It’s a big beautiful world out there, but it can be easy to forget the wonders that live continents away when you’re immersed in the daily grind. Enter Disneynature, the studio’s independent documentary branch, which brings that trademark Disney magic to the far reaches of the earth in an effort to capture the inspiring, stunning, and sometimes heartbreaking tales of life in the animal kingdom.
Narrated by John Krasinski, the latest Disneynature documentary Born in China takes audiences on an epic journey to the wilds of China, where we meet an array of fascinating local wildlife and their sometimes treacherous environs. There’s Yaya, the doting panda bear mother raising her cub, Tao Tao, a golden snub-nosed monkey who joins the Lost Boys of the jungle after his baby sister’s birth leaves him feeling rejected, and Dawa, a ferocious mother snow leopard trying to protect and raise her two cubs in the face of constant danger.
Ahead of Born in China‘s Blu-ray and Digital release, I sat down with producer Roy Conli to chat about making his first Disneynature movie and how the process changed him as a filmmaker. We talked about the differences between animation and documentary, the goliath task of editing a film like Born in China, finding cinematic stories in the wild. We also talked about which of his films he wants to see turned into a live-action remake (and which one he doesn’t), joining the Frozen world with Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, and advising the Big Hero 6 elements of Kingdom Hearts 3. Check out the full interview below.
This was your first Disneynature film, right?
I’m curious, what had you learned in your animation experience that you brought with you to this? What did you learn on Disney Nature that you’ll bring with you to animation?
CONLI: Yeah, that’s a great question. First of all, just out of life, I’m a big animal guy, so that was kind of a passion when they asked me I would do it. The idea that we’re losing numerous species a day, made me go, “Yeah, I want to be involved.” In terms of animation, if you look at Maximus in Tangled or Pascal, or you look at all these little creatures that we’ve created through the years … Particularly in my films, they always have a … There’s a cognizance, but they’re still animals, right? They don’t talk.
CONLI: I’ve never done a film where there’s a talking animal. I find animals to be so absolutely fascinating because they are sentient, they are emotional. They do have relationships, and anyone who has a dog, or a cat, knows this. We forget about this in the broader aspect of the world. I think, for me, it was really about allowing that emotional being, that we relate to, and sharing that with others. Hopefully kids too, and adults for that matter, to understand that these animals actually are emotionally engaged in their lives.
Bringing this back to animation, the thing I love about both of these projects, is about storytelling. I got into animation because I was born a storyteller and I want to sent great messages out to people. I think the real world feeds animation. We do so much research in our animated films. It’s really important for us to find the essence of life. Within in the structure of this world, the closer you can get to the animal world, those animals will be more real as you animate them.
Yeah, it’s interesting you said for kids and adults. I think I’ve become more distant from the wonder I had as kid, as we do.
CONLI: I’m a very lucky man, in the sense that … Purposely so. My entire life has been about trying to maintain that wonder. That’s part of the thing about being a storyteller, is trying to tell the stories that affect people. When you work for Disney and you get to do animated films and then to do something like this where … I’m in awe of Dr. Savage and what she does.
She made me tear up a little bit.
CONLI: Oh no, absolutely. I went to see ‘Rivers of Light’ last night …
CONLI: First of all, there’s a little bit of imagery from ‘Born in China’ in there, and to think of how it’s presenting the majesty of nature, it’s amazing. Too often as adults, we forget that. I was very lucky in one way, because I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. My grandfather had a cabin in Big Bear, which is two hours away from Los Angeles and so I remember finding snakes and dead fish, and stuff like that when I was kid. It was the Disney nature films that Walt made during the 50s and early 60s that kind of taught me something bigger. Now to double back in my career, having … I’ve been with Disney for 25 years and having had the great fortune to work on some really wonderful films that I love. Then to be able to do this, is really kind of special because just as part of your life’s legacy within the structure, it’s an honor.
I’m curious, something like this is obviously an enormous endeavor geographically, time-wise, and then when you get the film back.
What is the process like of widdling that down into a narrative feature?
CONLI: Torturous. No, it’s literally in this we had over 400 hours of film, distilled into 75 min.
CONLI: Essentially what you’re doing, is you’re getting … We’re not … These crews are filming simultaneously, so Chuan, the director, or myself, are not on location all the time. Chuan got to most of the locations. Me, I got to one location. It was …
CONLI: I got to the pandas.
CONLI: What happens is, the cinematographers, who are really the heroes of these endeavors, not only are they behaviorists, but they’re also incredible photographers. They send you information. They are just phenomenal. They send back journals of what they’re seeing and what they’re filming. That’s how we get to know the characters on the whole. Really it isn’t until the second or third batch of film that comes in, that you start seeing stories take shape. We filmed, we have five crews out there, and they filmed more that those animals. Those were the stories that we went, “This is important. This is important. This is important.”
They seem cinematic —
CONLI: Yeah, well, and it’s interesting because it’ll change with what comes in. For instance, Tao Tao. The story was initially going to be around the baby, his sister and the mother, right? Which is a common trope for these films. We saw early on, this little boy being pushed away, and we thought, “Oh my gosh, that is like …” I had a younger brother. Chuan had a younger brother. It was like you know when the new baby comes in town, you become the second-class citizen, right? It was so evident that this little fellow was going through the same thing that probably half our audience is going through, because they’ve had that same feeling. That became the story that we embraced. To Chuan’s credit, I think he identified that. The other thing that happened during the production of this film is, Chuan had a baby.
