A Conversation with Roy Conli, Producer of Born in China

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About a month ago I was invited to a press roundtable interview for the upcoming Disneynature film Born in China to chat with producer Roy Conli. While you may recognize his name from his previous producing credits on the animated films Big Hero 6 and Tangled, this is his first foray into wildlife documentary films.

Those that have seen a Disneynature film will know that Character and Plot drive the Story of every film. It is what sets them apart from other nature documentaries (and why Disney calls them as “True Life Adventures” instead of “wildlife documentary”) and I have always been curious as to how the process of crafting a story out of real-life animal footage worked. This was my opportunity to find out.

roy conli born in china
Description: Cinematographer Rolf Steinmann waits in a hide to film chiru.

Roy was quick to point out that these films would not be possible without the amazing work of the cinematographers and director. Shane Moore, for example, the cinematographer responsible for the Snow Leopard unit, spent 253 days in the field via 4 trips to the Qinghai Plateau. Incredibly, he didn’t even get his first shot till the 90th day (and they were on 90 day visas). Moore is a seasoned professional who has tracked big cats throughout the world and his expertise and ability to withstand the harsh winter climate makes his skill all the more impressive considering, at 600 ft above sea level, it takes 10 days just to get there. With lots of scouting and a deep understanding cats, Moore was able to capture footage of arguably the most elusive animal on the planet. Less elusive were the pandas, where cinematographers wore panda suits doused in panda scent to better blend in and even easier were the monkeys. The monkeys weren’t afraid of the camera at all and often climbed atop them as if they were an odd looking mechanical tree.

roy conli born in china
Description: Cinematographer Justin Maguire filming golden snub-nosed monkeys.

While each unit faced it’s own set of challenges the process of gathering footage and creating a story remained the same. As Roy explained, daily journals were written describing the behavior of the animals. These journals would be sent to the creative team and using the 400 hours of footage, they would craft a story. Roy credits the 3 story structure to director, Lu Chuan, who also did a great job of encompassing the parenthetical aspect of the earthly antelope and spiritual crane. Through the creative process, it became clear to Roy just how international Storytelling is and how a film focused around animals can still resonate and reflect on human life. Bringing this story to life is the voice talent of John Krasinski who, as Roy described, embodies the “perfect combination of comedy, drama and heart.”

As a final question I ask what other projects can we expect to see from Roy. While he couldn’t got into detail, he did tease another nature film that takes place in water and two animation projects; one special project that will be announced at D23 expo this year and released in the fall, and another that will be out in a couple of years. Roy encouraged everyone to see the film in the first week of its release as a portion of ticket sales will go to the World Wildlife Fund. Born in China is in theaters on Earth Day 2017, April 21.

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