Tuesday, April 23, 2019
'Penguins' Primed for Adorable Earth Day Debut
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Cute, adorable Steve gets roughed up by Emperor penguins and raked over by katabatic winds enroute to becoming a father.
 
Friday, March 22, 2019
 

STORY BY KAREN BOSSICK

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DISNEYNATURE

He’s two feet tall and weighs 15 pounds. And he’s late on his way to adulthood amidst one of the most unforgiving settings on earth.

Meet Steve, the utterly charming cute-as-a-button star of Disneynature’s new feature film “Penguins.”

 
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Once penguins reach open sea, they can easily outswim leopard seals.
 

The coming-of-age story about a 5-year-old Adelie penguin who’s about to become a father for the first time had its world premiere this week at the Sun Valley Film Festival. And it warmed the hearts of those who saw it at the Argyros Performing Arts Center, temporarily dubbed the Ford Main Street Theater in honor of the festival’s sponsor.

“I laughed harder at Steve than I did at ‘Long Shot’ last night,” one theatergoer told Producer Roy Conli. “And that was a comedy.”

 “Penguins” will hit IMAX and other theaters on Earth Day—April 17. Disneynature will make a donation to the Wildlife Conservation Network to help protect penguins for every ticket sold during the opening week of April 17-23.

“Penguins” is not your run-of-the-mill nature film where a narrator explains what you’re seeing. Instead, you learn everything you need to know through the eyes of a somewhat klutzy little penguin that has joined hundreds of thousands of fellow males on a 3,000-mile winter migration to find suitable real estate on which to build a nest, find a life partner and start a family.

 
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Cinematographers made sure they brought everything they took with them to Antarctica back to the United States.
 

It doesn’t hurt that he’s bouncing along, sometimes even surfing on his stomach, to Patti Labelle’s “Stir It Up.”

In the process, he learns to watch out for killer whales and leopard seals—both of which provided some spectacular footage.

People are more familiar with the bigger Emperor penguins, Conli told a couple hundred people attending one of Nat Geo’s Salon talks at the Sun Valley Film Festival.

“But I find Emperor penguins a bit stoic,” he added. “Adelie penguins are about half the size of Emperor penguins but with twice the personality.”

 
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When Adelie penguins are a month old they team up with other checks for the next two months, during which they trade their down feather coats for waterproof feathers allowing them to go in the water.
 

Director Alastair Fothergill likened them to New York City taxi drivers: “They have attitude. They’re feisty. They have an extraordinary amount of expression in their eyes. They almost look animated.”

Conli, who also worked on “Born in China” and “Big Hero Six,” said a team of the best polar experts in the world were dispatched to five locations in Antarctica over three years to capture the footage.

One group set themselves up in tents near Steve’s colony where winds scour the snow, exposing rock where the penguins can make their nests. They endured minus-40 temperatures and winds up to 150 miles per hour in storms that are expected to become more frequent, thanks to climate change.

Others captured footage from helicopters and boats and even underwater, filming the penguins in what resembles a synchronized water ballet.

They were able to shoot from late October through early March.

The locations may have been the hardest locations to get to of any Disneynature film made so far, said Fothergill: “It’s hard to think of a tougher habitat on the planet.”

Producers picked a male because Adelie males not only build the nests but take turns with the female sitting on the eggs to protect them from chilly temperatures and predatory birds. They also take turns with their partners feeding and protecting the chicks for four weeks after they hatch.

“Generally, our stories come down to mother and child. But, in this case, we were able to go straight to the father story because penguin fathers do as much as mothers,” said Conli.

Adelie penguins mate with one partner for life, recognizing each other through unique vocalizations. The photographers kept tabs on Steve through the location of his nest.

In some areas the inquisitive penguins came right up to the cameras. But cameramen kept their distance from the penguins in the nesting area so as not to divert the penguins’ attention from predatory birds bent on stealing their eggs.

They shot 450 hours of footage over 900 camera days, paring it down into 76 minutes of footage.

“So, editing was a nightmare or a dream, depending on how you view it,” said Conli.

Ed Helms, who voices Steve’s inner monologue, as well as some straight narration, couldn’t help but fall in love with the birds.

“Even though they’re birds, they’re really aquatic creatures, and in the water they’re unbelievably graceful and elegant, fast and agile. But on land they’re so awkward,” said Helms, who starred in “The Office” and “The Hangover” trilogy. “They walk with this sort of weird wobble. And yet they have such spirit and moxie because they persevere in these crazy Antarctic conditions.”

In fact, perseverance is heralded throughout the film, with an especially funny scene where Steve tries to build his nest only to have a nearby penguin steal his pebbles and rocks while he’s off getting more.

In the end, he’s just trying to figure out how to be the best father he can be, said Director Jeff Wilson.

“That’s the core of the story—it’s not about being a perfect father,” he said. “Being a good father isn’t expertise or excellence. It is effort.”

Cameramen didn’t go in with a written script. They went in focused on capturing natural penguin behavior. Once they had the first year’s footage in hand, scriptwriters worked backwards, writing the actual story which was then approved by a story trust group.

 “To me one of the most important themes is the notion that the more you put your nose to the grindstone, the more successful you will be,” he said.

Working on such films bring Conli full circle. He grew up on the Disney nature shows of the 1960s and feels a responsibility to turn children and adults onto nature and show them that something bigger than them is happening all around.

“For me it was so much fun telling their stories because they touch all our hearts. Essentially, I call these ‘true life adventures’ with real footage told in a way that it tugs at the heart strings and stirs up some chuckles.,” he said.

“Having worked in theater, I define success as a good story. I’m proud with Disney and how with each film they’ve done something significant in conservation--Disney has a conservation program in which it’s donated $75 million over the past couple years.’

 “Penguins” is Disneynature’s eighth theatrical release since its debut 10 years ago.

Others are: “Earth,” “Oceans,” “African Cats,” “Chimpanzee,” “Bears,” “Monkey Kingdom” and “Born in China.”

 

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