Apr 26, 2011

African Cats

I had the pleasure of co-writing a wonderful film that’s just come out, called African Cats. This is Disney Nature’s third release, after Earth and Oceans. These films were all made by the highly talented nature documentarians at the BBC, who work together not unlike the writers and directors of Pixar. African Cats was led by Keith Scholey, co-writer and co-director, and the world’s premiere expert in filming big cat behavior. So this was a really fun project for me.

Ironically, one of the reasons I loved it was for the unique story challenges it posed. You have to identify these challenges right at the beginning of the writing process, or your script will have severe problems. First, we had to make this an epic event, worthy of a feature length film. That meant we had to avoid the typical nature documentary, which is predictable and familiar, and way too informational and dry.

We also had to write a story that was dictated by the animals. Obviously, you can’t script animals; you have to find the best story in what they actually do. That can be very difficult, especially when you want to avoid anthropomorphizing them. So the main challenge of the plot was how to overcome the episodic quality inherent in all nature films, especially when the animal depicted must go on an annual migration.

Animal stories are also constrained by the main characters. The more the animal is limited by what he can learn, the more the story is guided by predictable instinct. One solution, but also a problem, was to have two main characters, a lion and a cheetah. This makes the film feel like the story about the world’s big cats. But it also breaks the single narrative story line into two tracks, and the tracks may never cross.

So what did we do? I always say in my genre classes that the main trick is to transcend the genre. How you do that is different for every form. Nature films are a sub-genre of the True Story (which also includes memoir). True stories are at their best when they are deeply personal, when they focus on the family. For us, that meant focusing on the two mothers.

Motherhood is the greatest challenge in the animal world, both emotionally and strategically. These mothers, whether lion or cheetah, are ferocious fighters for their cubs. They despair at losing one. They rejoice when a cub comes home. When you see the intense feelings of the two mothers, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have no need, or even possibility, of anthropomorphizing these animals. Call them what you will, these animals love.

Unlike all other animal activities, which are single bursts in the present, motherhood requires a strategic campaign that can cover years. So we knew that tracking the cub-raising process would give us most of our plot.

Motherhood also unifies our story line. It gives the audience a sense that, below the surface, these two main characters are really one. Ironically we united them further by using extreme contrast. Luckily for us storytellers, these two feline mothers are complete opposites: the lioness raises her cubs within the strong society of the pride while the cheetah raises her cubs alone. Each way of living and mothering produces different terrors, mothering techniques and plot beats.

While the two moms should give us enough plot (we wouldn’t know for sure until all the footage came back!), it wouldn’t necessarily overcome the story’s episodic nature. We began to solve that problem by first admitting that this story will always have episodic qualities. That’s life. That’s a journey. And to this day, it’s a major form of plot.

But we also knew a great technique in writing, which is to turn a negative into a positive. Make your weakness a strength. If we’ve got two major characters and a journey, let’s get all the benefits of the crosscut we can.

The crosscut was one of the keys to this plot, because it allowed us to cut on the cliffhanger. The cliffhanger has been used in storytelling forever. But this technique was refined for the film medium in recent years through television, in shows like ER. Multi-strand stories on film allow you to sequence scenes based on the most dramatic moments of each story.

The crosscut in turn affected how we wrote the narration. Most narrations in nature films are too wordy and informational. They often step on big reveals and smother drama. The crosscut allowed us to convey lots of information through juxtaposition of scenes rather than by voiceover. For every step of the cub-raising process, we could show, by quick comparison, how the two mothers must use opposite techniques, with opposite costs.

That in turn allowed us to keep the narration lean and emphasize the dramatic. Our discipline was to give only enough information to tell the big cats apart and highlight the underlying strategies the cats use for each challenge they face. We let the “greatest hit” drama beats tell themselves, and that brought the audience into the action, instead of dryly backing them away.

You cannot transcend a film’s genre unless you also transcend the form’s basic theme. Animal films are about survival. About life. It goes on, but the process is brutal. It’s a war out there. One of the ways we punched the epic quality of the film was to frame it as a fight for the entire lion kingdom, which arguably is the most dangerous place on earth. So we were playing that theme hard (and yes, it really happened).

But to transcend our theme, we knew we would have to show that within this world of brutal survival, where there is no justice, there are moments of courage, sacrifice and love. Once again the mothers were the answer. Because when you see what these mothers do for their cubs, these big, beautiful cats become the Shakespearean characters of the animal world. Rest assured, if you see this movie the tears will come. Don’t fight it. Your secret is safe with me.