African Cats: Directing and Scoring the Film

The adventure documentary African Cats, starring Samuel L. Jackson, will be released by Disneynature on April 22.

Directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill were determined to showcase real animals behaving as animals do. Says Scholey, “We didn’t want to turn the lions and cheetahs into little humans to make them more interesting.”

To help them in achieving their goal of scientific accuracy, the directors enlisted the services of one of the world’s most eminent experts on the lives of big cats, Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London. Dr. Durant has been working in Tanzania for the last 19 years, studying cheetahs and working toward the conservation of all of Africa’s large carnivores, animals that play a vital role in the fragile ecosystems of the continent’s remaining wild places.

“We all agreed at the outset that it was very important to get things right,” says Durant. “I felt that a film like this could help dramatically raise awareness about lions and cheetahs at a time when both species are in decline.”

Durant says there is still so much to learn about the big cats. “One of the fascinating things about studying them is that the more we do find out, the more questions it seems to raise,” she says. “One of the sequences that most interests me in ‘African Cats’ is the one of the lions and cheetahs crossing the Mara River, and it is directly relevant to the work of conservationists. It’s very important for us to know what poses a barrier to lions and cheetahs moving across their range, what prevents them from getting from one protected area to another. We knew lions and cheetahs could cross rivers, but it was fascinating to see them cross a river as big as the Mara and full of crocodiles.”

The expert was also fascinated by the cheetah footage obtained for “African Cats.” “I find it amazing to see a cheetah hunting in slow motion, which obviously isn’t something you can see in the field, and the hunting scenes in the film are extraordinary,” Durant says. “There’s a shot where you can see a cheetah squinting to keep the dust out of its eyes while it’s chasing a gazelle and yet remaining completely focused on the hunt.”

Durant confirms that all animals have unique personalities. “No two animals are the same, and they all respond differently to the things that happen in their lives. Some cheetahs will get up late, some gorge themselves when they make a kill and some don’t, some are much more timid than others and so on.”

While “African Cats” endeavored to showcase the relationships between the unique cats it features—the mothers and the daughters, the old and the young—Durant says she hopes it sparks a bigger relationship between the cats and the audience. “I think the goal of the film is to have people engage with these remarkable creatures, to understand their lives and feel enveloped in their world. But that is a wonderful thing, because if you make that emotional connection, then you are going to come out of the film with your interest fired up and realize that the world would be a much poorer place without these animals. Maybe you are going to wonder what we can do to save them.”

Disneynature President Jean-François Camilleri agrees. “There is no doubt that we have to change things if we are going to protect the natural world for the future, and it is going to be very challenging to make those changes. But I am optimistic, and my hope is that Disneynature can play a small part in those changes. I really do believe that by telling these stories and showing the beauty of the natural world, we can inspire people to make a difference, particularly kids. In 10 or 15 years, the children who see these films will be in a position to make changes and demand changes, and I think they will.”

Nicholas Hooper had the perfect credentials for composing the music for “African Cats”: a lifelong love of nature and natural history and a demonstrable ability to compose dramatic and expressive music to accompany even the most epic of feature films. The composer was faced with a potentially intimidating challenge: to write music that would clarify, mirror and augment the action onscreen and give voice to the complex but unspoken inner lives of the film’s animal actors.

Hooper says that he created music to fit the intense drama he found unfolding on the big screen—creating a symphonic feel. But it was the cast of cats that really brought the music to life. “When I started, I was thinking about the colorfulness of Africa and maybe about some of the traditional elements of the African music that we all know—drums, the marimba, that sort of thing. But what I wasn’t expecting was that the film would have all these extraordinary, unforgettable characters. That changed all my ideas.

“The old male lion called Fang is fantastic,” Hooper continues. “He is quite cunning, I think, and is holding on to his position in the pride by his fingertips. And then there is Layla, the injured lioness who protects her cub, and Sita, this extraordinary cheetah in the midst of all the action who will take on anything and everything to safeguard her cubs. I think she really would fight to the death if necessary.”

After viewing footage and other materials about the film, as well as taking input from the filmmakers, Hooper’s score shows the complexity of the characters; his music is both action-oriented and emotional. He says he can characterize the music in one word: big. “Big strings! Big, broad sounds! What was very important was to give a feeling of timelessness,” says Hooper. “These animals have lived these lives since long before humans appeared on the scene, so we didn’t want people to think that this is Africa in the 19th century or this is Africa in the 20th century. That meant avoiding any particular recognizable style. So there is a big string orchestra and trumpet, a horn and a choir that plays a really big part.”

The composer, who used to keep lizards, snakes and ferrets, among other pets, has some trouble narrowing down which scenes he most enjoyed. “I love the opening of the film that sets up the scale of the film and the location. I love the sequence where Sita lures the lions away from her cubs and is so fearless. And the same thing with a scene where the cubs are threatened by hyenas in the middle of a huge storm. It’s very dramatic. There’s also a beautiful sequence of migrating wildebeest. There are a lot of scenes I love!”

Hooper hopes that the music will complement the film in a way that reaches audiences at their core. “The film is about great struggles and also about survival and extraordinary, extraordinary courage. It’s not the sort of film where you’ll walk out of the cinema and just forget about. I think it will be a very profound experience for people who will be struck by the sheer beauty of this world up there on screen. And definitely moved.”

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