HDD Interviews DisneyNature's Louie Schwartzberg

Posted Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 09:45 AM PDT by

by Luke Hickman

The style and popularity of nature films and series have grown over the past decade. The 'Planet Earth' series introduced us to pristinely-shot images of nature. The high quality of this production, combined with such clarity and resolution, made this a jaw-dropped experience. Many of the nature images contained had never before been caught on film. When the quality of nature films rose, so did the popularity. It spawned several popular follow-up variations including 'Life,' 'Human Planet' and 'Frozen Planet.' Now, there are so many being released that it's impossible to keep up with them all.

Disney saw a world-improving opportunity before them and created DisneyNature, an independent division of the studio that focused on nature documentaries and donates the proceeds to various environmental causes. Their first picture was 'Earth,' a compilation of footage from 'Planet Earth.' Released on Earth Day 2008, it tested the water for their new division. Containing already popular footage, the cost of 'Earth' was low and the $108 million worldwide return proved beneficial, so DisneyNature continued to keep the annual Earth Day tradition going.

This year's great-looking release is 'Wings of Life.' It explores flowers, pollen and the many animals and insects that continue to spread life. At the helm is Louie Schwartzberg, one of the renowned filmmakers known for pioneering the high quality time lapse filming technique. Just after the Blu-ray release of 'Wings of Life,' Louie took some time to tell High-Def Digest about his gorgeous new film.

HDD – Luke Hickman: Hi, Louie. How are you today?

Louie Schwartzberg: I'm good, Luke. How are you?

HDD: Not bad at all, thanks. You've been the film industry for some time now. How did you get into it?

Louie Schwartzberg: Well, at UCLA, I fell in love with photography. Photography opened up the door to filmmaking – more, I think, from the Fine Art point-of-view. Coming from photography, film was a bigger canvas. What really intrigued me was being able to shoot high resolution photography, which is like the core of what you do with photography. First, I started with nature photography, following in the footsteps of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. For me, shooting 35 millimeter was always the goal and because I couldn't afford to shoot 35 millimeter I got involved shooting time lapse, which meant that I was only shooting one frame every 20 minutes. That's two seconds [of footage] each day. I was getting these extraordinary high resolution images of flowers opening and clouds moving. And this was happening before anyone had done time lapse [photography]. Actually, Walt Disney – with 'True-Life Adventures' – had began shooting time lapse on 15 millimeter. So that got me on the road to building a library that I wanted to use for my own films. It had a lot to do with my passion for nature and sense of wonder and to be able to show viewers things that you and I can't see in a normal time-frame.

HDD: With technology having changed so much, how has it affected your job? For example, how has it changed from your beginnings to 'Wings of Life?'

Louie Schwartzberg: A big way that it has differed is the ability to shoot digitally with the same resolution – if not higher. With 35 millimeter, you can shoot at 4K. Now we have digital cameras that shoot at 4K and 5K, so the resolution is still at the feeling as the 35 millimeter was and can probably now go past it. What has not changed is patience and the time it takes to get a magic moment. Whether it's a hummingbird flying at high speed or a time lapse flower, it takes an extraordinary amount of patience and skill to capture a magic moment.

HDD: In 'Wings of Life,' you have lots of magic moments. I couldn't believe how astonishing the hummingbirds moments were. The wing beats were insanely slow and crystal clear.

Louie Schwartzberg: That's because we now have these digital cameras that are faster high resolution cameras that were originally developed for the military. Thank God we found another application for them. (laughs) It's amazing that we can capture behavior at a thousand or two thousand frames-per-second. When we see those hummingbirds, it's just a blur of wings. Now we can see the fact that they can hover and fly, that their beaks are rock solid because they have to thread the needle when putting it inside a flower, that they're navigating the wind as the flowers swing back and forth, that they're extremely gyroscopic creatures that can maneuver beyond belief – they can fly back and forwards, upside down. We've discovered a lot of thing that even scientists didn't know.

HDD: And it looks great!

Louie Schwartzberg: Thank you.

HDD: Was it always your goal to get into feature-length films?

Louie Schwartzberg: Yes. I've always wanted to tell stories and with feature films you get audiences full of tension. The story about pollination is a grand, grand story. You can shoot it and say that it's just about flowers and bees and birds, but as you get deeper into the meaning of it, it becomes a story about the foundation of life, a love story that feeds the earth. I love the fact that on so many different levels, it speaks to many audiences. To be able to get that audience to fall in love with nature is why I believe that nature kind of manipulates us to help it survive and to protect it. The fact that we can use these amazing technological tools that show high resolution gorgeous imagery in your home environment is part of the story. It's not just technically great for a reason, it's there to enhance the experience and to open your heart, to create a stable future for our children.

