Environment

Unbearably Cute

TFK chats with the director of the new Disneynature documentary, Bears

April 04, 2014
DISNEY

Mother bear Sky and her cub stand together in Katmai National Park in Alaska.

Have you ever wondered what a bear does in the woods all day? Winnie-the-Pooh seemed to have the life, but that can’t be the full story. Fans of the mysterious animals will wonder no more thanks to Disneynature’s new documentary, Bears. Viewers get to peak inside the secretive world of bears to find out where they go, whom they meet, and what sort of mischief they get into.

The film’s co-director Keith Scholey chatted with TFK about filming a few feet away from the large, beautiful creatures in one of nature’s most untouched areas, Katmai National Park in Alaska. The park was nearly destroyed in 1912 after a nearby volcano erupted and covered the land in ash. After the disaster, Katmai became home to only plants and animals. When people started visiting the park, they found it full of bears that were not afraid of humans. “Because it’s so isolated, the bears live the perfect life there,” Scholey told TFK.

Scholey said the crew was charmed by one bear family in particular: Sky and her two cubs, Amber and Scout. The crew followed closely as avalanches and wolves threatened the bears. How did the cubs learn to survive in the dangerous wilderness? By following mom, of course.

Bears makes its adorable appearance in theaters April 18.

TFK:

How did you get involved with Bears?

Co-directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill (R) pose at the premiere of their film, African Cats, in 2012.

CHRIS JACKSON—AFP/GETTY IMAGSE
Co-directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill (R) pose at the premiere of their film, African Cats, in 2012.

KEITH SCHOLEY:

We had done previous nature films and Disney wanted another one. The last one I did was African Cats so we were looking for a big, strong character and the obvious one is the brown bear.

TFK:

Can you describe the process of filming and how you chose the characters?

SCHOLEY:

The first year of filming there were very few cubs around. It had been a very harsh winter and a poor salmon year. But last year there was a baby boom, so there were lots of mothers with cubs. It’s a very dangerous time for them, mainly because of male bears. They are not very nice to cubs. In wildlife filmmaking, you focus on the ones that you think will make the most activity, action, and drama.

TFK:

How close were you to the animals from day to day?

SCHOLEY:

Our normal way of filming is that you keep your distance, about 30-50 meters. But the bears will come very close to you. We always film with guides—their job is to judge how to manage a bear and keep everyone safe.

TFK:

The movie focuses on the relationship between families, especially how young cubs are taught life lessons from their parents. Why did you choose to focus on that?

SCHOLEY:

We wanted to give people an idea of what it’s like to be a bear through the first year of life. They’re a bit like us—they have to feed on a number of different things. They are very smart about where to find food. They go clamming on the beach and fish for salmon. They learn from their mother what’s dangerous and what’s safe.

TFK:

What was your favorite moment that you captured?

SCHOLEY:

One evening this wolf approached our mother bear with two cubs and we didn’t know what was going to happen. We know that wolves take small bear cubs.  But one of the little cubs actually chased the wolf! The wolf was being quite clever because it was trying to draw the cub away from its mom first. It was very special. Two very different species trusting us to sit there and watch how they go about their business.

TFK:

Was there anything you were surprised to learn about bears while filming?

SCHOLEY:

The biggest surprise was the wolf-bear relationship because we had never seen it before. People thought they constantly fight and hate each other but actually the relationship is very peaceful. You’ll see them all fishing in the same river and ignoring each other. You hear how brown bears are dangerous and aggressive. But, they are surprisingly peaceful animals.  

TFK:

If you could ask the bears that you filmed one thing, what would it be?

SCHOLEY:

How on earth did you ever learn to fish for salmon? It looks easy and I’ve tried it and it’s impossible!

TFK:

If the family could talk, what do you think they would say to you and your film crew?

SCHOLEY:

You [are] lucky guys! At least you can get out of this rain.  That’s the thing about Alaska, it does rain a lot and the bears don’t seem to enjoy being rained on. When it gets heavy, they disappear in the bushes. They’re probably thinking why do you guys get to go back to your little houses and tents? They probably wish they were Californian bears.

TFK:

How did this compare to filming African cats?

A photographer get a closeup shot of a small bear during the filming of Bears.

DISNEY
A photographer get a closeup shot of a small bear during the filming of Bears.

SCHOLEY:

The difference with Cats is we filmed everything within a vehicle so we were always separated from the animal and protected. With bears everything was done on foot so we were completely in their world.

TFK:

What sort of human or environmental risks did you see affecting the lives of these bears?

SCHOLEY:

They rely on the salmon run every year and sometimes you see big fishing boats that take a lot of bear dinners. The salmon run is crucial to them and keeping that healthy involves protecting the whole ocean.

TFK:

What do you hope that kids take away from this film?

SCHOLEY:

I hope they come away thinking, “Wow, that’s a special animal. That’s a really wonderful animal.” I hope that people understand that bears are not just frightening creatures. They’re lovely, clever creatures that have an important place in the world. We have to do our part in making sure we always have bears.


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