Interview with BORN TO BE WILD Director David Lickley

We humans have much more in common with animals than we think. Even David Lickley (Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees), the biologist-turned-filmmaker found stuff he didn’t know while filming his latest IMAX nature documentary, Born to be Wild 3D. With a contemporary score, stunning visuals, and Morgan Freeman’s narration, Born to be Wild 3D takes the audience deep into the heart of Borneo and Kenya and tells the paralleled stories between two animal rehabilitation facilities.

Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, President of the Orangutan Foundation International, operates the first facility in Borneo that raises orphaned orangutans in a manner that doesn’t domesticate them, so they may one day be released back into the wild. The second facility, operated by Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick of the The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, does the same thing with elephants in Kenya. The result is a captivating story that’s appealing to everyone, not just animal lovers.

The Mag got to sit down with David Lickley, here’s his insight to the newly released Born to be Wild 3D:

What was the most interesting thing you learned while making the film?
I think, I had some idea about orangutans, because they’re very human like, they’re one of our closest living relatives, and I’ve worked with chimps and so [I knew a lot] about those animals before I went. And I was a little big surprised there, but not in a huge way, whereas the elephants, I didn’t know much about elephants before this project. To me, they just seemed like big cows on some level, you know, big huge animals roaming through the African Savannah, but there’s a lot more to the elephant than meets the eye. They’re really intelligent, for one, they have incredible depth of feelings, and those get expressed especially among each other. Very few animals in the wild will accept an orphan, if you let an orphan go, they’ll usually chase it off because it’s competition for their own offspring. Elephants don’t, they accept these orphans, they accept them in the wild, they accept these orphans as they get released into the wild and become wild elephants, have their own families who then still come and adopt the orphan, in a way. It’s this real strong, maternal, largely, mostly the mothers who do it, the instinct these mothers have. And you can see it in the film, we didn’t stage anything, those elephants, those little guys released into this situation with these big elephants, the big ones come over and they put their trunks on them and rub up against them, and the sounds they make, you can just tell. We filmed their release and since then, these elephants have really begun to adopt those orphans so it’s such a success because once you get the back to the herd, they’re taken in. I didn’t realize that elephants had that much depth of emotion and connection to each other.

The part of the film where the large, adult elephants come to greet the new orphans as they’re released into the wild, how do they know when to come?
I don’t know! I’m a biologist, that’s my background; I didn’t really understand what would happen. We were warned by Daphne that that’s what was going to happen because it always happens, it’s predictable. When you release a new baby, other ones are going to want to come and see it and greet it, and know who’s there, and they come from miles and miles to see it and they want to do it right away. They seem to arrive as the babies arrive, and these babies have just done a seven hour truck ride from the middle of nowhere to this park, and somehow these elephants roam over hundreds of kilometers, they go off in the park and they have a wild existence, [but] they always seem to show up in this place when the babies come. There’s subsonic communication that elephants have that, I don’t know if it’s something they’re picking up that we’re not, but no body can explain it and it happens every time.

What’s your personal favourite part of the whole film?
That scene, because [we were] told it’s going to happen, you’ve got to be ready for it if it does, but you’re skeptical. You’re like “well, what do you mean by that? I mean, is it really going to happen”, and they only released them once, this is not set up, so there’s only one of them coming out of the truck, there’s only one moment where they’re going to greet them like that, and we just have to be ready for it. So when that happened, and we had two cameras going on that scene, and when we got the footage, we know that was going to be a really pivotal part of this film. So to me that was, I knew we had the emotional arc we were looking for because we needed an ending, a film needs an ending. But we needed a way to end this film, so the whole group of them together at the end, I think, is a very powerful way to end the story. It’s positive; it’s like being accepted into the herd again.

The film also shows how good the memory of an elephant is, like the scene where the orphaned elephant has just been captured and is terrified by all humans because they likely killed the babies’ parents. What was it like filming the terrified elephant?
He was making these noises and you could tell that he was really upset. He just figured it was the end for him, he’d already seen his parents killed by humans, we suspect, we don’t know for sure. And now, he’s been rounded up by these people who look a lot like the ones who killed his mom. He’s bleeding, he’s afraid, and they can’t tranquilize him because at that point it could kill him because his hearts racing so hard. They basically have to subdue him physically, and it takes six of them to lift him because he weighs already 200 kilo’s and he’s only eight months old. They have to put a blanket over him to calm him down and bring him into the nursery, and he’s still traumatized. So in that scene that we were able to get of him in the beginning, and the keepers are trying to calm him down, and he rams his head into post, smacks his head- and they’ve got tough heads – but literally after that to the next morning was when [the film shows him getting fed milk], that was the same elephant 24 hours later, and he’s drinking from a bottle, and he’s calmed down. It’s taken less than 24 hours to get that elephant to relax, that’s how good they are.

