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Luc Jacquet – A Director Documents a New Generation of Emperors

Luc Jacquet



By Brad Balfour

For French documentary director Luc Jacquet, making The March of the Penguins, might have been success enough, but to see his tale of an emperor penguin colony under some of the harshest conditions on earth, become a summer sleeper family hit and one of the highest grossing docs ever (and an Oscar nominee) should give him enormous satisfaction.

Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film offers parents a positive alternative to the usual blockbuster fare. With his background as both a biologist and cinematographer, Jacquet had worked on another film about the birds – The Congress of the Penguins – but his debut feature is not a testament to both the penguins’ endurance and his as well.

What caused you to make a film about penguins? Don’t you like humans?

I worked with penguins because they have an extraordinary story to tell. It’s like a total epic with very strong drama and that’s the reason I decided to work with the species. I was also very moved by Antarctica, which is very important in my life. But to answer your question, I like humans too.

Antarctica is very important in your life?

I went to Antarctica the first time in 1992. I was 24 years old, and I spent 14 months there and was incredibly impressed. I grew up in a mountainous region and I like these types of challenges and confrontations with the element and I was really moved by Antarctica then and I’ve been drawn back always.

March of the Penguins

When did you know you had a story to tell, that it could be made into a narrative?

I had this feeling for a very long time; I’ve been doing documentaries for television for a long time, approximately twelve years, and I waited as long as I could. I wanted to have the professional competency to do it and also needed to have some sort of reputation to pull it off. But I always had the story within me. I always felt that I had this privilege of this access to this story.

What were your particular tech problems and how did you overcome them?

We worked with such intensity on a human level, and it was such an incredible human adventure that for me the small tech issues were not important. The climate we worked in was extreme but not too extreme, we went to -37c and this meant that standard equipment would still work in these temperatures.

Was the cold a hindrance during filming?

We knew in advance it was going to be cold and so you learn. It’s a learning curve, and to adapt to the cold, and adapt to the experience; you start to become very precise in your gestures and everything you do. You become very economical. The first month there are things you don’t know how to do, or you don’t do them so well and by the ninth month you have really learned how to do it.

March of the Penguins

Did the penguins behave the way you wanted them to?

Basically, I worked in reverse. I spent fourteen months observing the penguins and then I wrote a script that was plausible with what I knew. Penguins do what they want and there are times when you’re tearing your hair out. Basically, they’re predictable in their behavior and then there’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right light.

Were there particular penguins that would give you trouble or were they basically a simple group?

We were a very wealthy production, so we had a lot of actors. We had 3,000 couples doing the same gestures more or less at the same time so when one of them wasn’t behaving the way we wanted them to we just turned to the others.

Were the underwater shots the most difficult?

It was hard, I really would have loved to go much deeper with them but it was too complicated technically. There were too many tech problems. For me it was very important to film them in the water because they’re very beautiful, and very at ease in the water; it’s really their element. The underwater world, the light and the strangeness of it, is really the documentary in the real sense of the word, but we didn’t go any deeper than 30 feet.

March of the Penquins

Given the number of penguins, were there ones you could identify with or bonded with that you had a specific affinity for?

It’s very difficult to distinguish one penguin from another unless you put some type of band on them and that was not our intention. While shooting we tended to gravitate towards penguins that were not in the mass, not in the big group – the ones that were more isolated. If we had concentrated on the crowds, it would not have been interesting, I wanted to individualize the story.

Did you ever want to save any of the eggs dropped by the parents?

Nature works best when we don’t tamper with it. So, we were there as observers and man has never come in between nature taking its course.

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: March 2, 2006.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2005 Jérôme Maison. Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2005 Jérôme Maison. Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2005 Jérôme Maison. Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2005 Jérôme Maison. Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.


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