Born in China, also known as Shēng zài zhōngguó, is an American-Chinese collaborative documentary film that follows the path of a snow leopard and her cubs, a young golden snub-nosed monkey, a panda and her daughter, and a herd of chiru. The footage collected shows us a different side to China that Western audiences have never been able to see, especially with the footage of the elusive snow leopard. This documentary will take audiences through emotional journeys as they watch each animal’s familial story develop.
Screen Rant got a chance to talk with producer Roy Conli at Press Day, where we discussed how he came to be involved with Disneynature, how he got Jon Krasinski involved, and what the process was like in collecting the footage from Born in China.
Roy, pleasure to meet you.
Roy Conli: Nice to meet you.
Congratulations on the film.
Roy Conli: I’m very happy with it myself. Yeah.
What got you involved with Disneynature?
Roy Conli: You know, I had just completed working on Big Hero 6. I’ve been working in animation now for 24 years and they asked me if I would be interested in producing a Disneynature project and, you know, I said, “That’s interesting. I’d never done something like that before.” And they showed me a couple of films by Lu Chuan, who’s the director. Lu Chuan is one of the greatest film directors and storytellers in China today. I saw those films and I was like, “Sign me up. I’m there. I’m there.” And then I fell in love with these incredible animals and this entire process.
As did I. The film was great.
Roy Conli: Thank you.
This brought me back to my childhood actually. I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch these Disney live-action adventures right before school and this reminded me so much of that. Were there any animals that you know they were going to focus on besides the ones we saw on the film?
Roy Conli: Well, yeah. They actually had film crews searching out different animal families throughout China. It became very evident that the three major stories were going to be centered around the panda, the snub-nosed monkey, and the snow leopard. But then, you know, we couldn’t lose the chiru and the red-crested crane because they have such a kind of cultural significance in China, so the whole story is, you know, parenthesed by culture and the mythology with these three beautiful animals.
That’s awesome. How did John Krasinski, how was he involved? How did you guys get him involved?
Roy Conli: Well, you know, it’s funny because I thought of Krasinski immediately because I knew that this story had a lot of heart. It had a lot of drama, but it also had a lot of comedy. And, so I knew I needed a really good actor, but I also needed someone who could handle the comedy and Krasinski is amazing. Jon is such a passionate guy and he puts his heart and soul into this and I think he’s done an amazing job.
Can you talk to me about the differences between the, cause you just said you did Big Hero 6 obviously, the challenges between doing an animated feature compared to doing a live-action feature?
Roy Conli: Well, it’s interesting, because you start from whole cloth with an animated feature. You start off writing a script. You start off then storyboarding it. You start designing until you finally build up to final images. Here, you are actually starting with final images and moving backwards but, the great thing is, they meet in the middle somewhere and the storytelling is not a lot different in a weird way.
Roy Conli: Yeah because the animals actually provide the story. And then you are there to help shape it and make it something special for the audience to watch.
Roy Conli: Yeah.
You, personally, which animal was your favorite journey to watch?
Roy Conli: Oh boy. It depends on the hour. I, you know, I’m absolutely captivated by the beauty and the cuteness of Mei Mei, the little panda cub, but I think for me in the long run I love the snow leopards.
Roy Conli: First of all, the snow leopards, you know, there’s not a lot of footage of those in extent. We are the first western crew actually to get into the Qinghai Plateau to do this filming and it took 90 days to get our first shot. You know, they are the most elusive animal on this planet and, you know, we were lucky enough to have a fellow by the name of Shane Moore, who’s this incredible big cat cinematographer who really learned how to shoot them and he was out in the field for about 256 days in order to get the footage that you saw.
So this is the most extensive footage we have of the snow leopard.
Roy Conli: Yeah. I would say so. Yeah.
That’s amazing. I have to ask, last but not least, Big Hero 6 was one of my favorite Disney animated films.
Roy Conli: Oh, that’s great. Thank you. And one of my favorites too.
Any chance we are going to see a Big Hero 7 or a Big Hero 6 Two?
Roy Conli: You know, that is still up in the air. Chris Williams and Don Hall, my two directors, we’ve talked about it, but we just don’t know. You know, we want to make sure that if we do move in that direction that we are actually telling a story that is as strong as the original.
Well, there are tons of rumors out there that Tadashi could be coming back in Big Hero 7.
Roy Conli: That’s a rumor by the way.
I cosplayed Tadashi at one of these conventions once. It was amazing. I love Tadashi. He’s my favorite character.
Roy Conli: He’s a great character.
Back to this Born in China, it is an amazing amazing journey. How long was the crew out there for?
Roy Conli: Well, each animal had a different crew.
Roy Conli: Yeah. So, you know, as I said Shane Moore, who was doing the snow leopards, was out there for 256 days over four trips, over six seasons, so it was very long. The monkey shoot and the panda shoot, it was the same amount of trips, less time out in the field.
Interesting. So, with following around with these animals, was there any conditions that may have altered some of the film at all? Like any of the actual weather conditions?
Roy Conli: Oh! Well, you’re totally a slave to the weather. You know, I mean, what happens happens. I think we always approach our filming in the strictest of all ways and we let nature take its course and we record what is there. There is a great thing in the end. Rolf Steinmann, who’s one of the cinematographers who did the chiru, doing time lapse photography out there where, you know, the weather was not cooperating with him. But, when all’s said and done, I think the secret to any kind of entertainment, any kind of filmmaking, and – particularly – nature filmmaking is perseverance and that is what these guys do so well.
That’s awesome. Roy, thank you again for bringing the Disney live-action adventure back to adulthood from my childhood. It was an amazing film. And congratulations.
Roy Conli: It’s special for me too. Thank you.