On making 'Penguins'

British filmmaker Jeff Wilson has never been surprised that he’s made a career of focusing his cameras on wildlife. The co-director (with Alastair Fothergill) of Disneynature’s “Penguins” hails from the Snowdonia region of Wales, but he grew up in Kenya and regularly traveled around East Africa with his conservationist parents.

“That would instill a real passion in any child,” he said recently by phone from London. “And it really fired me up!”

It also got him to earn a degree in biology at the University of Bristol, after which he found himself in a right time-right place situation, landing a job in the BBC Natural History Unit (partially because he spoke Swahili) as a bag carrier and driver.

“The BBC crew went to the Kenya/Uganda border to film the culture of the elephants there,” he explained. “For the next two years, my job was to live in some caves with the elephants when they came in at night.”

Wilson spent many years working on all aspects of wildlife filmmaking with the BBC.

“There’s a very small community of people who make wildlife films,” he said. “I was very fortunate to be in the presence of absolute legends, and I learned from them. Then about seven years ago, I was able to start making my own films.”

In the tradition of Disney’s Oscar-winning true-life adventure films, “Penguins” is a coming of age story about a young Adélie penguin named Steve as he finds a mate and becomes a father-among 500,000 other penguins-in Antarctica.

Q: What were the circumstances behind getting “Penguins” made?

A: I had filmed Adélie penguins for the BBC show “Frozen Planet” in 2011. In doing that, we recognized there was a great story to tell about them. So, we pitched the story to Disney, approaching them with the idea of a young male penguin trying to find his way. It was a tough story to tell, but Disney was JUST about crazy enough to say yes.

Q: Was the film always going to be about JUST one penguin rather than about the whole colony?

A: Yes, because the trials and tribulations of a young male penguin start right from the beginning of the breeding season and go right to the end.

Q: The penguin you named Steve is a bit of a klutz. He’s clumsy and quite endearing. Is that why you chose him?

A: That decision came after watching thousands of hours of penguins with my collaborator Mark (Linfield). Penguins, like humans, are not perfect; they have their faults. We were in a colony of 250,000 male penguins, so there was a lot to choose from. You sit there and watch and watch, and I remember there was this one penguin who would walk about 20 yards up a slope, muttering to himself, in a Joe Pesci “Goodfellas” kind of way. He’d pick up a stone, then mutter all the way down the slope, and he’d drop the stone in his nest, but he’d often miss the nest and he’d often trip. I called Mark over and said, “You’ve got to watch this guy. This is who we need to be thinking about.”

Q: You got up close and personal with Steve and other penguins. How was this done without disturbing them?

A: It’s not limited to penguins, but wherever we work in the wild, our job is to film natural behavior. If you notice that natural behavior is not happening, then you’re aware that there’s something wrong, that your proximity might be affecting things. So, it’s always JUST about being aware, and we’re very strict with ourselves in that way. In our (filmmaking) culture, the shot is never more important than the animal.

Q: Is it true that these cute little Adélie penguins are actually not very friendly?

A: They’re not friendly at all, but that’s what gives them character. We didn’t have any problems with them, though. They really didn’t care that we were there, they JUST wanted to get on with their daily lives. But there are times when it feels like 500,000 screaming Adélies (that includes the 250,000 females that joined the males) are all screaming at you, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t personal.

Q: Did you go through the experience of penguins vomiting on you?

A: (Laughs) Yes. Frequently. They’re all shouting so hard, it JUST happens to come up. There comes a point during filming where you cannot wash. There’s no running water where we were working in Antarctica, so you get to the point where you’re so encrusted in penguin vomit and poo, you kind of have to give up. I distinctly remember the moment where it got into our sleeping bags, which is your last refuge, and you JUST know that you’ve lost the battle. “Penguins” opens on April 17. World Penguin Day is on April 25. Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.