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‘Island of Lemurs: Madagascar’: Documenting the Endangered Species in 3D IMAX

Looking as plush and animated in real life as any computer-generated confection, the lemurs of Madagascar inhabit IMAX theaters in April. The Warner Bros./IMAX Entertainment co-production Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, narrated by Morgan Freeman, arrives at a crucial time for the primates, whose long-term survival is threatened on several fronts.

Photo by Drew Fellman

Island of Lemurs: Madagascar reunites Freeman with Drew Fellman, who wrote and produced the 2011 IMAX 3D documentary Born to Be Wild 3D, and director David Douglas, who served as director of photography on that film.

The 3D Island of Lemurs was shot over a four-month stretch in Madagascar, a large island country in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Southeast Africa. The shoot schedule was devised to avoid the cyclone season, which would have made travel in Madagascar nearly impossible, according to Fellman, who served as writer/producer on Island of Lemurs. “Nevertheless, we had a lot of tough conditions. We spend a lot of time standing around in the rain waiting for the sun to peek out,” he says. “Fortunately, the lemurs like the sunshine as much as we do and they’d often greet the sun with outstretched arms like they were sunbathing.”

With the goal of showcasing the variety among the world’s more than 90 species of lemurs—all of whom live on the island of Madagascar and most of whom are endangered, primarily due to deforestation—the filmmakers carried their specialized IMAX 3D production gear to remote locations over difficult terrain. Fortunately the IMAX D3D camera used to shoot Island of Lemurs is smaller, quieter and less intrusive than its predecessor, which weighed close to 300 lb. and held only three minutes worth of 65mm film. At a trim 50 lb., the D3D stereo remote-sensor camera offers real mobility that proved crucial in Madagascar.

Mouse lemurs are the world’s smallest primate. Photo by Drew Fellman.

Shooting platforms included a pontoon on the open ocean, a motorized hot air balloon (called a Cinebulle) that enabled the first-ever aerials shot in IMAX 3D, and a hydraulic mast (the MAT-TOWERCAM XL) able to lift the camera 40 feet into the forest canopy.

At the time they used the camera, Fellman says, it was the only one in existence and it had not been field-tested. “Its sensor technology is based on the [Vision Research] Phantom 65 because it’s the largest high-speed sensor out there and the closest match to the IMAX format. The IMAX digital camera system takes a unique approach to 3D that avoids using a cumbersome beam-splitter rig. It uses a stereo lens system, and the lenses can shift laterally, which makes for easy convergence setting and lets us keep our crew size down. It also greatly reduces the setup time needed between shots,” Fellman explains.

David Douglas, who served as both director and cinematographer on the film, says the production represents the state of the art in large-format photography in several ways. “Diverse and subtle advantages made possible by the new digital camera made the difference between success and failure on this challenging production, [which was] shot on a remote island without any infrastructure or a functional government,” Douglas says. (The 3D camera had been prototyped on Douglas’ previous documentary, Born to Be Wild.)

Douglas and Fellman rave about the immersive quality of IMAX 3D, a technology designed to project a deep viewing area beyond the screen plane. Besides, Douglas says, the IMAX 3D unit “never runs dry.”

Director David Douglas prepares the IMAX D3D camera to film aerial scenes. Photo by Drew Fellman.

“The RAM buffer records continuously in loops up to 90 seconds long. This single fact changes everything for the wildlife filmmaker. Only desired moments are kept because we’re keeping action that we’ve already seen, rather than guessing what will be and betting film stock it will happen before we run out,” Douglas says. “Couple this with high speed, a small form factor, and the performance of new IMAX remote-sensor 3D technology, and we have a whole new game in wildlife image capture for the giant screen. Lens changes now happen in the same amount of time as 2D. And alignment and convergence are real-time adjustments, rather than a separate milestone in the setup,” Douglas adds.

“Employing the same core team as the [Born to be Wild production] was crucial to stepping forward with a camera technique that yields results through a different approach than other IMAX documentaries,” Douglas says. “Drew and I were determined to capture a content-driven movie experience by spotlighting real-life characters—both human and animal—with a spontaneous candor that’s new to the giant screen.”

The documentary pays tribute to the extensive research undertaken by Dr. Patricia C. Wright, an American primatologist, anthropologist and conservationist considered one of the world’s foremost lemur experts. Fellman says there are more than 90 species of lemurs and almost all of them are threatened or endangered.

“Lemurs arrived in Madagascar about 60 million years ago, and for most of that time they had no predators or competition of any kind,” Fellman says. “But since humans arrived about 2,000 years ago, more than 90 percent of Madagascar’s forests have been destroyed—mainly by a culture of slash-and-burn agriculture. Even though Madagascar is famous for its lemurs, they tend to be few and far between, living mostly in remote places. For us, that meant spending a year of prep to find groups of lemurs that had been habituated enough by researchers and scientists that we could approach them with a large crew,” says Fellman.

Verreaux’s sifaka lemur. Photo by Drew Fellman.

Some of the film’s showcased lemur species include greater bamboo lemurs, which were captured during an intervention by scientists to introduce potential new mates to a small colony; mouse lemurs, the smallest primates in the world, which were lured for study by little metal traps with bananas in them; and the most prevalent lemur species, the curious and mischievous ring-tailed lemur.

In addition to the practical science and survival issues, Douglas was determined to find humor and joy in the images of the animals. “Connecting to everything that is positive about lemurs, and there’s a lot, lets people take on the larger threatening and potentially tragic picture far more readily,” Douglas said in press notes.

One particularly alluring sequence was filmed in Madagascar’s spiny forest. Nothing quite captures the fun of lemurdom than the sight of dancing sifakas. Sifakas are large, slender lemurs that are mostly arboreal. They can leap great distances between the trees, which are covered in needle-sharp spines. They’re built for jumping, not walking, and when they travel on the ground, they skip and dance from side to side.

Since the film was shot, a new Madagascar government was elected, and both Fellman and Douglas hope it will seriously address the ongoing (and ultimately unsustainable) practice of burning and logging, and enforce better conservation of what forests remain. The lemurs themselves, they say, are hardy and resourceful, but no match for forest fires, loggers and hunters.