Disneynature’s ‘Penguins’: Go Behind the Scenes of Disney’s Latest True-Life Adventure

Special thanks to Matthew Izzo, who assisted and contributed to this story.

Behind the Creation of Disneynature’s ‘Penguins’

Disneynature is celebrating ten years of great filmmaking with the release of Penguins, the eighth theatrical film from the studio and tenth film overall. Penguins continues Disney’s dedication to providing impactful stories that inspire conservation and education about nature in another uniquely entertaining format. To celebrate the latest film from Disneynature, The Mickey Mindset was on-hand to cover the premiere for the film in New York City, and participated in a special discussion with the crew that brought Penguins from conception and to the big screen. Today, we’ll be diving into everything we learned from the crew behind Penguins; co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson, producer Roy Conli, and president of the Global Penguin Society, Popi Borboroglu.

Disneynature’s Dedication to Conservation

Of course, like all Disneynature titles, Penguins is determined to create change through its work; to inform and inspire its audience to make a difference. The best part about it all is that just by seeing Penguins, audiences are creating a difference as Disney will donate proceeds from the opening week earnings to the Global Penguin Society (GPS), which is dedicated to the research and conservation of Adelie penguins around the world. Popi Borboroglu, president of the society, explains that through the philanthropic work of Disney via the proceeds of this film, it will make it possible for GPS to carry through two of their campaigns, one created for the research of penguins, and a global clean-up campaign to eliminate pollution worldwide. Disneynature, with all of their films, offer an online educational guide to educators to use in their classes or resources to inspire change through film. The film Penguins spends no time telling audiences to make a difference in the world, but the filmmakers are confident that audiences will fall in love with penguins like the protagonist Steve to make a change.

At Disney, Story is Always King

As any Disney fan will know; storytelling is always at the heart of what makes the Disney legacy so memorable and revered. The same extends to Disneynature, which, as producer Roy Conli explains, doesn’t approach their films as ‘nature documentaries’ in the traditional sense, but is treated as a traditional movie. Penguins, like most Disneynature films, follows a three-act structure that is edited to cement a solid story with a conclusion. The film follows a central penguin named Steve and his journey into fatherhood. Director Jeff Wilson recounts the very moment that he and his team realized that they had found their subject for the film, out of the thousands of Adelie penguins in the artic. Steve seemed plucky and unskilled, and the crew felt that audiences could relate to Steve’s struggles of surviving and standing out amongst the challenges thrown at him. The ‘character’ of Steve comes to life really well through great editing and ‘dialogue’ by comedically voicing Steve’s thoughts. Because his actions are so visual, and often so clear about his thoughts through his defined actions, the filmmakers took more liberties than usual in narrating Steve’s thoughts throughout his adventure through the celebrity narrator Ed Helms who truly brings the film to life through his comedic narration.

Diving Deep into Great Cinematography

Unlike a traditional film, Disneynature movies don’t have the luxury of preparing shots, storyboarding sequences, and determining angles for their films. Almost everything captured on camera is spontaneous and unplanned, leaving the filmmakers with the challenge of finding new ways to capture things never before seen on camera. There’s a fascinating shot in Penguins in which a ‘character’ decides to ‘play dead’ in order to fool a leopard seal; according to the directors, this was the first time any of them had seen something as unique as that; and could not have expected any possible outcome like that. Additionally, when a moment like that unfolds underwater, it requires a scuba diver with a rebreather suit that recycles oxygen, absorbing carbon dioxide and replenishing oxygen. The reason for this is not to interfere with the penguins themselves, who are often afraid of the bubbles caused by a traditional scuba suit. Because of the freezing Antartica temperatures, the divers could only withstand forty-five minutes in the water before needing to take a break.

Even on land, the ambitious attempt to focus on one unique penguin amongst scenes of thousands is a major accomplishment, and the on-screen camera work sought to create a distinction between Steve and his family from amongst hundreds of penguins in a given frame. Using a wide variety of long shots and fisheye cameras, the filmmakers managed to bring their central character his unique visual character traits in a true storytelling fashion.

The crew spent over nine hundred days in the field filmed over three seasons, rotating the crew out of Antartica every six weeks due to bad weather. During this process, the team captured over a petabyte in footage that has wielded into the final seventy-six-minute run-time. Much work went into finding the specific ‘story beats’ of Steve’s climactic journey, with several moments in which the filmmakers knew immediately to include in the film; including showcasing Steve’s isolation and loneliness when trying to meet a match at mating season, or sequences of Steve vomiting into the mouths of his kids to feed them.

Disneynature and the Disney Legacy

Long before Disneynature came to fruition, The Walt Disney Company has been long dedicated to environmental conservation and great storytelling; in fact, Disneynature continues to pull its inspiration from the series of True-Life Adventures feature films that Walt produced between 1948 and 1960. Producer Roy Conli explains that at the heart of these films, and The Walt Disney Company is the dedication to educate and inspire audiences around the world to learn more about our environment and the need to protect it. Disneynature hopes to inspire conversation and dialogue about our environment, with the spirit of Walt at the heart of each project, hopes to create influence through art.

Disneynature’s Penguins is another wonderful achievement for the studio as it celebrates the tenth-anniversary project from Disneynature. The studio continues to carry on a wonderful legacy and inspiring ambition and new feats of storytelling, and Penguins is no exception. Narrated by Ed Helms, the film is full of fun and excitement, pushing the limits of nature documentary storytelling and the Disney legacy.

‘Penguins’ is now playing in IMAX and standard format screens nationwide.

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