DISNEYNATURE'S "PENGUINS" INTRODUCES STEVE,
AN ADELIE PENGUIN WHO'S SEEKING HIS HAPPILY EVER AFTER
Finally, Steve has reached his destination-the big city.
It's a tough place for a first-timer.
- Disneynature's "Penguins"
Disneynature's all-new feature film "Penguins" is a coming-of-age story about
penguin named Steve who joins hundreds of thousands of fellow males in the icy
Antarctic spring on a quest to build a suitable nest, find a life partner and
start a family.
None of it comes easily for him, especially considering he's targeted by
killer whales to leopard seals, who unapologetically threaten his happily ever
According to director Alastair Fothergill, not all penguins are created
equal. "The Adelie
penguin is by far the most characterful penguin on the planet," he says. "People
more familiar with Emperor penguins, but they're actually pretty mellow. I like
to say that
Emperor penguins are the California surfers and Adelie penguins are New York
drivers. They have attitude. They're feisty. They have an extraordinary amount
expression in their eyes. They almost look animated. And I knew-with their big
personalities-the film would have a lot of comedy."
Adds Ed Helms, who narrates the film, "Even though they're birds, they're
creatures, and in the water they're unbelievably graceful and elegant, fast and
on land, they're so awkward; they walk with this sort of weird wobble. And yet,
have such spirit and moxie because they persevere in these crazy Antarctic
To capture the footage for "Penguins," a team of the best polar experts in
the world was
dispatched to multiple locations over the course of three years.
immersed themselves in the icy habitat, gathering footage on land and
boats, from helicopters and on foot-shooting for a total of nearly 900 camera
logistics of accessing the shooting locations were challenging-it can take up to
weeks just to travel to certain areas. "These locations may be the hardest
get to of any Disneynature film we've made so far," says Fothergill. "It's hard
to think of
a tougher habitat on the planet."
Antarctica is an unforgiving environment-temperatures dropped to -40 degrees
several occasions, and the coastal locales drew katabatic winds that twice
miles per hour. And yet, the crews persevered.
It turns out perseverance is a key theme in the story, as Steve's journey is
more than his share of stumbles. "There's such chaos of living in a colony with
many penguins," says director Jeff Wilson. "In the middle of it all is a
father trying to raise chicks with his partner in the harshest habitat in the
a lot of heartfelt drama-weather, leopard seals, killer whales. But in the end,
trying to figure out how to be the best father he can be. That's the core of the
not about being a perfect father. It's okay to make mistakes-we all do-and in
mistakes we become stronger parents. Being a good father isn't expertise or
excellence, it is effort."
Says Helms, "Disney movies are filled with poignancy and real emotion, but
extremely funny and relatable-this movie is no different. It's a True Life
real footage of penguins in Antarctica, but told in a way that tugs at your
heart strings a
little and also has quite a few chuckles. For me, this movie is a very cool
narration and character work. I get to voice Steve's inner monologue as well as
narration. It was a really fun challenge for me-a privilege getting to imagine
penguin might be thinking-and I'm really excited about it."
"Penguins" is the eighth theatrical release for Disneynature, which
celebrates 10 years
since its first feature-film debut. The first seven theatrical releases,
"African Cats," "Chimpanzee," "Bears," "Monkey Kingdom" and "Born in China," are
seven of the top-eight highest grossing feature-length nature films to date,
"Chimpanzee" garnering a record-breaking opening weekend for the genre.
"Penguins" continues Disneynature's conservation tradition: for every ticket
opening week (April 17-23, 2019), Disneynature will make a donation to the
Conservation Network (WCN) to help protect penguins across the southern
hemisphere. Founded in 2002, WCN invests in a select network of on-the-ground
conservationists, including top experts in the field of penguins like the Global
Society (GPS). The worldwide leader in science-based penguin conservation, GPS
champions specific programs that align with Disneynature's conservation mission.
Conservation is a key pillar of the label, and the films empower the audience to
make a difference, with each film supporting wildlife featured in the films.
"There are still places left on Earth that are remote, untouched by human
where real-life dramas play out on a daily basis," says Wilson. "Adelie penguins
our respect and adoration and stewardship for the fact that they are superbly
living in one of the harshest continents on Earth."