HDD: That's a very cool perspective. How did you get involved with DisneyNature?

Louie Schwartzberg: I'd done a film with Disney called 'America's Heart and Soul' back in 2004 and I've done a lot of work with Disney theme parks. We've had a good long-term relationship. I certainly think that Walt is one of my heroes. He was a pioneer who used his imagination to build an empire. I'm currently working on a huge theme park project with Disney, as well. I support their vision with DisneyNature and it seemed like a good fit when I said, "Here's the film that I want to do. I've been shooting flowers for 35 years. For bees to be disappearing, this is the perfect time to be telling this story."

HDD: DisneyNature is a noble effort on behalf of the studio. The 'Wings of Life' Blu-ray kicks off with trailer for next year's 'Bears' that shows where the proceeds of the previous films have gone – building coral reefs and so on. Do you know what the spending plans are for the proceeds of 'Wings of Life?'

Louie Schwartzberg: I believe that it's going to the Disney Wild Life Conservation Fund, and they in return figure out which NGO groups to work with that support pollinators. I know some of the groups that they're looking at is the Pollinator Partnership and the Search Foundation. They're currently assessing which would be the best partner to help with the program to create sustainability for the pollinators, which many scientists believe is the most crucial issue facing humankind. If we lose the bees, we may lose one-third of our fruit supply.

HDD: And this is the difference that I love seeing DisneyNature make. This may be more of a question for Disney, but do you know if they're making the move from theatrical releases to Blu-ray releases from here on out?

Louie Schwartzberg: We had a small limited theatrical run with 'Wings of Life.' I believe that they're handling each one individually, but I really don't know the answer to that. I am thrilled that this film was available by Earth Day so that people throughout North America could get it on Blu-ray or Digital Download. You know, if a movie gets a small limited theatrical release and people don't get out to see it right away, it will be gone. I'm glad that on Earth Day it was available anywhere and everywhere.

HDD: With footage that looks as fantastic as this, I believe that it must be seen on the biggest and best format possible. The Blu-ray does justice to the intricate footage. How long does a film like this take to shoot?

Louie Schwartzberg: The filming took a little over a year – perhaps a year and three or four months – but it was about two years when you include pre- and post-production. We labored over this film and I believe that every frame is gorgeous and picture perfect.

HDD: The film looks amazing, but how does it compare to actually being there seeing the Monarch butterflies?

Louie Schwartzberg: It's amazing being surrounded by millions of Monarchs. There's no doubt about it, but I have to say that with the tools of digital cinema, for example, we're not seeing it in the slow motion that you saw the hummingbirds, so I would say that it's a more enhanced experience on Blu-ray because you're watching the "crème de la crème." We had 200 hours of film and you're watching the best of it all edited to music and Meryl Streep's voice over. I think that's a superior experience than sitting around waiting for a week of all-nighters for a bat to show up. I think that's a nice comparison.

HDD: (laughs) When you put it that way ...

Louie Schwartzberg: (laughs) That's the payoff for me. When people say that they've seen the Blu-ray, "Oh my God! That's incredible! I'm amazed!" They say that it's not only entertaining, but that it's educational and that kids love it - that's the payoff. When I'm on location and I'm not eating good food and I'm not getting enough sleep, it's not as fulfilling as getting those responses.

HDD: You also explained that post-production took a lot of time. During the editing process, are you personally watching all 200 hours of footage?

Louie Schwartzberg: Oh, yeah. We're watching it in slow motion, which is what makes it such a lengthy process. When you record slow motion, everything is obviously stretched out. We edit in the frame-rate that it was captured in – and it's great! You shoot a four-minute sequence of a hummingbird and you have 20 to 30 hours of material. It's all about how you cut it down when there's a lot of great footage.

HDD: How big is your crew when you're on location?

Louie Schwartzberg: It varies. Sometimes we're down to just two or three people because of the tremendous amount of waiting and patience and observation, so we constantly had to be effective. When we shot the Monarchs in Mexico, we had to hike up with a lot of equipment, so we might have had 30 people helping us haul equipment to the 10,000 or 11,000 foot-level up a hillside to where the Monarchs are. That took a lot of work.

HDD: Was it hard to land Meryl Streep as the voice of your film?

Louie Schwartzberg: Not at all. She's an avid gardener, so when she saw the rough cut, she also fell in love with it. I think this film has gathered a lot of allies because of the message and the intention of the film to inspire people to protect nature. I think that a lot of people have wanted to come on board and do whatever they can to help.

HDD: Louise, thanks again for taking time to speak with me today.

Louie Schwartzberg: It's my pleasure.