It’s hard to find a family that doesn’t own a DVD of Warner Indie’s mega-hit flick March of the Penguins that was the brilliant $1 million pick-up by then WIP head Mark Gill (ridiculously fired last May) and went on to earn $122.6 million just in box office worldwide gross and win Best Documentary Film at the 2006 Academy Awards. Now I’m told via email by Laurent Chalet, the film’s director of photography who spent 13 months in the fierce weather conditions on the coldest spot on earth — South Pole ice shield of Antarctica — shooting the film, that he has challenged La Marche De L’Empereur‘s credits in the French courts. At issue is whether Luc Jacquet is the sole director, or whether he should share credit and box-office gross with cinematographer Chalet. That was raised when Le Canard Enchaine, a respected French weekly known for its insider information, revealed that Jacquet, in spite of press declarations to the contrary, had spent only a few weeks in Antarctica while the main footage was shot by Chalet. This prompted the association AFC (French Cinematographers Guild) to issue a statement of outrage in its June 2006 publication (n°155) referring to Jacquet as “bringing shame upon the profession and upon all cinematographers.” For one thing, Chalet wasn’t thanked, or even mentioned, by Jacquet at the Academy Awards. Chalet tells me he’s finally brought the case to court to claim credit as co-director of the film and acknowledgment of his creative input. He says the Paris civil courts should return a verdict next year. At the time of the movie’s release, many media stories focused on Chalet’s incredible filming odyssey. First, Chalet had to find a camera rugged and reliable enough to withstand a year-long shoot in the Antarctic complete with freezing temperatures, sudden storms, and isolation. He selected the Aaton XTRprod and winterized two cameras at Aaton’s factory in Grenoble, France. To film March of the Penguins, the two-person crew, Chalet with Jérôme Maison, lived with the emperor penguins while closely observing their annual ritual of mating, birthing and survival. Once Chalet and Maison arrived in the Antarctic, they did not leave until filming was complete. “Once on the ground, we agreed on a method, a daily routine, which was based on solidarity and enthusiasm,” Chalet described to the media. “Instead of taking turns, we worked together as a team. We would get up at 5:30 AM, prepare the equipment for an hour and a half, load four magazines of film (it was out of the question to do this on the ice), get dressed, and take off for a day of shooting, carrying about 130 pounds of equipment each. Only two things prevented us from filming: the weather, and running out of our daily film stock when we were out on the ice.” The shooting conditions were sometimes very difficult and dangerous. Once, they were caught in a storm with 100 mph winds at -25°C. It took them 6 hours to reach the safety of the base, although it was only a mile and a half away from where they were shooting that day. Even while coping with these critical technical, environmental and survival concerns, the crew had to remain always ready to film the penguins in their natural habitat. Just to approach the chicks to film, Chalet and his crew built a scooter which could roll on ice and was rigged with the camera. Chalet explained to the media that patience and luck were key to the extraordinary 120 hours of footage. “This is what allowed us to get the images of the penguins walking in file. We knew where the penguins were going to gather, but we did not know when. Not having that information meant we had to be at the ready every day, because this is an event that occurs only once a year.” Given all the hardship, Chalet would want his directing credit. Still, how ironic that it wasn’t the birds but the humans who gave him the most trouble.
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