From Madagascar to N.C.: Local lemurs star in IMAX film

Mar. 31, 2014 @ 05:07 PM

At the Duke Lemur Center, several sifaka lemurs leap from trees and hop over ground to get to the mixture of celery, carrots, greens and other foods that primate technician Steve Coombs is carrying for them. Monday’s feeding marked the first time since the fall that these lemurs have been outside, Coombs said.

As the lemurs chomp down, a group of photographers and reporters eases in closer, observing and searching for the best shots during a tour of the lemur enclosure. The Lemur Center is the closest many people will get to these primates who drifted across the water from Africa to the island of Madagascar some 60 million years ago. Another way to see them is to visit Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar. Still another way is to go see the documentary “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” which opens Friday nationally in 3-D in IMAX theaters.
The documentary chronicles the work that primatologist and anthropologist Patricia C. Wright has been doing at the Ranomafana preserve since 1991. Wright, along with producer and writer Drew Fellman and musician and songwriter Hanitra Rasoanaivo, came to the Lemur Center to introduce and talk about the film. Cora Cole-McFadden, Durham mayor pro tem, read a proclamation praising the film and the work of the center, and declaring this week Lemur Week.
While most of the documentary is set in Madagascar, the first 30 seconds or so were filmed at the Lemur Center, and star five fat-tailed dwarf lemurs – Nighthawk, Vireo, Raven, Crow and Jaeger. They re-enact the migration of the first lemurs from Africa to Madagascar, eventually evolving to many different species of the primate.
Their scene was shot in front of a green screen, making them most likely the first lemurs to be part of a special effects shot, Fellman said. All lemurs descend from the first group that migrated from Africa, “so we had to re-create this journey of floating across the sea,” he said.
One challenge: the dwarf lemurs are nocturnal, and when they see daylight, they start to doze off. To get around this challenge, Lemur Center animal training expert Meg Dye and technicians Fallon Owens and Mack DesChamps trained the lemurs so they would not fall asleep during the filming of this sequence, which happened in April 2013.
The Lemur Center has another connection to this film. Wright, now a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, began her research with lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center. “My life with lemurs really started here in North Carolina,” Wright said. She did post-doctoral work there and later became an assistant professor. With its 3-D effects, “Island of Lemurs” does an excellent job of putting the viewer in the Madagascar rain forest, she said. “Those of you who don’t know lemurs will learn to fall in love with the ones in this film,” Wright said.
Fellman and David Douglas, who directed and photographed “Island of Lemurs,” approached her about doing a film about lemurs during a reception for the film “Born to be Wild.” (Fellman and Douglas also collaborated on that film.) “I knew how hard it is to do a three-dimensional film in Madagascar,” which does not have good roads to support the equipment needed for such a project, Wright said. Sometimes the equipment scared the lemurs. She recalled a time when the film crew had to figure out how to cross a river with the equipment after a recent rain. They finally got across in a dugout canoe. “The whole experience was full of exciting adventures like that,” she said.
Rasoanaivo, who leads the Madagascar band Tarika, said Wright “opened up my mind about the environmental issues in Madagascar.” She started a group called Artists for the Environment to raise more awareness about those issues. The film soundtrack includes music from her previous recordings, and her rewrite with new lyrics to the tune “I Will Survive” (recorded by American singer Gloria Gaynor).
The Lemur Center has about 250 animals, representing 17 species of lemur, making it the largest collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar, said Charlie Welch, conservation coordinator for the center. Lemurs flourished in Madagascar until the arrival of humans about 2,000 years ago, according to the Lemur Center website. A third of the lemur species have become extinct, and others border on extinction. The center maintains several outreach programs with conservation efforts in Madagascar.


“Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” will open Friday at the Wells Fargo IMAX Theatre in the Marble Kids Museum, 201 E. Hargett St., Raleigh.