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Cinematographer Paul Stewart and his assistants at the shoot for Born in China. Photo: Wang Zhide

Nature-film makers don urine-soaked panda suits for shoot in Sichuan reserve

Disneynature crew had to wear outfits impregnated with panda faeces and urine to ensure they could remain undetected while filming the animals in their natural environment for documentary Born in China


Nature-film makers are known for doing whatever it takes to get stunning footage of wildlife up close – and that includes wearing goofy panda suits complete with panda poo smell.

That’s exactly what director Lu Chuan’s Born in China team had to do when they were filming pandas for their hit nature documentary. Released last year in China around Earth Day, the film is set for Blu-ray release from Tuesday.

The clothing was effective: shots of a mother panda, Ya Ya, and her cub Mei Mei in the film are intimate and adorable.

The suits almost served as camouflage, making the crew – in effect – invisible as far as the pandas were concerned.
Paul Baribault

The panda ensembles were necessary to be with the protected mammals in their natural environment, China’s Wolong National Nature Reserve.

“Pandas in China are heavily protected because they are incredibly rare – fewer than 2,000 exist in the wild. Many have never set eyes on a human being,” says Paul Baribault, head of Disneynature, North America. “So our cinematographer and crew members were required to wear panda suits – the black and white garments are made to look and smell like pandas.”

The suits were odd on their own, but the filmmakers had to go full panda in the smell department, too. They soaked panda urine and faeces into the outfits as a way to help them blend in.

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“[The suits] had to pass the ‘sniff test’,” says Baribault. “Pandas, like most animals, use all of their senses to identify what is in their environment. A person in a panda suit would still smell like a person.”

Wearing the smelly suits ensured the crew were able to capture intimate and adorable moments between a mother panda and her cub. Photo: Disneynature

So the Disneynature team stank and dealt with the itchy material during their long shoots. But they were able to get right there with the pandas, without having an impact.

“The suits almost served as camouflage, making the crew – in effect – invisible as far as the pandas were concerned. The goal in nature-film making is to capture natural behaviours,” Baribault says. “The pandas regarded our crew as other pandas. They just went about their business without being uncomfortable, alarmed or getting habituated to humans – which is important to the continued survival of the population.”

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Born in China focused on rare animal species in China, including pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys and snow leopards.

Director of photography Paul Stewart was one of the lucky filmmakers required to don a panda suit.

“It’s kind of strange, every once in a while you’ll catch yourself talking with your colleagues all dressed as pandas having very serious discussions about lenses and technical issues,” Stewart said from the set in full attire. “But nothing’s too bad about the outfit. It’s a little hot when it’s sunny, but otherwise it’s working.”