Keith Scholey Talks African Cats

Celebrate Earth Day with the majestic kings of the savanna, in theaters this Friday

Disneynature celebrates Earth Day 2011 with the release of their latest wildlife documentary African Cats, a beautiful and stunning adventure that follows three big cat families trying to survive the savanna. We recently caught up with co-director Keith Scholey, who gave us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making of this modern masterpiece.

Here is our conversation.

Tell me about the casting process on African Cats. This has to be quite different from your typical Hollywood movie...

Keith Scholey: You hit the nail on the head. That is the crucial trick, actually. We knew we needed to get the right characters. You know that old adage: If you get the right characters, the rest will follow? We couldn't control the plot, but we could control the casting. Sita the Cheetah? She fell into our laps as soon as we turned up in Africa. She was this beautiful female cheetah that had just given birth to a cub. We know what happens with Cheetahs and cubs, so we had to follow her an and her story. The lions are far more complicated. We knew our favorite lion pride, which we'd followed for years. But, actually, they were too good. They didn't have any problems. They were able to hunt, and would have brave cubs, and they would have a happy time. There really wasn't a movie to have in that. Then we found this other pride, who had this old boy with a broke tooth. Fang. He was a solitary lion on his own. And then we had an injured lioness who had one cub. We looked at that and thought, "What is going to happen here?" Then, across the river, there was this huge black mane lion named Carly, with five sons. When you have a numbers match with one old boy against five, you know problems are going to happen. Once we saw this scenario, we knew these were the guys we were going to follow. We knew this is what we were going to do. That is how the movie played out.

As with any director working with a big star in a movie, did you ever see any behavior out of your cast that was shocking, or that you were disappointed in?

Keith Scholey: (Laughs) There is a scene in the movie where Carly and one of his sons do a probe on Fang and the river pride. What happens with male lions is that they go in and they test the grounds. We thought Fang, you know...He had all of these lionesses behind him...He is going to stand his ground. As soon as he saw these two coming towards him, he turned around and legs it. We said, "Fang! You can't do that!" So, of course it was left to the girls to do all of the fighting. These lions are smart. They can count. They work out the odds.

The Disneynature movies are always quite groundbreaking in terms of the world of documentaries. What were some of the new innovations that you guys came up with for African Cats?

Keith Scholey in Africa{7}: Technology is our great friend. We actually shoot on video. Until recently, they didn't have a camera that could do the 35 mm cinema job. Now, we use the Sony F23 camera, which can do that. The video camera is so much more flexible for the things we are doing. That was really helpful. We have these slow motion cameras. The Phantom camera, which can record up to 450 frames. Which, again, allows you to really slow the action down. That was fantastic. Our key trick, though? We wanted to get tracking shots in. In most movies, the camera is always on the go. But with so many wildlife films, the camera is always static. We knew there was this really wonderful helicopter camera called the Cineflex, which takes out the vibration. We thought, Hey, what happens if we hang that Cineflex off the back of a truck, on a crane? Would we be able to ride across rough terrain and get smooth tracking shots? We gave it a go, and it worked really well. That gave us a unique new cinematic look to the movie, which we use throughout in certain places quite effectively.

Are you guys ever going to do a documentary on yourselves? Watching you capture some of these moments is almost as fascinating as watching the footage.

Keith Scholey: When they release the DVD, a big part of the special features will be the making-of the film. All these different things that we did. We have little, little films about every aspect of this that I think people will find interesting.

Watching this film yourself, which has some of the most amazing cinematography ever seen in a wildlife film, what moment is most awe inspiring to you, in your own eyes?

Keith Scholey: I think the most surprising thing...When we first started shooting this, we sort of knew that lions crossed rivers. But it is very rarely seen. So we were amazed to film one actually crossing the river. Then there is one scene where two young males cross the river in very deep water. And one of them gets got by a crocodile. I don't think anyone has ever seen that in real life, let alone film it. Also, we didn't know that crocodiles attack lions, which is something we suspected they might do. But, suddenly, wow! Here is the evidence. They do. And it explains why lions don't like going in that river very much. That was the moment where we thought, "Wow! That is quite extraordinary."

In terms of the crocodile getting the lion, you guys are very diligent in keeping this family friendly without ever losing the integrity or realism of the shot. How do you find that balance in editing?

Keith Scholey: It is very similar with any thriller, or any type of movie. Bad things happen. You need to show enough, so you understand what happened. But you don't need to show any more than that. As long as it advances the story so that you can work it out, you don't need to show...Some of the best thrillers, where there is a really violet thing that happens, you don't even see it. It's all done through suggestion. Alfred Hitchcock was the master at that. We really believe in the same rules. You must be truthful to the animals' lives. You musn't sanitize it so that you are almost telling a lie. You can't say that a Cheetah doesn't hunt gazelles in order to survive. That is what they do, and it motivates most of their lives. You have to show that. But you just have to show enough, so that you understand her challenge, and what it takes for her to do what she needs to do, and no more. It's about finding that balance.

What does it mean for you, as a filmmaker, to be so closely associated with Earth Day?

Keith Scholey: I think its fantastic. My view is: We are the marketing arm of the natural world. That is, mentally, what we are here to do. To be able to say, on Earth Day, here is nature, its beautiful, its fantastic, and these cats are superstars. That will instill their value in people's minds. If an animal's value is built, that translates into action. And conversation. There is an important chain there. Disney always has a campaign where they take some of the box office from the first week and donate it to a project. In this case, its 'Saving the Savanna'. Building these wildlife corridors between the natural and the national parks. It's a crucial thing that has to happen to save these animals now. Its fantastic. We don't just make the film. The film actually has a purpose.

Disneynature's next will be the Chimpanzee movie?

Keith Scholey: Yes. My colleague Alastair Fothergill is actually making that show. I don't know the full details. It is still being filmed. That will be the Disneynature film for next year. I am actually making a television series for the Discovery Channel about North America. You have a Brit making a film about your homeland. That will keep me off the streets until we get another Disneynature movie going.