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'The Leopard Son' from the Discovery Channel: From the Theatre to Cable

By Timothy Lyons

A leopard cub curls in the front of the frame while giraffes pass in the back.

It's an intriguing scenario: a naturalist, talented in still photography, wants to do a 35mm motion picture in the wilds of Africa, concentrating on the animals. But dis­tributors don't believe that audiences will sit still for a full-length nature film being shown in local theatres. So the naturalist rethink his approach, adopts a human story to chronicle, with animals as the characters. But still the financing road is blocked by obstacles, doubts about whether such a story could be realized. Twenty years go by, and the times change: now distributors show some interest in reaching wider, more diverse public; now the idea of blowing up 16mm to 35mm is at least acceptable. The naturalist has moved from still photography into making 16mm films; and one of these is blown up to 35mm and has a successful run at cinemas in Holland. Other people become interested in forming company to specialize in films about nature. Friend­ships open other doors. A plan is attached: Shoot a film in 35mm about individual animals, their adventures, their character. Then commission a smaller film about the making of the 35mm picture. Premiere the smaller film on television a week before the larger piece open in theatres throughout the country. Then, wait to see what the home video market does. It's a risky but brilliant plan, a little alike marketing a story—from magazine serialization, to pub­lished interviews with the author, to appear­ance of the novel at bookstores, only to have the motion picture burst onto the scene some­ time thereafter. Paperback rights and home video sales: the mind boggles.

On September 27th, in movie theatres across the country, Discovery Channel Pic­tures opened its first commercially-released full-length 35mm feature film, The Leopard Son. A week before the theatre opening, a one-hour special­ The Making of The Leopard Son—appeared on The Discovery Channel. The television special is narrated by actress Karen Allen; the narrator of The Leopard Son is Sir John Gielgud, playing the role of the wildlife cinematographer who shot the film. And the star of both films is an adorable leopard cub in Africa's Serengeti plain, who we watch develop from gangly infancy, to more experienced adolescence, and finally to young adulthood, left on his own to survive in the jungle of his existence. From the press kit: "After a year of wondrous experiences, the leopard returns to his mother's territory and to the tree he regards as his home. There, life and death on the Serengeti come full circle, with a dramatic tum so unforgettable and profound that it will touch every audience." Does this sound familiar?

Producer/Cinematographer Hugo van Lawick has spent more than thirty years working with wild animals in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. A major figure in conservation efforts, he began his work in Africa in the late 1950s as cameraman for Dutch film companies on location in Kenya. By 1962, he was photographing East Africa for the National Geographic Society. For many years, he collaborated on films with his former wife Jane Goodall, the internationally known primatologist. The wildlife filmmaking process, van Lawick explains, is primarily a sense of timing, and patience. Animals in Africa, especially the large cats, spend much of the daylight hours sleeping and conserving their energy. Van Lawick has estimated that he spends 95% of his time waiting for the animals "to do something interesting." And once that occurs, it takes another half-hour to 45 minutes to realize a single minute of edited material. no surprise that van Lawick and his crew spent two years in making The Leopard Son.

The choice of a leopard as his main character was a gamble for van Lawick. "I had studied leopard s before and done still photography," he recalled, "and leopards are by far the most difficult of the big cats to film. As it turned out, at a place where I studied a leopard some twenty years before, there happened to be a leopard with a cub. Perhaps it was an offspring of the one from 20 years ago, but here is a leopard we could find every day, and we got some very exciting things." Recognizing that a script is untenable for filming wild animals, he explains that his approach is "just go out and fiIm them and keep my fingers crossed that a story develops. It can be very nerve-wracking."

Joining van Lawick in the arduous waiting game was second cameraperson Matthew Aeberhard who van Lawick hopes to involve in post-production on the next film. "I think for a cam eraperson to understand what an editor needs is very diffi­cult to explain in the field.... I know Mat loves Tanzania and to me it would be idea life would continue my work."

To provide the musical score for The Leopard Son, producers of the film turned to Stewart Copeland, the founder and drummer for one of the most successful rock groups of the 1980s, The Police. Copeland 'first film score was for Francis Ford Coppola's Rumblefish; he has gone on to compose scores for numerous big name feature directors, including Oliver Stone's Wall Street. In addition to his film work, Copel and has written operas, ballets and symphonic works. "The Leopard Son is great fun for me because it doesn't have some of the more prosaic, mundane challenges of working around dialogue," he said. "It does have the same fascinating challenges of working around drama. In other words, it has all the nuances of drama but there's even more of an onus on the music to provide emotional cues and subtext."

Discovery Channel Pictures was formed in 1995 specifically for the production of theatrical motion pictures and large­ format films. Senior Vice President and Executive Producer Tim Cowling previously hand maintained creative and editorial responsibility for domestic and international television specials and series produced by Discovery Productions Unit (the former name of Discovery Channel Pictures). Instrumental in developing and implementing the strategy for the move into the big-screen arena was Senior Vice President and General Manager of Discovery Channel Pictures, Denise M. Baddour; having joined Discovery in 1987, Baddour serves as executive in charge of production for the unit' s film output and is responsible for overall operations and strategic development. Senior Producer for Discovery Channel Pictures is Mick Kaczorowski, responsible for editorial content and daily production and post-production of Discovery 's Quarterly Specials and Natural History television productions. The parent company, Discovery Communications Inc., has become the largest producer of nonfiction programming in the world, with more than 900 hours of original production in the works. The Discovery Channel is now available in more than 143 countries worldwide.