"Penguins" is directed by Alastair Fothergill ("Bears," "Chimpanzee") and
("Monkey Kingdom"), co-directed by Mark Linfield, and produced by Fothergill,
Keith Scholey ("Bears") and Roy Conli ("Born in China," "Big Hero Six"). Ed
Office," "The Hangover" trilogy, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart") narrated the
and Harry Gregson-Williams composed the score. "Penguins" opens in theaters and
IMAX-it's the first-ever Disneynature film to be released in IMAX-on April 17,
One Adelie Penguin's Quest to Start a Family
Proves Complicated and Compelling
Steve is a 5-year-old Adelie penguin who's ready to tackle the next phase of
building a family. "He's becoming a father for the first time," says producer
"He returns to the place where he was a chick to build a home and find a mate."
Filmmakers knew they wanted to tell the
story of a new father-so finding a young
male penguin was important. But what
makes Steve Steve? "He's feisty," says
director Alastair Fothergill. "He's full of
character, and in a sea of penguins, he's
the guy performing."
Steve measures two feet tall and weighs
about 15 pounds. When the film begins,
it's late September and summer is
underway in Antarctica. After walking
more than 100 miles on the ice to get to
the colony where he hatched, Steve joins
300,000 other males in an effort to
choose a site and build a spectacular
nest out of assorted rocks, bones and
pebbles to prepare for the females'
arrival. Good nests attract potential
partners. But it's not as easy as it sounds.
"This guy has a big challenge," says
director Jeff Wilson. "He has to find some
real estate within the breeding colony and
build an appealing nest while every other
male is trying to do the same thing. It's
that classic issue of keeping up with the
Joneses that we might deal with in our
own neighborhoods. In some ways,
penguins are very similar because they're
so competitive over their nest sites and
"It's so fun to watch Steve compete with
all the other penguins to set up his nest
and win his mate," says Conli. "It's hard
not to relate to this guy."
And these penguins do compete. "The male penguins can be troublemakers-sneaking
in and stealing other penguins' stones or even their nesting sites," says
behavior can lead to some serious fights."
Adds Fothergill, "More experienced penguins claim the best real estate in the
the colony, while guys like Steve are forced to set up camp farther out. The
colony is so
big that it stretches all the way out from the top of a hill down to the sea,
which is a 40-
minute walk. If you're a penguin and going to get food, that's quite a problem.
very clever, choosing to nest in areas where just as their chicks are hatching,
ice begins to break up, giving them an easy commute."
When the females arrive, they assess the nests, but that's not all they
evaluate the male's feathers, as well as the strength of his display call," says
he does everything right, a female will sit next to him for a little while."
Steve does his best with his nest and his display call eventually attracts
the attention of
Adeline. Once they've committed to each other, they reinforce their bond with a
demonstration of sound and movement. Principal photographer Rolf Steinmann
captured the exchange. "They looked very shy at first," he says. "They reminded
shy teenagers who've fallen in love with each other. She was always looking up
he was always looking down at her, and they looked at each other for a long
filmed these mating rituals for two days."
Steve ultimately earns the heart of penguin named Adeline, who lays two eggs,
and Steve take turns keeping them warm and safe. "In our story, while she's
the eggs, a terrible thunder storm occurs," says Fothergill. "They're called
storms and Steve, who's been out at sea fishing, gets completely lost.
Adeline is sitting on her eggs-she's such a good mom, she won't leave her eggs.
she eventually gets buried under a foot of snow. When Steve returns, they
are able to find each other."
Adds Wilson, "They try to feed as much as possible to build up reserves of
fat so that
they're able to feed the chicks when they hatch-which happens after a few
As soon as the chicks hatch, the game
is on. "Steve has to go out to sea
because he needs to find food to feed
the chicks," says Fothergill. "That's a
really demanding job that he does on
his own at first. But as the chicks get a
little bit bigger, Adeline joins Steve,
leaving the chicks on their own. The
chicks join 10 or 20 other chicks in a
creche designed to defend themselves
against predatory birds that try to steal
the eggs early in our film, and later they
try to steal the chicks."
Steve struggles to do everything correctly-finding food, meeting the hungry
demands and protecting them from the skuas. Wilson, who has three sons of his
says it's particularly tough for Steve because he's never done any of it before.
"Firsttime fathers really don't have a clue," he says. "We could pick out the
Steve-and none were doing it perfectly. That really spoke to me as a father-the
that it's trial by error in everything that you do.
"Sometimes you have to laugh," continues Wilson. "He's such a dufus. We're
dufuses in that scenario-trying to feed your chicks, overfeeding them, they're
everywhere and it's your fault. I was really interested in developing the idea
that firsttime fathers have no playbook for guidance-whether you are a human or
According to Wilson, the teams were instructed to spend as much time
failures as the successes. Says Wilson, "At the point Steve becomes a father for
first time, responsibility becomes a new challenge-one that is exacerbated by
environment in which he finds himself."
