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BMZ Interview: Pandas: The Journey Home Director Nicolas Brown and Producer Caroline Hawkins


Mother panda carrying her cub. Photo credit: Yang Dan. Courtesy National Geographic Entertainment.

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: May 23, 2014

Director Nicolas Brown and Producer Caroline Hawkins talk with BMZ on their latest film, PANDAS: THE JOURNEY HOME.


Category: Interviews

PANDAS: THE JOURNEY HOME captures for the first time the highly endangered pandas breeding at the Bifengxia Panda Base, and being prepared for release back into the wild. We speak with filmmakers Nicolas Brown and Caroline Hawkins on their experience filming these incredible animals.

Hi, Nicolas and Caroline. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I understand you both have a background in documentary filmmaking. How did you get involved in creating this film for museum-based theaters?

Caroline Hawkins (CH): After the success of Meerkats 3D which has been screening in IMAX theatres across the US, Europe, South Africa and Australia, I suggested to National Geographic and Sky that we make a film on giant pandas. Like meerkats they are loved the world over yet there has been a lot of misinformation about them, I thought it would be wonderful to show people how they really are.

How did the idea to create a film on giant pandas originate?

CH: The idea initially came from my friend and wildlife filmmaker Andrew Graham-Brown. He had just made a documentary for the BBC about the Chinese panda-breeding programme at Chengdu. He showed me some of his footage of tiny panda cubs in incubators and said "Can you imagine how fantastic this would be in 3D?" It was obvious that the idea would work although I knew from his experience how difficult gaining access would be.

Nicolas Brown (NB): When I was approached I was immediately intrigued because I feel like we are so familiar with Pandas, and yet what do we really know? The real life of the Panda -- the wild Panda -- is a lot more mysterious than the zoo animal. How do wild pandas live? Are they really an evolutionary dead end, or is there more to them? And how do the Chinese see pandas? I was excited to go and discover more!

Did you have any difficulties filming in China, especially capturing footage in Large Format and 3D?

CH: Tough! It took over two years. The one thing you quickly learn about working in China is that taking the standard official route rarely works. Nothing you've learned from working in other countries applies. We were extremely fortunate in that we were introduced to Sun Shuyun -- our China Executive Producer -- who was able to make the necessary introductions for us. Without her assistance I'm sure we would still be trying. That said, once we had the necessary permissions we built up terrific working relationships. Our Chinese colleagues did so much to help and support us.

NB: In China, relationships are personal, and built upon trust and time spent together. There is no way you can just come from the outside, fill out some forms and get access to pandas.

There was a long period where we -- Director Zhang (head of Wolong Panda Organisation) and myself and Jade (Chinese producer) -- spent days and days eating and drinking tea and discussing what was possible to film and what wasn't.

In the end, everything became possible, but only after we had gained each other's trust. And I think the breakthroughs came by getting drunk together, having a good laugh, and seeing each other with our guards down. We ate things like dry roasted grasshoppers, and that also broke the ice. They seemed to recognise that we were not there to exploit pandas for money, which is common. They saw that we had the same goals -- we wanted to tell their story and to do our part in getting a conservation message out to the public. At that point, we became friends, and remain so.

By the end of filming, they were more than cooperative. They were as dedicated to the film if not more so than we were. This really is their film.

The challenges were so many -- it was one of the most difficult films any of us have ever had to work on.

To start with, 3D on this scale is so difficult. The cameras are so huge, it takes you 30 minutes to re position. You can imagine then if your making a documentary, its not very spontaneous to ask people to just wait with whatever crisis they are dealing with because we need 30 minutes to get set up!

The camera took two big men to lift onto the tripod. To change lenses took 2 hours. And in the wild enclosures your talking about very steep, challenging terrain. Muddy, leech infested forests—and it rained every single day. Only when we came back in spring for the mating did we see the sun, and couldn't really believe it. Rain and 3D cameras don't mix -- if you get just a tiny spot on the mirror (which is huge and sits in front of the lens) the shot is ruined.

The earthquake had destroyed the roads, and often we had either no electricity, no internet, no phone, or all three were unavailable. We brought a generator just so we could keep processing the footage.

Also, with 3D you can't film past objects that are close to camera, like foliage or especially bars on a cage. So to film pandas in cages, we had to build our own cage for safety so that we could get close. Pandas -- especially mothers protecting their young -- can be ferocious. So we often spent a lot of time working out how to get into our cage, how to get out, and what to do if a panda decided to attack.

The biggest single challenge came at the end, when the Beijing government decided that they didn't want westerners to film Tao Tao's release. Our whole film was building up to this great event and we were denied access.

