history film that, for the first time, captures endangered pandas breeding at the Bifengxia Panda Base and being prepared for release back into the wild at Wolong National Nature Reserve, both in the People’s Republic of China.
Because it’s a bad idea for pandas to think of people as a source of food and protection, Brown and his crew donned panda suits as they filmed. To mask their human scent, the care givers and crew even smeared the suits in panda feces and urine.
Which leads us to Brown in a panda suit. He was in Ya’an to give a presentation about the filming relationship with the Chinese. He was expecting a small audience, so he strapped on a panda suit because he thought it would be fun.
The event turned out to be a nationally televised extravaganza, complete with a giant stage, Chinese pop stars and an audience of thousands.
He was mortified. The crowd was amazed. Young women wanted his autograph and asked him to sign their shirts.
“They treated him like a local hero or celebrity,” said Caroline Hawkins, the film’s producer.
Pandas have been around for 8 million years, living in the high mountain bamboo forests of western China. These days, with fewer than 1,600, the Chinese government is trying to turn the tide.
“It’s an open secret in China and amongst Chinese officials that the panda is a symbol for the whole environment,” Brown said. “When you save the panda, you’re saving a vast amount of old-growth forest and bamboo forest ecosystems in Sichuan province, which is the place that’s known to be the cleanest and most environmentally pristine.”
Brown wasn’t immediately convinced a film focusing on pandas would make for compelling viewing. “Pandas are wonderful, but they’re like cows — they just kind of sit there and eat bamboo,” he said. “How were we going to make that into a story?”
The production crew took three trips to China, starting in August 2012. In the first, they filmed newborn pandas, which, at just 90 grams, weigh 800 times less than their mothers. They returned to film the 3- or 4-month-old pandas, and returned again as the pandas were moved to semi-wild enclosures and left alone to learn how to be wild.
Finally, filmmakers captured what Brown calls “one of the profound moments in conservation history.”
Focusing on a single male panda named Tao Tao, they documented his journey from birth in captivity to his eventual groundbreaking release into the wild.
“Conservation is usually about trying to not make things worse,” Brown said. “Here, for the first time, was an opportunity to make things better. It opens a new world in conservation. As far as slow-breeding mammals go, it has not been done anywhere else.”
Big cameras, big problems
They faced all kinds of technical challenges, mostly around the demands of shooting for IMAX. That required two huge 3D cameras shooting ultra-high resolution (4K) as well as terabyte-scale memory drives and a crew of eight. The camera was so big it took two large men to lift it onto a tripod. Even relatively straightforward tasks such as changing a lens, removing a bug from a lens or aligning one of the two 3D cameras proved incredibly time consuming.
“It took half an hour to turn the camera around 180 degrees,” Brown said. “You cannot operate with any sense of urgency. Everything has to be storyboarded and planned. You have to engineer things to happen in front of the camera.”
Even though they were working in a panda preserve, there were still issues.
Adult pandas, it turns out, can be cranky, especially during breeding season, which rolls around about one day a year. If they get aggressive and latch onto you, they’re going to hang on until one of you is dead.
The crew built an iron-barred cage big enough to house the 3D rig and crew, but small enough to fit inside the pandas’ cage. Brown initially thought they had over-engineered their cage-within-a-cage—until he saw a panda become enraged during mating.
“Suddenly I was really glad we had built this absolutely massive iron cage,” he said. “When males bite, they don’t let go. People have literally used explosives to get them to release their grip on a human victim — not firecrackers, actual explosives.”
And then there was the waiting; pandas don’t exactly perform on demand, especially when it comes to breeding. Female pandas are fertile for just 24 hours a year, and the reproductive act — if it happens at all — is over in a matter of seconds.
Then there was politics.
The filmmakers were told at the last minute that no western crews could shoot Tao Tao’s final release into the wild, the climax of their story.
“We’d invested everything in Tao Tao and the build-up to his release,” Brown said. “We thought the whole thing was lost. They even suggested we teach our Chinese bus driver to run the 3D camera, which of course was impossible.”
Brown was sneaked into a high-level banquet where he managed a quick word with the forestry department head. If the chief gave his OK, then none of his subordinates would question Brown’s right to film Tao Tao’s release.
Amazingly, the plan worked. Brown attended the banquet, shared a rice liquor toast with the chief and gave him a DVD of a previous documentary he had made.
“Everyone at the table saw me talking and drinking with the most powerful man,” Brown said. “At literally the 11th hour, we got permission to shoot.”
Brown and his crew had no paperwork to get them past security, so Zhang Hemin, director of China’s panda program, smuggled them in with some soldiers and the dancers who would be providing the entertainment.
“At the last minute, we were able to put up a camera position, hide there and get the shots we needed to finish the story,” Brown said. “That was the most dramatic climax in terms of filming. It was one of the hardest shoots any of us has done.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.