Chuan was having a real tough time with the panda story, because Chuan is an amazing filmmaker and he loves high drama. He was trying to … He was looking at the panda and he was going, “Okay, what is the drama here? What is the drama here?” As soon as he had a baby, he understood.
CONLI: That was it. That the drama was the internal love. The concept that someday you need to separate, was an amazing thing that he … He really found it while working on the film, which is cool.
That is cool. We’re also here this week to talk about Lion King, and since that film about to get a live-action redux, I’m curious… Is there a Disney animated film, yours or otherwise, that you would really love to see live-action, and why?
CONLI: Oh, that’s a good question. I’d love to make Treasure Planet a live-action film.
That’d be beautiful.
CONLI: I think that in that format it could be so spectacular. It could be so spectacular. They’ve done an amazing musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Damethat played actually in Germany, that’s great. It’s a musical, that’s one of my favorite scores. I would hope that, because I loved Tangled so much, that to me it’s one of my favorite children. I would hope that they hold off on making that for a while, because I just think it’s so fresh. I think in 25 years they can make it.
Right, well I think as Beauty and the Beast showed, that’s a great time for a nostalgia market as well.
Let the kids grow up.
CONLI: Let it go. For me, Tangled re-opened the door, I think, to what a princess is. I think it opened the door to Frozen and it opens a door to just a whole new dialogue. I want it to be there for a while before it becomes something else.
Let it breathe a bit.
CONLI: Lion King is interesting because I joined the company while Lion Kingwas being produced, some 25 years ago. I actually worked with Don Hahn, who was the producer of that film. I was learning how to make an animated film, because I came from the theater. It was great experience for me to work with Don, who was the master producer at that time. To be able to work with him and learn, and then to see the stupendous outcome of that film, was really exciting.
Well as we saw at D23, you got into the Frozen world yourself recently.
How did that come about, and what was that like for you?
CONLI: Oddly enough, I was a little hesitant going in.
CONLI: First of all, it’s become such a let alone national, worldwide phenomenon, that film. My good friend, Peter Del Vecho, had produced the film. Peter has been my Associate Producer on Treasure Planet back at the turn of the century. When they asked if I would do it, I was like, “Oh boy, I’m going in and playing with one of the crown jewels.” Fortunately, I think Stevie and Kevin, the directors, and myself walked away from it feeling like we’re part of the family now. We definitely are part of the ‘Frozen’ family. We had a great time working with Peter and Chris Buck and Jen Lee, who had directed the original. It was a gas. I think, for me, I love musicals …
CONLI: There’s four new songs actually, in the film, and Kristen Anderson and Alisa Samsel wrote the music for it. Kristen is actually the sisters of, rather Kate is the sister of Kristen Anderson-Lopez. It’s been an amazing journey. Those guys are so talented and the songs are stunning. There’s one song in there that I think is going to become the holiday favorite.
I’m looking forward to hearing that.
CONLI: It’s great when you… I fall in love with every project, but there are certain projects where — Maybe it’s being there 25 years and working in this — I started out as a theatrical producer who worked in animation, and somewhere around Tangled I made the transition in being an animation producer who used to work in theater. It’s great, because I so love the animation process. Interesting, everything that I do in animation, the kind of crafting and skills of storytelling, totally work within the structure of the Disney nature films. In a weird way, I like to think that animation is like painting, and Disney nature is like sculpting.
Oh, that’s interesting.
CONLI: Animation you start with a blank canvas and you paint. With Disney nature, you start with a big block of imagery and you hone it down into your final story. Somewhere you end up with something kind of pretty to watch.
Well said! I got one more question with you, I have to ask. Aside from the series, are you guys in any active development on a Big Hero 6 sequel?
CONLI: A lot of people ask that.
CONLI: Yeah. Don and Chris are working on a new project. We haven’t … We revisited it for a while and chose to kind of step back and let it settle for a while. It’s tough when you’re a director, because if you go in immediately on a sequel, that means you will be working with one storyline for 10-12 years, right? It takes four to five years to make these things.
CONLI: They really have other stories that they want to tell, so they’re thinking that they’re going to take a little break right now and continue to work on a new story, and hopefully revisit it sometime. I think we all love it.
Were you guys involved in Kingdom Hearts 3? Did you give a lot of guidance?
CONLI: I’m actually working a lot on that, yeah. I’ve been very impressed with that team. They are so focused on quality. One of the things that we really, definitely with the ‘Big Hero 6’ story, we really felt that it was great opportunity to recreate a new story, as opposed to fitting into the story that was there. It gave them an opportunity to be a little more open with their storytelling. We’ve been working on it and really talking about character and how character works within the structure. It’s been a delight, other than the fact that I’m identified as Lord Xehanort now.
CONLI: There’s a villain, apparently, in Kingdom Hearts that has the same goatee that I sport, so I have been aligned with Lord Xehanort, which I’m somewhat proud of.
Well you don’t seem villainous at all.
CONLI: Watch out for those guys.