Interviewer: George; Translator: Riley Peng @ Animal Dialgoue
First Published on Animal Dialogue, 08/19/2017
A few months earlier, the documentary Earth: An Amazing Day was a smash-hit in movie theaters, with impressively high attendance. This movie is a result of collaboration between BBC and SMG. Not only does it have celebrities like Jackie Chan, Geling Yan, Lixin Fan to boost its popularity, it is also a significant milestone — China’s first film collaboration with England, made possible when Dada Xi visited England in 2014 and signed an important contract.
This film invited more than a 100 elite photographers, took over 3 years, crossed more than 22 countries, and captured shots of the lives of 38 rare species. I was lucky enough to attend the premiere of this film, and be awed by the magnificence of this day on earth.
How her story with nature documentaries began
Qianqian Xu, or Ellen, the producer of Born in China’s red-crowned crane group and assistant producer of Earth: An Amazing Day, has repeatedly received foreign companies when they came to shoot documentaries in China. Through an online sharing platform, I was able to find Ellen and listen to her recount her experiences producing this film and working in the documentary industry for nearly ten years.
Ellen graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University with a master’s degree in international journalism. In fact, she initially did not do anything related to nature documentaries. When she first graduated, she went into the news industry; after entering the film industry, she also participated in many arts and humanities documentaries, such as BBC’s Chinese New Year.
It’s not until Disney came to China to find a team of producers to shoot Born in China that Ellen first tried nature documentaries. “I was not born and raised in big cities. I love walking, hiking, and kayaking, and also find nature wonderful.” says Ellen. “I know about nature, but because this was not my major, I did not have a deep grasp of it.”
However, this coincidental opportunity unlocked Ellen’s favorite lifestyle. When Walt Disney was preparing to shoot Born in China in China, Ellen, an avid field explorer, spearheaded her team in the production of Jiangsu Yancheng and Heilongjiang Zhalong’s red-crowned cranes. Recalling her memories of spending time with photographers in the wild makes her feel nostalgic. It was also during those days that Ellen learned more about nature and animals, and acquired the skills necessary for making nature documentaries. Her story with nature started then.
When producing Earth: An Amazing Day as a pre-production consultant and on-site assistant, she was in charge of coordinating on-site production, communicating with various parties, and selecting the content and site for production. Such work gradually made her realize that the theoretical knowledge she had gleaned from books was far from enough to really help her understand nature and animals. “China has a high speed of development. In many circumstances, animals actually need to adapt to humans. Development’s threat to the environment and the ecosystem, as well as man-made disturbance, is occurring everywhere at all times.”
It is only through a sufficient understanding of the local region that one can adequately be in control of the documentary production. When discussing her experience producing documentaries in western countries, Ellen repeatedly emphasized that, prior to starting the production process of a documentary, foreign companies such as BBC would conduct in-depth pre-production research about its production content. The on-site production would not begin until the producers have gained a deep understanding of what they’re shooting. This is precisely what Chinese documentary workers need to learn, especially when it comes to nature documentaries. This ensures that the production team can capture their desired content at exactly the ideal time, and more realistically reflect local reality.
During the pre-production research process of Born in China, getting to know the local people and culture should also not be neglected. Every team had a limited amount of time to shoot in different regions, and usually had to guarantee to finish capturing the desired content in two to three weeks. In addition, the foreign production team required time to adapt to the local environment and culture. Thus, before the production, the producers not only needed to communicate with scientists but also gather support from local guides. In order to establish reserves, many local farmers were hired as forest rangers. They maintained quite a delicate relationship with animals, and such a mutualistic bond had a long history — they have been living in this land for generations, and thus know much more about the local environment than visitors.
The locals also played a crucial role after the production took off. Establishing and maintaining the relationship among foreign production teams, Chinese producers, and locals, was Ellen’s most important task. For this documentary, Ellen took her team to Guangxi Chongzuo Nature Reserve to photograph white-headed lagurs.
The fragmentary nature of white-headed lagurs’s habitats and location of the reserve’s protection boundaries at the top of Karst mountain made this a challenging process. “Usually we follow the lagurs’ activity routes at all regions of the mountain. But this time, the lagurs are actually sun-bathing on the summit,” she laughed. The production team was compelled to seek the forest rangers’ assistance for ascertaining the lagurs’ activity routes and production plan. Because the lowest part of the mountain is the farmers’ agricultural fields, the team usually had to stand among the farmers’ crops. This involved communication and negotiation with passing farmers, as well as asking for their understanding. “You shouldn’t be condescending. As a documentary worker, you have to learn to both overcome the cultural gap and establish a bridge for cultural understanding,” concluded Ellen.