Editor Andy Netley was responsible for tying all the footage together. "Disneynature
movies are unique because they're so character driven. We definitely wanted to
emotional and informative story, but above all, it's Steve's story."
ADVENTURES IN THE ANTARCTIC
Filming in Antarctica Requires Extensive Planning,
Lengthy Travel and Oh-So-Resilient Filmmakers
Antarctica is a place of mystery to many. The southern-most continent is a
icy expanse situated almost entirely within the Antarctic Circle, where
rarely rise above 14 degrees F. "We're taking audiences to a place that's
and almost otherworldly," says director Jeff Wilson. "Antarctica is almost
viewed as a
place of fairytales, so we wanted to present a unique insight into a world."
Adelie penguins are among the few creatures who call Antarctica home.
"Penguins" footage was captured from four key locations-all accessed by flying
Australia, New Zealand or South America and taking a boat or aircraft from there
Cape Crozier served as the main location for the production, where they
alongside Adelie penguin scientists from Point Blue Conservation Science. It was
accessed via McMurdo Station, the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program.
teams lived in the penguin colony-residing in tents-and utilized long lens
photography, as well as the specially designed "penguin cam."
Conditions at Cape Crozier were harsh. Team members traveled on foot to their
shooting locations and endured big storms, including intense katabatic winds.
are so few places were the Adelie penguins can find rocky areas to build their
says director Alastair Fothergill. "Cape Crozier is a particularly good place
rocks-one of the reasons is that it's one of the windiest places in Antarctica."
Principal photographer Sophie Darlington
can certainly attest to the intense wind.
Filmmakers resided in tents-yes, tents,
though a special kind of tent-at Cape
Crozier. "We had a sleeping bag called a
Snowy Owl, which is unlike any other
sleeping bag," says Darlington. "But you
can sleep in shorts and a t-shirt. In
A team of scientists was next door in a
slightly more secure hut. "A storm was
coming in one night," says Darlington.
"The scientists warned me that if the
wind should get worse than 80 miles per
hour, I should leave my tent and make
my way into the hut. Off I went to my tent
and climbed into my owl. I'm lying there
and the wind begins to pick up, which is
when I realized that I didn't have an
anemometer. I don't know what 80 miles
per hour sounds like in a tent. Finally, I
decided to head to the scientists' hut-
maybe 20 meters away. But I struggled
on my hands and knees to get there, the
wind was so strong. They opened the
door and said, 'Well done, you held out
till the wind was 102 miles per hour.' We
were in that hut for three days."
Named after a French explorer, Dumont d'Urville Station is a French
in Antarctica. Teams here captured both long lens footage as well as underwater
Principal photographer Max Hug Williams spent nearly three months on location at
Dumont d'Urville, arriving, along with fellow cinematographer Rolf Steinmann,
the winter season was ending. Approximately 30 scientists and researchers had
the long, dark winter there. "They get locked down-nobody comes in or goes
live without new faces or fresh vegetables for months," says Williams. "We were
flight in-the first new people anyone there had seen in five months. So we
some iceberg lettuce with us-they literally had a party."
Dumont d'Urville is positioned adjacent to a penguin colony. Filmmakers were
bunk in cabins on-site, located about a half mile from the main base where they
meals. "When we arrived, we thought the presence of this rope leading from our
to the base was a bit strange," says Williams. "Two days later, there were
100-mile-perhour winds and we learned that the rope was there to clip into to
follow it to the main
Filmmakers were able to bring more equipment to the station, so crane shots were
captured here, for example. It's also where the underwater teams filmed.
The production's largest crews lived and worked off the Hans Hansson
boat as it made its way down the coast along the Antarctic Peninsula-the
part of the mainland of Antarctica. Teams had to travel to Punta Arenas in
on to King George Island, where they caught the Hans Hansson. The boat's
Dion Poncet, was actually born aboard a yacht off South Georgia Island and has
sailing in Antarctic waters ever since.
The team captured long lens footage, as well as underwater imagery and some
cam footage. This location was ideal for capturing the fledging penguins-and
efforts to elude the predatory leopard seals.
The land-based Peninsula teams lived on the Esperanza base, a permanent,
year-round Argentine research station in Hope Bay, Trinity Peninsula. Filmmakers
with long lenses as well as the penguin cam.
Associate producer Kieran O'Donovan was part of the team at Esperanza. "It's
impressive thing to see thousands and thousands of penguins in one area-as far
you can see," he says. "It's a strong auditory experience and then, of course,
smell. I found it all to be overwhelming and exciting and interesting. It's
almost like a
city, because it has that same density and energy. They're all going back and
forth, as if
they're running errands."
