How long did you research March of the Penguins, and what kind of research did you do for the movie?
My first trip to the Antarctic was in 1992, when I worked as a biologist. I became familiar with the penguin colony back then. I went to see a scientist friend in the year 2000, while working on another project in the Antarctic. I asked him to tell me what we know right now about the Emperor Penguins. I also did my own research in the scientific literature. From there, I integrated both the knowledge and the inspiration that I had about Antarctica from previous projects I had done, to write the script. I wrote the story in about four hours. I spent very little time on the script.
Can you summarize your work prior to this film?
I have a Master’s Degree in Animal Biology and Behavior. I had worked for years as a biologist before doing the film. After my first trip to Antarctica, I had some fast training as a cameraman. All the rest of what I know as a moviemaker I learned on the spot. I had a few training sessions on technical aspects of filming, but only for a few weeks. I like the diversity of the animal world, and I like to travel through it.
The film talked about temperatures being very cold, down to minus 85 degrees. How did you keep the cameras from freezing up in such cold climate?
We chose to go there with French cameras – Super 16mm cameras. We chose those cameras because they were conceived to work at very low temperatures. There is a mechanism inside that warms them up. Also, they have a slow motion system integrated into the camera. We prepared the cameras for the cold with a special builder. We removed all the grease and the oils. We had isolated pads put around the cameras to keep them warm. We also chose a specific type of lithium batteries, and we had people prepare special 220-meter rolls, so we wouldn’t have to re-charge.
At the end of the movie, during the credits, there are scenes of you filming “March of the Penguins.” One scene showed the camera being elevated into the air, via balloon, for an overhead shot.
We used a meteorological balloon with helium, so that we could get the camera up and see what was happening with the penguin colony. The images were so strange, and the point of view was changing so much, that we couldn’t actually use those images in the film.
How many crewmembers went with you?
The maximum was four people. For logistical reasons, we couldn’t do more than that. They were all specialized in one thing, but they could also multi-task. We had to know how to do a lot of things.
Were you ever snowed in, or otherwise endangered, because of the harsh conditions?
Two cameramen were taken by a storm – a blizzard that took up speed very quickly. We found them only at the end of the day. We got really scared. We thought that we would never find them again.
How did you get the footage of penguins swimming underwater, beneath the ice?
We had two techniques. We had two divers, who would dive under the ice when the conditions would allow it. We also used cameras on poles that would go through little holes in the ice, so that we could shoot what was happening under the ice.
I talked to Alastair Fothergill about directing “Deep Blue,” and he said much of it was a waiting game. He would wait to get scenes, biding his time until the animals arrived. Did you spend a lot of time waiting for the “right moments?”
Obviously, in that kind of job you have to wait, but for us we didn’t have to wait for days. It was just a matter of hours, because you have about 3,000 penguin couples over there. You don’t have to wait around for things to happen.
What was the most difficult scene to capture?
A scene shot during a storm was the hardest to shoot, for several reasons. It was very cold. And because of the wind, the camera is moving around a lot. Lastly, the snow gets into all of the cracks of the equipment and lenses.
Did you lose any footage you would have liked to use in the film, due to its being destroyed from weather conditions?
Surprisingly, we didn’t lose much footage. However, there is one thing that I would have liked to show, and that was what things looked like during the night. We tried to do it with lighting, but it didn’t work very well.
Another thing Fothergill told me about “Deep Blue” was that he thought people went to the cinema for a dramatic, emotional experience. Your film can be very emotional as well, in scenes where the couples begin their courtship, studying each other. The scene where another couple breaks their egg is heartbreaking. Which scene provokes the most emotion for you, when you look back at your movie?
I think it’s hard for a director to feel emotions about what you’ve been shooting, because everything has been worked and re-worked so much. That’s the paradox. You end up dong the movie for other people, and not for yourself anymore. But there are two scenes that I really like, dramatically. One is the scene with the egg being broken, and a scene of a penguin that gets isolated, and left behind on the ice. It’s the image of a lonesome penguin, getting lost on a kind of desert ice landscape.
“March of the Penguins” covers a single type of animal for eighty minutes. How did you keep things lively and interesting for the entire running time, ensuring that the film never became redundant or boring?
I think most of it is the work of the writer, who needs to write the story in such a way that it’s always interesting. The other important thing was always to show something new so that people won’t get bored and the movie didn’t fall into a kind of lull, with the same images being shown over and over.
Morgan Freeman did the narrative, and there was scene where he spoke of the mystery of how the penguins find their way. Do they use the moon? The sun? An internal compass? Do you have a personal theory explaining this?
That remains a mystery. There are a few elements that we know about all migrating birds. They can decipher the magnetic fields, and the sun plays a role. But we don’t know everything, and that’s what is so fascinating for me, that they come back at the exact right moment, to an environment that’s so harsh.
Did you choose Morgan Freeman as a narrator, for the American release?
It was Warner’s choice, but I was very happy with their choice, because I’m a big fan of Morgan Freeman. I just saw him in “Million Dollar Baby.” He’s the perfect voice for the film.