A UK-Chinese documentary collaboration titled Snow Leopards and Friends was chosen to be the Closing Film of this year’s Electric Shadows: Leicester Chinese Film Festival, co-presented by the UK-China Film Collab with De Montfort University. We have conducted an exclusive interview with British filmmaker Mark Fletcher about his involvement in this breath-taking film.

Congratulations on the U.K. release of Snow Leopard and Friends at the Electric Shadows: Leicester Chinese Film Festival! We were glad that you were able to make it to the screening. We appreciate that Xi Zhinong was unable to make it in person.

Speaking of, how did this relationship between you two start?

I had given a masterclass to the film students and zoologists at Falmouth University, and so had spent a weekend teaching. One of the students was a guy called Jackie Poon. Jackie mentioned he had a job with Xi Zhinong, set in the mountains of China. They’d been filming for years, and he said there was little story and they didn’t have professional cameras. Anyway, he put in touch with his boss (Zhinong) and I told him if he sent me the footage, I’ll do what I can.

That was around ten years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch.

 

When you were approached to work on the snow leopard documentary, was the 50-minute version already completed, or were you involved in the project from an earlier stage?

Xi Zhinong was working with the Tibetan yak farmers to make the film because snow leopards were really hard to film. Zhinong and I discussed it around 2015 and I was eventually sent the footage. I sold it and got it funded internationally and then edited it. We initially edited it as a 50-minute documentary.

This was in 2020 and the following year, he rang up and said he was going to send additional footage that crew had filmed, even though the film was finished and broadcast. Zhinong asked whether I thought we could make a feature length documentary out of it, and I replied, yes, it’s possible, and that it wasn’t going to cost too much. I thought I was just adding in 10 minutes of extra material but in the end, it was a lot more work than that because the story had to be restructured and we had a new soundtrack and all. So, I did that and then sent it back to him.

 

You were also responsible for the script. From what I can gather from intonations and subtitles, the narration in “Snow Leopards and Friends” imbues the animals with a divine quality. Dare I say, pantheistic in nature. Was this intentional on your part and how did you account for the impact of translation on your script?

Nobody’s ever described the scripts that I’ve done as being pantheistic… I love it! You’d think that given that the script was translated into Chinese, and then read by a Chinese person, that it would come out completely differently, but it was very much exactly as I intended. Congratulations to the translators!

There was a moment in the script where the narrator had to use the first person: “I” and the second person: “you”, which is quite unconventional for wildlife film scripts. That’s one of the writing techniques I like to use.

In fact, I remember doing a documentary about the Gelada Baboon set in Africa. And so, the scene starts with the closed eyes of the baboon. I never saw it on the big screen, but the eyes must have been absolutely massive, with sinister music in the background, looking like a really wrinkled old man.

And then its eyes opened, and its eyes were, weirdly not human, but nearly human.

They were bright amber, and the whites of the eyes were streaked with blood. The line that followed was:

“You don’t know who you are,

Did you know where you’re from.”

It forms a complicity, and the point is you (the audience) don’t know who you are, until you know where you’re from – Africa.

You know immediately that this is a very personal film that’s going to take you to this place where you’re going to see things that we would have seen as early mankind and that the gelada baboon represented our early ancestors.

So, I guess in answer to your question, in wildlife films I’m always trying to get across the feeling of living there and the animals and people there and what they think. I try to capture that in a language that maybe does sound the pantheistic or Buddhist.
But that’s not really my intention.

My intention is just to put the audience into the heads of the animals, and into the heads of the people filming, make them feel that they’re there.

 

Considering your artistic vision, how did you strike a balance between anthropomorphism and maintaining scientific accuracy in your storytelling?

I try to be as true to the biology as I possibly can be. The problem that comes out of that is that there is a lot of cognitive science that people may not be aware of. For example, developments in the science of animal consciousness. Decision making necessitates the ability to visualise past and consider future possibilities.

It’s important to understand that the different between instinct and emotion is subtle and, in some cases, they are pretty much the same thing.

To give you an example, I did a film about the Himalayas, which used footage from Planet Earth. It’s a famous sequence where there’s deer being chased, and it just leaped off a cliff straight into a river and was swept away. The Snow Leopard just stopped. That was the end of the sequence in the original film, but they gave me all the footage.

I discovered that the Snow Leopard went away briefly to look after her cubs and then actually came back an hour later. She sat there staring at the river until it went dark.

You hint at what the snow leopard might be feeling, but you don’t say directly this is what the snow leopards feeling. Better, you would say that you, the audience, can imagine how you would feel in this situation.

The script is sort of saying this is what animal’s feeling, but you’re not explicitly saying it did.You try and get things right. You can always use scientific jargon so that the audience knows it is based of study.

 

It’s a pity that the extra footage didn’t make it into Planet Earth, what a profound moment!