What’s a day like for the location workers, the people who help raise the animals?
What you see with Biruté and Daphne, in terms of their affection and connection to these animals, exists in every single person who’s there. All those keepers that you see with the elephants and the workers who are carrying the orangutans around have a bond with them. They’re bonded, they’re a family and so it’s amazing. And you can tell from the animals that they want to be in those arms, they want to be with these people and that’s what allows them to be nurtured because that’s what they’re used to in a wild setting. If you’re an elephant, you’re protected by your mother and the rest of the herd and you’re loved. If you’re an orangutan, that mother is your survival. You cling to her for the first three years of your life, they don’t even leave your side. So when the mother is taken away, those humans step in and play that role and they bond to them, because that’s what they want to do. You can tell in the scene where they have the babies and they’re blowing on the faces of the orangutan, they love these animals. It’s hard not to, when you’re around them.

The whole film is only 40 minutes, is there anything that you had to cut out to accommodate the runtime that you wish you could have kept in?
Oh yeah. There was probably enough stuff when we were done to do a film on each of them, there was enough of the material and stories that we could have put in, but in a way, the beauty of that is you then go for the gold. You’re not putting things in there to fill, you go for the stuff that was really dynamic and tell a story that’s compelling at 40 minutes, and if people at the end go “Man, I wish that was longer”, I’d rather have that then “I wish it were shorter”. I think a lot of people are going to come out with a very strong feeling towards this film, even if it is 40 minutes in length. You stick with the best stuff and then you have your story, it’s not good enough just to get the footage in a wildlife documentary like this, because it’s a human wildlife story, you’ve got to tell a story, so that dictates what you put into the film in the end and how you can weave back and fourth because you have two stories that are parallel, but they have to come together at some point.

What were some of the difficulties of filming in such a remote area of the world, especially with all of your equipment?
I like to say sometime we’re not a movie company, we’re a moving company, because we move 30 thousand pounds of equipment into the forest to shoot what we shot, into the Savannah. It’s just a lot of technical difficulty to get these cameras into position, especially to get it up into the trees. It’s a lot easier to shoot from ground level than it is to shoot from orangutan level because you want to look into their eyes, and to do that you’ve got to be 20 meters into the air and your camera has to get 20 meters into the air, and it’s the middle of the forest. We actually invented a new IMAX camera that was lightweight and digital, and it’s the first use of this digital IMAX technology in a film, and it looks beautiful, it looks seamless. That’s what made the film work, that’s why we could do the orangutan stories, because we had this camera. We used it a lot more in the end than we planned to, and I think that’s why the film worked, because the camera department figured out how to do that.

You shot the film in a very short period of time, how were you able to do it so fast?
30 days in each place, so two months. We were pretty focused going in. we sort of knew the story that we wanted to tell, and some of it was easier than others. When you get in the orphanage, when you’re there with the babies, they basically go out on the jungle gym and they do what they do every day. They go and they swing around, and it’s not hard to do a sequence like that. The hard stuff is when they go onto the next stage and they go to the places where they’re being released into the wild, when they’re older with babies of their own. They’re in a huge forest where they take off any way they want, they don’t stick around us. We spent a short amount of time getting the nursery stuff in comparison to the long time we had to spend to get the stuff with the forest.

You’ve done a lot of IMAX stuff, what is it about 3D IMAX that you were attracted to when making this film?
I like IMAX 2D, I’ve done full films in 2D and I like the size of the screen. You’re there when you’re in IMAX 2D as well, but 3D takes it to another, it’s a third dimension. if you do it right, and you have the right subject, it’s a perfect way to get people into these environments. It was basically designed from the beginning to be 3D… and once you do it, if you do it right, with animals that you could get close enough to, which these were, it puts people in and amongst the animals, essentially. It was one of the best uses of 3D, this is the perfect film to be in 3D… you’ve got to pick the right animal. I’d never do a film like this on eagles. I mean, I’ve done films on eagles, but in 3D that would be a waste of time because you’re never going to get any closer than 100 feet, if you’re lucky. With 3D, once you go far away from an animal you might as well be shooting in 2D because of the way your eyes work. If I have a long lens, I’m not getting any 3D effect from something that’s very far away, I need it to be like you and I, the way our eye is designed… 3D gives you the depth perception.

You’re a biologist as well as a filmmaker, what’s next?
Prime Minister, or professional hockey player. I don’t know, I’m a storyteller at heart,  I used to be a musician, I used to be a folk singer, I used to write songs and I still write songs, so I’ve always been a storyteller, and this allows me to tell the stories that have a natural history and science connection, because I love that stuff, I studied it, it’s from my heart, and I like communicating to people like Biruté and Daphne do, people who are not scientists but are certainly people who are working with animals, and I like to get their stories out to the world in a way that the world will understand. And that’s what I believe this film does, it tells these remarkable stories in a way that you learn enough on the way through that, you’re learning the important things but it’s not a science lesson, it’s really an experience. It’s an entertainment that’s an emotional experience that we’ve built, and so I expect I’ll do a few more. I’ll do this for as long as they’ll keep hiring me to do it.


Thank you, David Lickley!
Born to be Wild 3D
hits theatres today!