Filmmakers traveled along Phantom Coast, sharing the ship with an onboard
to film aerials. "It's called the Phantom because it's rarely visited," says
Fothergill, who was part of the aerials team. "I think we were probably the 20th
to go there. It's the dark side of Antarctica. We worked on an ice breaker with
Chilean pilots who had trained with the Chilean Police Force."
When it comes to filming Adelie penguins during breeding season in
is everything. A number of events tied to climate, weather and sea surface
among other factors, affects the formation, expansion and melting of sea ice.
penguins' arrival to the coastal breeding areas and subsequent departure when
resulting chicks are ready to fledge to sea depends heavily on how much ice
isn't-present. The same highly unpredictable events presented innumerable
challenges to the team determined to capture footage of these penguins.
To get one crew into one location required intense and detailed planning.
with multiple crews in multiple locations-then repeat the effort every few
found that after about six weeks in Antarctica, you get pretty exhausted by the
of the habitat," says director Alastair Fothergill.
According to director Jeff Wilson, logistics to and from Antarctica are
enormous. "If you
leave from the South American side, it can take seven days to sail to the
Peninsula," he says. "For the teams heading to Dumont d'Urville, the French
icebreaker that took them in took 10 days. To arrive at the American base, the
flew down with two tons of equipment on an American Air Force plane that landed
the ice. Once on continent, our teams were then dropped by helicopter into the
where they camped for two months at a time in conditions that frequently dropped
-13 degrees F.
"It took three years of filming," Wilson continues. "All filming takes place
October and February, which is the window of access to Antarctica before the
winter takes over, the sea ice freezes over, the sun sets for six months."
"Antarctica is one of the few areas in the world that most people will never
opportunity to see firsthand," says producer Roy Conli. "It's one of the most
harshest environments on Earth-but its stark beauty is breathtaking. Cultivating
understanding and appreciation of the area, the surrounding oceans and the
who live there is essential to the future of our planet. That's one of the
reasons I love
sharing the story of Steve-a penguin who's working so hard to thrive in this
doing his part for the next generation."
GETTING THE PERFECT SHOT
Veteran Cinematographers Capture Footage on Land, in the Air and Underwater
To capture the stunning and diverse imagery for Steve's story, some of the
cinematographers were assembled and dispatched to Antarctica, including
long-lens filming, time-lapse, underwater, aerial and the specially designed
"Our teams were made up of very experienced Antarctic operators," says
Wilson. "Most people on our teams have been there six or seven times, which
sound like many, but is a lot when it comes to Antarctica. As experienced polar
operators, and with the connections to science that we have made in the past
we could predict the behaviors we needed to capture. Day-to-day decisions are
on the weather conditions-whether it will be safe enough to operate, whether
likely to be a change in sea ice conditions or whether the water clarity is good
film in. Also, excitingly, this type of filming is dependent on good old
craft, which is rare these days. Technology plays little role in Antarctic
filming. Boots on
the ground, using your eyes and wisdom counts for a lot more, which is why
film like this is a joy."
Most of the footage was captured using RED Dragon 6K professional cameras-the
modular design made them adaptable to long lens, penguin cam shooting and
underwater production. Since the sun never really sets in Antarctica during the
months, filmmakers had a lot of light to choose from, but found that the light
sun was low in the sky-which was in the middle of the night-offered a
magical look. "One of my favorite moments happened one morning when the light
kicked," says principal photographer Sophie Darlington. "We were up above the
and there was this incredible mist rising up from the edge of the colony by the
penguins were all backlit. It was one of those moments that in my eye, it will
be with me
for the rest of my life, it was so beautiful."
Each of the cinematographers brought a unique skillset to the production.
objectives depended on when they were on location and which location they called
Principal photographer Max Hug Williams helped capture nest-building. He was
behind the camera when a lone Adelie penguin wandered through the Emperor
penguin colony. "This guy turned up out of nowhere," says Williams. "He just
marched straight through the middle of the colony on his way to look for rocks.
Emperor chicks were bigger than he was. They were checking him out, 'Who's this
character?' They gave him a little slap, but he was so confident."
Principal photographer Mark Smith was part of the Cape Crozier team. "I
get loads of very low-angle shots," he says. "Adelie penguins are only two feet
so we developed a new tripod so we could get down to their eye level."
