The bears of Hallo Bay and other Alaska locations can be seen on the silver screen Friday, when Disneynature opens the curtains on “Bears,” a full-length “epic story of breathtaking scale.”
“We’ve made a number of Disney nature films before,” said Keith Scholey, who, along with Alastair Fothergill and Adam Chapman, directed the film. “We’ve always gone for the biggest and best animals. The biggest in the natural world. I guess the Alaska brown bear just has to be one of those.”
Scholey recently spoke with the Homer News by telephone from his office in Bristol, England.
The film, designed for family audiences, focuses on a sow and her two cubs, an angle chosen because it “really pulls you into every aspect of the bears’ society and life,” said Scholey. There was some uncertainty if that storyline would hold together during the first of two years spent filming, however. A rough winter and poor salmon run meant few cubs. Last year, those conditions changed.
“That’s why with wildlife films you always want a minimum of at least two seasons,” said Scholey. “One year on its own can go very wrong on you for all sorts of reasons.”
A relatively short season for filming bears — typically June through September — also made it important to spread the project over more than one year.
The film was made at four locations: Brooks Falls, McNeil River, Kodiak Island and Hallo Bay.
“We did most of it in Hallo Bay,” said Scholey. “What Hallo Bay offers, which is absolutely unique, is that you get these very, very dense numbers of brown bears. Because of the salmon run and all the coastal meadow systems, there are lots of animals. All these animals have never had a bad experience with people, so they’re very, very calm. … The relationship between bears and people is managed superbly.”
Scholey has filmed in numerous outdoor locations — his other films include “African Cats” — but Alaska offered some unique challenges.
“In Africa, we always film from a vehicle. The animals are all used to people being in vehicles. You have the protection of a vehicle and also can move around,” said Scholey. “With brown bears in Alaska, it’s all done on foot, so that is the added excitement. It’s a one-to-one relationship with the animals, which is fantastic.”
Another difference is having to carry all the equipment needed.
“It’s usually a pretty heavy kit and you have to try to keep up with a walking bear, which will outpace you,” said Scholey.
Then there’s Alaska weather.
“When you get out to Hallo Bay, the only way in and out is a light airplane landing on the beach,” he said. “For days on end you can be stranded either in or out. Or your supplies and equipment have to come in that route. So the weather can be very challenging. ... We had to sit out a lot of bad weather, but when it’s good, it’s very good.”
The standard film crew consisted of a cinematographer, an assistant to make sure the cinematographer had everything needed and a guide who was aware of the surroundings and ensured everyone’s safety.
“All the teams from Hallo Bay Bear Camp were incredibly experienced guides,” said Scholey of working with Clint and Simyra Hlebechuk, owners of the camp. Simyra Hlebechuk also guides camp guests.
Among the wildlife encounters that stood out for Scholey is one involving wolves, as well as bears.
“By in large, they ignore each other except if a bear is a mom and has young cubs,” said Scholey. “One evening we saw a wolf go right up to a bear with two little cubs and it was actually the cubs that chased the wolf and the mom joined in. Things like that I thought I’d never see. Two iconic animals like that.”
Asked how his Alaska experience compared to others in his career, Scholey said it ranked high.
“On our bear team, we used to list what are our top five locations we’ve been to anywhere in the world and Hallo Bay is in the top five,” said Scholey. “It’s quite an incredible place for so many reasons.”
The film’s message, whether viewers are young or old, from Alaska or elsewhere, is that bears are incredible animals.
Scholey’s message to those that live in Alaska was, “You’re the luckiest people on the planet to have that incredible wilderness and incredible scenery and place and animals so close to you.”
For more about Bears, a trailer of the film and the education component provided by Disneynature, visit nature.disney.com/bears/.
For more about Hallo Bay Bear Camp, visit hallobay.com.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.