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Lives of cold comfort

'March of the Penguins' details the birds' remarkable quest to survive their Antarctic environment.

June 26, 2005|Nancy Ramsey | Special to The Times

New York — A dozen years ago, Luc Jacquet, then a master's student of biology in Lyon, France, answered a classified ad for a "fearless biologist, ready to spend fourteen months at the end of the world."

"I knew nothing about Antarctica or about penguins," says the director of "March of the Penguins," which opened Friday. But after his first stay, Jacquet returned again and again, filming the harsh continent's wildlife and landscape. And it was the penguins that particularly captured his imagination. "I was driven by a desire to tell the story. My stay was very emotional."

Emotion is not something you necessarily associate with a land where the temperatures drop to 70 degrees below zero, the winds can soar up to 150 miles an hour and, in winter, the sun shines for only two hours a day.

"You lose your bearings," said the tall, husky Frenchman while visiting New York recently, where he spoke through a translator. "It's so immense, there are no smells, no grass, and everything is in two colors, white and blue.... It's very aesthetic, very pure."

Against that backdrop, the story of the charismatic penguins is "an incredible epic." "It's the struggle of life against death and against the ice. It's a story that nature had written."

"March of the Penguins," narrated by Morgan Freeman, is no typical nature documentary: It has elements of romantic drama, romantic comedy, suspense and even, however briefly, a happy, Hollywood-like ending.

It chronicles a year in the life of emperor penguins -- birds that grow to 3 or 4 feet in height, whose weight ranges from 60 to 90 pounds, who live on krill, fish and squid from the sea.

The documentary begins as summer ends, with the penguins leaving the sea and traveling dozens of miles to their breeding ground, where the ice is stable and the terrain offers some protection from the savage winds. There they find mates to breed with; the female lays an egg and transfers it to the male, who cradles it atop his feet. Then the mother-to-be makes a trip to the sea for food and back again. Timing is crucial: She must be back at the breeding ground in time to feed her newborn, or the baby will die.

Eventually, summer returns, the ice melts, the family returns to the sea, and conditions -- momentarily -- ease.

Jacquet spent 14 months in Antarctica on his first visit. (He left academia for filmmaking after he discovered that he preferred working in the field to research and interpretation.) The trip he made for the filming of "March of the Penguins" was shorter because his wife was about to give birth to their second daughter. But the film's two cinematographers, Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison, lived for 13 months on a preexisting base run by the French Institute for Polar Research.

Chalet had worked in fiction films and brought a sense of narrative to the table. Maison had studied marine biology; like Jacquet, he first went to Antarctica about a dozen years ago and was drawn back. "The Great South sort of adopted me," said Maison, speaking by phone through a translator.

The two "worked every day on the ice," said Chalet, also speaking through a translator. "We would spend our days in minus 25 or 30 degrees centigrade [13 to 22 below zero Fahrenheit], six or seven hours at a time.

"I spent a year squatting, literally," he added. "Our goal was to film from the penguins' height. They're afraid of things that come from above. We would be a few yards away, and we would let them go on about their business. Then we'd move in 2 feet, then another 2 feet, until, at the end, we were maybe 3 or 4 feet from them."

The two shot 140 hours of footage. The film is about 80 minutes long.

"We filmed their feathers and their eyes and the way they looked at each other," said Maison. "We had to turn them into characters."

Such techniques allowed the cinematographers to translate Jacquet's vision.

"Luc has this really wonderful style," said Adam Leipzig, president of National Geographic Feature Films, which is releasing "March" in the U.S. along with Warner Independent Pictures. "He alternates between expansive wide shots in this almost Samuel Beckett landscape with incredible close-ups, where you get inside the bird's psyche, where you almost understand what they're feeling."

One sequence is heartbreaking. A lone penguin is walking, exhausted. "We say he's going to die," said Jacquet. "We could also say he's coming back." By presenting him as near death, "immediately you have empathy. The reason I wrote that sequence was to convey the fact that if the emperor penguin lives an individual life alone, he cannot survive."

An interspecies friendship

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