Darlington did a lot of long lens work, scouting the massive colony at Cape
for the best of the penguin behavior. One day the penguins came to her. "I was
suddenly caught in a massive adult penguin commute," she says. "I looked up and
there was just a sea of penguins coming towards me. I was kneeling down, so I
the camera at their level. It was like being in rush hour in London. It was an
feeling-being on the edge of the world and surrounded by these other people, it
was like being transported to Lilliput."
Principal photographer John Aitchison filmed from Avian Island, capturing
penguins. "I was there toward the end of their time on land," he says. "I filmed
when they took the plunge and jumped into the sea. One of the difficult things
any group of animals that look similar is to isolate an individual penguin.
various ways to do that: You can get low, perhaps exclude some of the
You can use shallow depth of field or a longer lens that keeps your penguin in
while the other ones are not. Or you can very tightly follow him while he's in
middle of the frame."
According to Wilson, there were two primary methodologies when it came to the
cinematography in the film. "One is the traditional long lens, which is
isolating behavior and characters amongst hundreds of thousands of penguins," he
says. "But we wanted to go one step further and introduce a look and feel to our
essential character, and that meant moving with him and giving him a bigger,
pronounced presence on screen."
For filmmakers to be able to give audiences the penguins' point of view, they
had to get
creative. "A Ronin is a stabilizing rig developed for feature film use that's
follow humans at eye level," says Wilson. "It's built so that you can hold a
human eye level-five feet or so off the ground. But a penguin eye level is 12
the ground. So we had to flip the Ronin on its head and create new handles and
support systems that provided the same level of stability."
The teams used the penguin cam extensively. "We wanted to track and walk
Steve," says Wilson. "We could use wide angle lenses, shallow depths of field
focus to put him right in center of frame, so that you always know that we're in
Principal photographer Julie Moniere captured a great sequence in which Steve
pursued by two very hungry creatures. "His chicks were hungry and Steve had just
returned from the sea with a full belly," she says. "They chase him up and down
colony begging for food. It was really funny. It was a very rewarding moment for
was nearing the end of my second trip and I was tired. To get the shots after so
effort and to see those shots in the film was quite emotional."
Didier Noirot captured breathtaking imagery of the penguins underwater. He
spent two-and-a-half months at Dumont d'Urville, but for the first two weeks he
saw no penguins.
The massive sheet of ice that surrounds Antarctica hadn't broken up, so the
penguins couldn't yet access their breeding colonies. After two weeks,
a couple small openings in the ice-and Steve. "There were just a few Adelies,
was very nice," says Noirot. "Each time we arrived, he seemed to recognize the
our vehicle. He'd just show up and stand close to us so we could do everything
needed. I must say we were lucky."
Noirot says none of the penguins were afraid of humans-in part because humans
not considered predators, but also because of the close proximity of the colony
scientific station. Noirot has extensive experience shooting underwater in icy
environments. He wears a dry suit, which is cumbersome, and carries a rebreather
a backup, plus the camera, which was put inside Cineflex housing. He limited his
underwater to an hour.
Doug Anderson also specializes in underwater cinematography. He was tapped to
the sequences featuring fledging Adelie penguin chicks as they dive into the sea
first time, preparing to head out to sea for the winter. Shooting from just off
Anderson also captured footage of another creature under the sea: leopard seals.
Says director Alastair Fothergill, "The last big drama in our movie is when
fledge. Broken ice fills the bay, so the chicks struggle to maneuver through the
hiding beneath it are leopard seals, amazing predators with terrifying teeth
almost impossible to avoid-they can catch 40-50 chicks a day. Steve shows his
the way to go, but then he and Adeline have to watch as they try to do it on
Anderson says some seals were reluctant to be filmed, but with patience, he
group of confident animals hunting in the same area. "They were big and mature
didn't mind me being in the water close to them," he says. "There is a degree of
sociability about them, but if you don't present as a threat to them and stand
ground if they're posturing, they accept you in their environment. But they're
maybe 16 feet long with a head the size of a small dog. And they're very
once they accept you, they will slip back into predation."
Anderson captured a surprising behavior one day after the seals had had their
seals weren't really hungry, but they continued hunting," he says. "We noticed
penguins seemed to be playing dead in hopes that the seals' predatory response
go away if they stopped moving."
It worked. "It's innate behavior," says director Jeff Wilson. "These chicks
been in the ocean before. That moment of fledging that we capture in the film is
they are being introduced to the water for the very first time. But there's an
core behavior, an understanding that's written into their genes that shows them
Principal photographer Jamie McPherson was filming at the surface. "The
would nudge a chick underwater," he says. "But when the chick played dead and
to the surface, the seal would get bored and swim off. Then the chick would hop
the water as fast as it could."
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