“It’s Hugo and Jane…we were just blessed to work with these incredible artists…A lot of people lived extraordinary lives…few people can talk about them, and even fewer can have had every great moment filmed by one of the greatest cinematographers of all time”
– Brett Morgen, director
Article by Marcus Siu
In 1960, Louis Leakey, the famed Kenyan paleoanthropologist who suggested the study of existing great apes could provide indications of the behavior of early hominids, including humans, was searching for a chimpanzee researcher. Instead of assigning a male with a scientific primatologist background where men dominated the field at the time, Leakey assigned a 26-year-old woman named Jane Goodall, who had no college degree, scientific or formal training, which is what he was exactly looking for.
Though Goodall may have seemed “unqualified” in the field, she was extremely passionate about animals ever since the age of ten and has always dreamed about living in Africa. In addition, It probably didn’t hurt her chances with Leakey that she was also an attractive blonde with very nice legs and was his personal secretary at the time. Not to mention, Mrs. Leakey probably wanted her out of the office anyway.
On her initial assignment, Goodall was sent to Gombe Stream National Park, a remote area of northwest Tanzania, to document and study primate behavior. There she learned to acquire the patience to sit and wait in the fields for weeks before even seeing any type of regular chimpanzee activity. Through her perseverance, she was finally able to blend in and gain the trust and acceptance from the chimpanzees as one of them. After this was established, a cameraman from National Geographic was sent in to help document the progress.
As Goodall observed the chimps, they no longer cared that she was present among their company and is mainly ignored as though she was one of them. This gave her an “in” to be able to observe the similarities between chimps and humans. She slowly discovers that they are highly intelligent and social creatures, much like humans. To watch the behavior of these chimps documented on film from Goodall’s point of view for the first time is a revelation. It’s almost as jaw dropping like watching the first man walk on the moon.
This documentary film is not just about Goodall’s early explorations and groundbreaking field work, but also about her intimate relationship with the chimpanzees, as well as the unanticipated love story with cameraman Hugo van Lawick, a perfectionist in his craft, who would later become celebrated as one of the greatest wildlife photographers and cinematographers of all time.
“When Hugo was making that film, it was not like making a film today”, Goodall reflects, “…it was the old Bolex camera, and it was celluloid, and you had to put a black bag over your head, and you had to thread through all these sprockets and through the gate and close the gate, make sure there wasn’t a hair in the gate…it was difficult.”
Lawick was shooting as a one-man crew and the equipment was so much heavier (tripods, camera, three cases for the lenses) as compared to today. He was carrying a ton of equipment through the jungles of Africa. “There were only four or five stops of latitude back then, so to get an exposure on a chimpanzee in a dark forest made it a near impossible task back then. “It was nearly impossible to find a single frame that was overexposed, underexposed or out of focus,” Morgen says.
As for the film editing, it was quite an arduous task putting together 140 hours of unseen perfectly preserved 16mm archival footage with no sound into a structure into something cohesive for Morgen. His film editor had divided the stock and identified over 140 chimps, even though the film was primarily about four of them.
Morgen originally conceived the film to be a “cinematic opera” focusing on the music by Philip Glass without a narrator. However, that idea was thrown out after interviewing Goodall and realizing how intimate her stories were. It became mandatory to put Goodall’s story into the documentary.
The completed film was shaped and formed like an epic narrative romance as you get to see both Hugo and Jane fall in love on film. As it turned out after reviewing the final cut for the first time, you realize it was not so much a love story between Goodall and Lawick, but a love story between Goodall and Lawick with their prospective professions.
“Love is between a woman and her work and a man and his work”, Morgan states. “Most people have this romantic idea that the most important relationship in life is with your partner, your lover, your spouse, but for a lot of driven people, their primary relationship is with their work. I started to see that Jane and Hugo’s ultimate breakup was not a tragedy because they both pursued their passions.”
“With our filter of film making today…there was an opportunity of something immersive to allow the audience to be on the journey with Jane” Morgen reflects. “Some of the advancing of color grading and in sound design that weren’t available 50 years ago helped us to bring us that experience.” In addition, multi-channel jungle sounds from actual stock footage recorded in Gombe was matched the archival footage. It took about 2 ½ years to finish the sound editing process, along with mixing it to Philip Glass’s brilliant and inspirational original score.
Though there have been a myriad of films over the last few decades made about the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, but this may be the definitive, intimate, and immersive document of Jane’s legacy brought to life.