Director: Luc Jacquet
Topic: The annual journey of the Emperor penguins to their Antarctic breeding ground, and the remarkable rituals involved in their courtship, incubation and feeding of the young.
Budget: Approx. $3.4 million negative cost, plus an additional $600,000 for U.S. version.
Financing: Bonne Pioche in association with Paris-based sales company Wild Bunch; additional funding for English-language version from National Geographic and Warner Independent Pictures.
Shooting format: Super 16 mm, plus DV for underwater sequences.
Why it made the list: Compelling, emotionally involving struggle of the photogenic birds against the elements, shot against gorgeous, pristine icescapes in a rarely seen part of the world. Enormous intimacy of the footage, achieved with no noticeable intrusion by the filmmakers. Plus, U.S. version, featuring a new narration and score, has become the most successful nature doc in box office history and drawn virtually unanimous critical raves.
Memorable scenes: Penguin parents perform a delicate ritual to transfer a fragile egg from the care of one to the other. The birds huddle together to withstand a brutal storm. The Southern Lights ricochet across the Antarctic sky. Penguin mothers, job accomplished, leave their toddling young behind to fend for themselves as they return to the sea to start the cycle over.
On making the film: To Jacquet, who grew up in the Swiss Alps and relishes sub-zero climes, the cold was not a hardship, but dealing with winds that raged at 80-120 mph certainly was. “The wind made everything difficult. It made the camera vibrate,” says Jacquet, who used computer graphics to stabilize the image (the only special effect in the film).
Filming spanned 13 months in the severe climate — but unlike the penguins, the four-man crew dined well, thanks to the proximity of the French Polar Institute, which had its own pastry chef and stores of red wine, beef and, of course, frozen food. “The institute was 20 minutes’ walk from the breeding grounds. Without it, we couldn’t have made the film,” says Jacquet.
Still, the film had its own survival drama, when financier Bonne Pioche, the only willing investor, ran out of funds. Quick action at Cannes by Paris-based sales company Wild Bunch, which sold 50 territories in a 24-hour span, “saved the life of the film and the production company,” says Jacquet. “It’s very interesting to think about that now,” he reflects.
Throughout the filming, the crew maintained a distance of at least 10 meters from the birds, using long lenses for close-ups and never interfering with the penguins’ tenuous grip on survival. Operating under such extreme conditions makes you aware that “everything is precious. Every gesture counts,” reflects Jacquet.