I wanted to address the music in ‘Snow Leopards and Friends”. Not only is it used to embellish tense sequences, but it punctuates humorous scenes. Did you have the music in hand, or was it crafted based on your writing? Also, how did the use of music differ from the 50-minute version to the feature length documentary?

What happened was that we had a composer for the original film, Barnaby Taylor, and he did a score and I think I pretty much used all his music that he’d scored for the original 50-minute feature.

So, you had some pieces being played multiple times.

There was a sequence where they were driving along in the car, singing along to a Tibetan song in the radio. I had to try and find it. Of course, the chances of finding that specific song were slim but I managed to find it with Shazam and all sorts of websites.

 

 

Did the song attract your attention because it was that good?

Oh no, at the time I was worried it might be a Tibetan freedom song or something along the lines. I had to translate the lyrics from Tibetan to English, which wasn’t an easy task. It was, in fact, not a freedom song but a love song. Nothing political or violent as I had worried. No swearing in it either!

But in terms of working with the Chinese, I’ve never had any issues with anything political. I am sensitive to making films in Tibet, particularly with themes of freedom. and choice.

I was worried with the scene where the old male Leopard is discovered by the villagers. It struck me that it could be interpreted as the choice between being looked after by the state, or being free.

So, Xi Zhinong rang up and asked whether we should release the Leopard. My first impression was to inquire how important it was to the people in charge of the welfare of these animals, that the snow leopard be kept alive in captivity and taken to a zoo. Zhinong said they wanted to do what’s best for the Snow Leopard, they too felt that to be their role. He realised the possible metaphor, but for everyone involved, it was more about the reality of the situation.

But I did worry about it when it was being shown in cinemas across China that the journalists might pick up on this, but I don’t think any did.

 

 

Finally, one of the tensest moments in the documentary involved the female cub being trapped in the cliffs. It cuts to the reveal of her brother, but it wasn’t shown how the female cub got out of that situation. There seemed to be no hope.

So, how did the female cub escape that situation?

We’ve no idea.

I tried to end that sequence encapsulating what the guys filming it felt. That there was no way out for this cub.

I didn’t explicitly say that was what they were feeling. You just saw this eagle’s eye and the narrator comments on the power of nature and the fragility of life.

It gave a very sort of open-ended thing about nature and about how these things happen.

The reason why I avoided directly mentioning the crew’s response was because I wanted to put the audience in the Snow Leopard’s head. Rather than seeing the cameraman’s elation and empathising with that, I wanted the audience to feel something deeper.

Its why, sometimes, I go into these pantheistic descriptions as you put it!

I love your idea of narration being pantheistic.

 

 

A very poetic sentiment and a nice way to go full circle.

I very much look forward to your future endeavours. If you have any closing statements, we at the UK-China Film Collab and our readers, would love to hear it.

I just want to put the audience in the minds of animals. So, if there’s any film makers out there that have some footage and would like me to help, send it over and I’ll see what I cam do. Anybody from a yak herder to a fisherman.

Everybody’s got cameras or phones. They can all tell stories. Anybody who wants to tell a story, send it along to me, I’ll help if I possibly can.

About Mark Fletcher

Mark FletcherMark Fletcher’s great-grandfather was an African adventurer, eaten by a lion in Uganda. Mark, instead, was a child puppeteer, clocking up over a thousand live performances across the UK. Many animation films in super8 and 16mm were followed by working in TV commercials in school holidays. He studied Joint Hons. Zoology and Psychology at Bristol University. His chief interest still is animal cognition and behaviour. Mark has been a wildlife film editor and writer for over 25 years, working with most of the leading wildlife filmmakers, as well as making his own films. Films he has produced, edited or written have won well over 20 Emmys, and many other awards.

Early projects with Hugo van Lawick, Howard Hall, and Alan Root, contrast with reality shows and performance pieces.

Recent projects range from leading editor and writer for an ITV1 series, leading editor on a 5 part series for Terra Mater, and writer/editor for WNET/Nature. Mark Fletcher is known for his BBC NHU output for television, for BBC1 and 2 including writing for David Attenborough.

Credited as producer, writer and editor he has made: Andes, the Dragon’s Back (2006), Penguins of Antarctic (2007), The Turtle’s Guide to the Pacific (2008), Bears of Top of the World (2008), Clever Monkeys (2009), Secret Leopard (2009), Bringing up Baby (2010), Himalayas (2010), Animal House (2011), The Mating Game (2013).

Recent editing includes Frozen Planet Christmas Special (2011) and Snow Babies – BBC 1 Christmas Special (2012). He reversion Planet Earth in Concert, and Blue Planet in Concert.

Mark is at heart an editor. He has given editing and writing master classes at Jackson Hole and Wildscreen, and a post-grad master class at the University of Exeter. He was a cinematography judge at Jackson Hole 2011, and editing judge for 2013.

He has a cutting room in Wiltshire, but works anywhere.