Our saviour was again Director Zhang, who played a clever political trick. He snuck myself and Jade into a banquet, and invited us to meet a very important official -- the minister of forestry. In front of the entire banquet, I gave him a small gift, and we drank toast to each other. As all the other ministers watched! After that, everyone was afraid to say no to us, so we were given permission to film.

Even so, we had no passes to get into the release event, so we ended up smuggling our crew and cameras up in military vehicles who were in charge of security. This was in the dead of night.

There was no room for me, so I ended up being smuggled in a van of local dancers.

We dressed ourselves in ghille suits (think of the mossy camouflage suits in the movie "Predator") and ended up being the only journalists who were dressed that way, which the Chinese saw as respectful to the Panda. We made the cover of several big Chinese newspapers.

CH: ... and on top of that there was equipment impounded at Customs, bonds to pay, the remoteness ... meaning there was no technical back-up if we needed repairs or extra pieces of kit. The domestic arrangements were tough too -- everything was swimming in water which meant technical kit had to be raised up on milk crates and sheltered under umbrellas -- indoors!

I noticed some of the crew had to don panda suits while filming. It's a cute image. How did this help in filming the pandas up close?

NB: At one point or another the entire crew had to wear Panda Suits. This was a requirement when going to film Tao Tao in his training enclosure. The reasons for the suits are explained in the film, but in short, for any panda going back into the wild, it is important that they not get used to human beings. Who knows what the pandas think you are if you are dressed as a panda -- ideally, not a normal human. Pandas are short sighted anyhow, and perhaps more important from a pandas perspective is that the suits are scented with panda poo and pee, and as Pandas communicate by smell, they will perceive the suits as being half panda half human. If they ever go back into the wild and smell just a human, hopefully they will run away. That's why we wore the suits.

Incidentally, I decided to wear a suit for a ceremony I attended that was televised on Chinese National TV. I thought it was going to be a small ceremony connected to a wildlife festival, and it turned out to be live in front of 3000 people! I was terrified but because of how the suit is, I couldn't see, and just sort of stumbled onto stage. The audience loved it, especially when I took the panda head off and went to speak -- they weren't expecting a Westerner to make such a fool of himself...

Can you tell us a bit about the Chinese government's efforts in saving the giant panda from extinction?

NB: The Chinese are so dedicated to the panda and to the environment of Sichuan. All we hear about China are stories of ivory trade, rhino and other rare animal medicines, and of dirty coal and huge water diversions. But they are determined to save the panda at all costs, and they understand that by saving the panda they are really saving a vast forest ecosystem that provides all kinds of services including fresh water and clean air.

CH: Although pandas are much-loved, there is a lot of misinformation about them. We are told that they are hopeless at breeding and that conservation funds could be better spent elsewhere but this is inaccurate and misses the point. It's true it is hard to breed pandas in captivity but in the wild they have no difficulty, given sufficient undisturbed habitat. The Chinese are determined to turn things around, to increase populations of pandas in the wild and give them back their habitat. If they are successful in that they will not only save this special species from extinction but many other animals, insects and plants will be saved with them. Everything is environmentally connected and although we only see growing industrialization in China the Chinese do understand the bigger picture.

What do you hope audiences get out of this film, and their understanding of giant pandas?

NB: I suppose, think positive about wildlife and make sure China takes what they've learned saving the panda into other areas. Encourage them to think about wildlife as something more than food or medicine. If the panda has a right to live in the wild, then so do Rhinos, Elephants, Saiga antelope -- whatever animal that right now is threatened by Chinese consumption.

We need good news stories about wildlife, and this is one of the best!

CH: I think they will be amazed at the determination of the Chinese to preserve this iconic species. Viewers will see how they have worked out their own unique approach to conservation by studying animals in the wild and then applying what they've learned to veterinary medicine and habitat management.

For those wanting to see the film, how many theaters have committed to launch Pandas so far?

As is the nature of these films for museums, the roll-out is gradual but the films stay in theaters much longer than in commercial theaters.  As of today, we have 12 theaters committed, with many more in negotiations so the list changes daily.  Remember, too, that each theater represents a major metropolitan area, as there is usually only one large screen format museum theater in a given city. Go to to see latest list.

Can you tell us about any upcoming film projects in the museum theater space, or otherwise?

NB: I'm working on a 5 part series for National Geographic due to air on PBS called Earth's New Wild due to air next year. It's a conservation series that examines how humans are part of nature, and play a vital role in keeping ecosystems healthy. And look out for more pandas!

CH: I'm following the panda breeding programme at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. We're hoping to film the first ever panda birth in the UK. We have a few more 3D films in the pipeline too.

Thanks again for chatting with us, and congratulations with the film!

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