When asked whether she plans to continue in the documentary industry, she replied without hesitation, “I’ve been doing this for almost ten years. Ever since I started working, I’ve stuck to it and found it quite meaningful. I also like the kind of lifestyle associated with my work, which involves constant running on the road and learning new things. This suits me well, as I am a lifelong learner who believes that learning should not be limited to specialized knowledge. Every time when I’m on the road, I obtain some knowledge and wisdom from everyone I meet.”
She hopes that the Chinese people can one day tell their own story
Before entering this industry, Ellen already devoted a lot of attention to environmental protection and related news. Because she loves nature, the earth, and the environment, when asked about her mission and objective for producing documentaries, she said if her expertise and the media’s dissemination can waken people’s love for nature, she has achieved her goal.
Throughout these ten years, Ellen discovered that, with the development of technology, many people often have their eyes glued to their phones, forgetting to raise their head to appreciate the beauty of nature.
Most city-dwellers probably can no longer distinguish between different flowers and trees, and have lost interest in ascertaining what insects and small animals live near them. This applies to even kids. But Ellen doesn’t want nature to exist solely to supply for the densely populated city life, neither does she want it to suffer from massive destruction because of the demand of cities. City-dwellers should not always be consuming.
She doesn’t desire her children to live in such a world. Therefore, she wants to do all she can to garner people’s attention. She hopes to utilize her ability to make the public realize that nature is not horrifying, does not need to be conquered; instead, it is quite wonderful. “Let us put down our phones, divert our eyes from the screen, and spend some time to learn about the planet we live on.” She spoke these words quite emphatically.
During the interview, Ellen also expressed her other wish. She said, as she lives in China, she hopes to enhance the quality of Chinese documentary production through her effort, and that in the future we can view our wildlife and natural environment through our own lenses. This change not only indicates a technical improvement, but also that our country have gone through mature development, enabling it to direct more attention to nature. From the standpoint of the film industry, this means that we have gradually gained the ability to tell our own story well, and proudly present it to the whole world.
What made Ellen hopeful is that the China today is slowly inching toward her goal. In the past years, more and more companies were willing to invest in nature documentaries; at the same time, the government offered tremendous support for sustainable development, and spent more energy on China’s ecological management. Things are heading in a good direction everywhere. However, Ellen observed that we still need to raise awareness and educate the public about environmental and animal protection.
Ellen expressed understanding towards the present situation. “Everyone has heavy pressure in their lives, especially in this era of information explosion, making it hard for us to move most people with our message. Usually, people all wish to look at something relaxing after a day of hard work, but not what’s wrong with the environment. Thus, it’s hard to get people to care about what we’re saying.”
To get people’s attention, they invited Jackie Chan to dub for the documentary, personifying the animals in the documentary. They also invested a lot of financial resources into its soundtrack and advertisement. The huge influence of advertising reinforced her belief that she can affect practical changes in this world through her camera lenses. The growth of this film genre in the Chinese market also encouraged her.
When commenting on the current state of China’s ecological environment, Ellen didn’t express much optimism. However, contrary to the impression reality leaves us, she thinks that economic development and ecological protection are not contradictory. “Before 1980, 80% of Chinese society is agricultural. Today, the conversion rate of cities is far larger than that of rural areas, but poverty still tends to prevail in the countryside.” In rural areas, crop cultivation requires fertile land and depends on the availability of huge quantities of natural resources. Currently, the natural environment in the poorest places suffer from the most severe destruction. Desertification, for example, directly causes the locals to lose their income and the most basic conditions for cultivation.
Today, most people in China have their basic needs satisfied. As China is steadily growing and exporting a large proportion of its products and technologies, it also needs to display our bigness when it comes to ecological protection, fulfilling the necessary responsibilities of a big nation. “Human and animals co-exist. When the animals in one place start disappearing and becoming extinct, it signifies that that piece of land will also gradually become uninhabitable for humans. Economies can develop infinitely, but because we cannot live without the environment, the source of our subsistence, we can’t destroy it.
As a seasoned producer who has been receiving foreign production teams for a long time, Ellen has witnessed the different production modes of each country and company. This accumulation is on both the technical and conscious level. Ellen discovered that different production teams subtly differ in their ethics. BBC, for instance, has strict production rules. It solemnly follows its principle of minimizing disturbance to animals, and trying its best to present nature in its true form.
In reality, truly realizing this principle is very difficult. Even if the photographers simply try to approach the animals, the animals will be scared. If they are hatching, this disturbance can compel them to abandon their nests, or lead to other serious consequences. On another consideration, if the photographers approach the animal without knowing their current situation, the photographers would place themselves in considerable risks.
