IFA Media has undertaken the challenge of documenting the profound array of creatures, large and small, found within China, and Looking Glass International will be taking the titles out to the global market.
Often cited as being the most biodiverse country outside of the tropics, China is home to an immense variety and abundance of wildlife—most of which has remained largely unexplored. IFA Media, which was created by a group of award-winning producers and directors of photography who had worked together across the world for the BBC, has undertaken the challenge of documenting the profound array of creatures, large and small, found within the country.
Three feature-length projects are in the works, all of which will be released theatrically in China, and Looking Glass International will be taking them out to the global market. The first, tentatively titled Tibet: The Third Pole, takes a look at the historical region covering much of the Tibetan Plateau in Central Asia. The second, China’s Secret World, is about all of the tiny creatures that live in China yet generally go unseen. The third is Made in China, a journey around the country’s diverse and often little-known landscapes to visit the animals living there that are quintessentially Chinese.
“Over the last few years, IFA has been lucky to build relationships in China that have allowed us to work on some great award-winning stories there,” explains Dean Johnson, partner at IFA Media. “During this time, we’ve developed an amazing partnership with CICC and a major Chinese producer, Shenzhen Top Vision, and together we saw that there is a huge appetite for blue-chip factual content for a domestic audience, plus a constant international appetite for Chinese natural history. After extensive research, we are all convinced these are going to be amazing and unique films with an approach that hasn’t been seen before in China.”
Karen Bass, an executive producer on the projects who has some 20 years of experience at the BBC’s Natural History Unit, says that these docs are particularly special because China traditionally has been a difficult place to make wildlife films. “It’s probably one of the places that has had the least access; it’s been very difficult to get into some of the places where we know there are great stories to be told,” she notes. “Looking across the context of wildlife filmmaking, there are places that are difficult because of logistics, like the Poles; working in the Arctic and Antarctic, or the oceans—these are very challenging both from a human standpoint and from the sheer logistics of trying to locate the animals and get the shots. China has been traditionally very difficult partly for the reasons of the logistics and remoteness but also partly from the standpoint of access. It’s a wonderful opportunity for a wildlife filmmaker to be given that access, and therefore be able to tell new stories.”
IFA Media was able to secure the full cooperation of both the local and federal levels of the Chinese government in order to begin to tell these stories. “Our DNA is Asian, but our output is international,” says Johnson. “IFA has been working in China for ten years now. China is a tough place to work, and it takes time to build trust and partnerships, but once you do, the long-term value is incredible. CICC’s partnership with us has resulted in some great factual content, and they were willing to take the risk on this project even though it’s much more ambitious, as there’s trust there. Our relationships with local government, scientists and researchers come from years of cooperation. Everyone’s committed to creating a series of films that are big in vision and that are made in China.”
Each of the three projects will have different technologies applied to them, Bass explains. “We’re always using technology in the service of the story, and different stories require different techniques. For example, if you’re going to Tibet, you’re going to want to try to film snow leopards, foxes, wolves and bears, and traditional techniques of good field craft, using extremely long lenses—of course the optics on those has been improving over the years—and lots of patience and understanding of the animals’ behavior are still incredibly valuable and irreplaceable. However, remote camera technology has also come on leaps and bounds.”
She highlights the transformative ability of being able to deploy cameras that can be used without human presence and leave them for several weeks, if not months, and still get incredibly high-quality images. Bass is also excited by the possibilities that come with deploying drones fitted with high-quality cameras. “Once upon a time, the idea of filming aerials in China was almost a no-no; but now, drones are very common. We are hoping to use that to show the scale and variety of incredible places and the stage upon which all these animal dramas take place. That’s a great way to showcase the environment.”
Time-lapse technology is another method that will be used to show some of the weather events and the way the landscape changes. “In terms of Secret World, we’ll be using some of the most sophisticated macro-techniques,” Bass adds. “When you’re filming very tiny creatures, often you want to put them into context. One of the goals for this movie is to put an animal in the context of its bigger, wider world. So, when you look at a tiny animal and then you see a human backdrop—maybe it’s a big city, maybe it’s another large animal or us humans —you’re getting the idea of scale and you’re seeing that world from the animal’s perspective. That requires specialist lenses and lighting, but also sometimes you may want to use green screen for certain shots to create a composite shot between the foreground, mid-ground and background.”
In addition to employing the latest technologies to dazzle the audience, the productions will have a strong emphasis on storytelling. By examining tiny creatures and the way they have to survive and their little tales of daily life, “I would love to think that a family audience would feel as at home with our stories as they do with Pixar,” Bass says. “The advantage of animation, of course, is that whatever is in your imagination, you can make it real in a computer-generated world. But in the natural world, you have to compromise [according] to what the animals will do, so that’s an even greater challenge in many ways.”
Bass is particularly enthused about being able to shine the spotlight on some of China’s lesser-known wildlife subjects. “Everybody has heard of the Giant Panda; it’s a true superstar, an A-lister! But there are a lot of other wonderful endemic species and stories that aren’t normally associated with China. I think it’s going to be exciting to be able to bring those to a wider public.”
Being able to showcase the wonders of Tibet is another highlight, she says. There have been many films made about the Serengeti and Yellowstone, for example, “but it’s never been done on Tibet as a full film, depicting how the relationships of all these different creatures come about and their struggles for survival across the year,” Bass notes. “It’s a very harsh and unforgiving place. If you think about why it’s often called “the third Pole,” the great Tibetan Plateau, much of which is over 5,000 meters, has been pushed up by the world’s greatest mountain range, the Himalayas. All the creatures that live up there have had to adapt to incredibly cold, harsh conditions. There has been very little studied up there, compared with many of the other great ecological systems on the planet. Although it’s terrestrial, and although it’s not actually the Antarctic and the Arctic, it’s still been one of the least-known and least-filmed places on the planet. To have a place with all of the top predators and a whole intact ecosystem, and yet still so little has been documented about it, is a very exciting opportunity.”
Alongside Bass, IFA is working with a team of Emmy Award-winning directors of photography from the U.K. and U.S., says Johnson. They are “some of the best in the world, backed up with China’s best wildlife producers and researchers, so this is really a first—an Asian and international partnership of skills working together to create blue-chip natural history.
“The biggest problem with a natural-history production in China is research and logistics,” he continues. “The academic research on many of these species is limited, so it’s forced us and our teams to become experts on so many different species and environments. That takes a lot of time, then on top of that we’re working in some of the most remote regions in China, so it’s going to be a long, hard process but one that has an amazing prize at the end of it when we can film all this.”
Even though a top-flight team is being assembled to work on these docs, “like all wildlife filmmakers, no matter how much preparation and research, and having the right people in the right place at the right time—we still need a bit of luck!” says Bass.
“We are thrilled to partner with IFA on these three incredibly ambitious wildlife projects,” says Nha-Uyen Chau, founder and CEO of Looking Glass International. “The exclusive access and partnerships they have been granted to produce these documentaries is a milestone for any production company working with China. As premium blue-chip wildlife content continues to be in high demand globally, we are confident these projects will find broadcast partners across the world.”