As a result, when producing Earth: An Amazing Day, the members of the photography team spent a lot of time getting close to the animals, gaining a full knowledge about their daily habits and species-specific characteristics; then, they would slowly approach these animals. For instance, the white-headed lagurs’ predators are raptors. Although the latter no longer inhabit where the former live, the former’s dread of the latter’s shadows and voices still linger in their DNA. The production team’s aerial machines naturally evoked fear in the lagurs. Thus, the aerial team had to start from afar and slowly approach, repeatedly appearing to make them understand that the buzzing aerial machines could cause no threat to them.
Although the process sounded simple, it was actually hard to carry out. The production process employed various advanced technologies such as super-telephoto lenses and high-resolution aerial machines. The photographers who had to manipulate these equipments also needed to immerse themselves with the environment. When photographing pandas, for example, in order to not disrupt the pandas’ daily routines, photographers had to wear heavy clothes for disguise. Although they were in the wilderness, they could not apply mosquito-repellents or other insect-repelling liquids, lest the odor disturbed the animals.
When questioned about her views on production ethics, Ellen humorously brought up the prime directive principle in Star Trek, signifying that outsiders shouldn’t interfere the life and culture of the local people, nor should they perturb its original evolutionary process. “When you’re there, you can’t interrupt the life or order of local species. You come to recognize that your interference can generate a sequence of impacts. Nature has its own rhythm, with unique cycles of life. The responsibility of photographers lies not in obeying rules; but when discovering that the local animals suffer from a common disease or face a serious survival threat, they should definitely seek professional assistance.”
Right before this interview, Ellen also just finished viewing the documentary, the fruit of her own labor. I curiously asked her whether she felt satisfied with her work. Ellen replied: “As China’s first collaboration with the U.K., this is quite good. However, I hope to someday see a film that is produced by China, centers more around China’s biodiversity, and can more accurately reflect our geography and the relationship between humans and other species. This is a great start. Ten years ago, we didn’t even see any nature documentaries produced in China. However, now China is gaining more and more attention. This change really brightens me up. I’m also glad that the documentary soundtrack is produced in China.”
Refuses to label, rational discussion
Ellen has more than ten years of experience producing documentaries, and is quite accomplished in the field. When asked whether she had any advice for future documentary producers or people who seek to work in the wildlife protection field, Ellen answered: “Please work hard and do your best. Then you’ll become the leader of this industry.” She deems that finding a lifestyle one loves as most important. In the documentary industry, for instance, their films usually do not perform well at the box office, and their work often requires them to spend all day on the road. People who value financial reward or a stable life probably are unsuited for this industry. This doesn’t mean that either one is good or bad, noble or mediocre. This is merely a personal choice, and any work can be equally meaningful.
In Ellen’s industry, competence means everything. “If you do the best at what you do, you will make everyone want to find you and affirm you for your work.” She emphasized, “When carrying out on-site production, we hope to do everything well. It is only by doing everything well that we can attract more resources for us to produce more films. Because our audience will like our film only if we make it well. The profit generated will motivate more sponsorship, which supports us to keep doing our work. Nobody wants to invest for loss.
Before this interview, I very happily learned that she has always been Animal Dialogue’s reader! Thus, at the end of our conversation, I also invited her to tell us her evaluation and expectation. Ellen expressed approval for both our choice of topics and our articles. In the future, she hopes to see more articles that investigates the conflicts between humans and their environment, and those that discuss ethics.
Ellen believes, this world is not necessarily black or white. When it comes to the animal protection field, either accusing opponents or calling animal activists hypocrites will not facilitate communication or discussion. The collision of opinions doesn’t signify that a right or wrong has to exist. The obtainment of a meaningful outcome requires everyone to analyze and discuss specific cases, conversing in a more thoughtful and constructive way. Animal advocates shouldn’t always stand on moral high grounds to accuse others. Instead, they should make this society recognize that humans and animals can coexist, as well support and rely on each other, through case analysis and education.
Ellen never ceases her busy steps. After completing this interview, Ellen immediately began preparing for the production for a new film. Here, we wish her the best at her work, and hope to see more and more of her excellent films on screen! At the same time, we recommend readers who haven’t seen Earth: An Amazing Day to check it out!
- 《地球：神奇的一天》发特辑 耗时3年走遍22国http://www.dzwww.com/yule/tt/201708/t20170814_16287339.htm
- STAR TREK TECHNICAL MANUAL (TOS) By Franz Joseph, (The Articles Of Federation, Chapter I, Article II, Paragraph VII)