Posted: December 1, 2006, 12:00 a.m. PDT
In mid-November, Emperor Penguins appeared again on movie screens across the country. The animated "Happy Feet" tells the story of Mumble, an Emperor Penguin that tap-dances rather than sings like the rest of his species. Because he lacks the skill to find his mate with a "heart song," Mumble has to leave the colony and ventures out into Antarctica, where he encounters Adelie Penguins, Rockhopper Penguins and other species.
To accurately portray the animals and the movie's setting, the film crew visited Antarctica and gathered images for the animation. As the film's digital supervisor, Brett Feeney of Animal Logic spent three months--November through January--on location. He spent the first month on Ross Island, staying with Antarctica New Zealand at Scott Base.
From the base, the film crew visited nearby huts, where they'd stay for a week. "From here, we would head out mostly on the frozen sea," he said, "in search for environmental reference, such as large interesting bergs from the previous winter."
While trekking to a site, the crew often "collected" penguins. "They spend a lot of time following each other, and I guess they thought they would follow us for a change, to see what we were up to," Feeney said. "Generally the clean ones coming back from the sea were more interested, as they had full bellies, and didn't seem in a rush to get back to their nesting sites."
The crew also visited Adelie Penguin rookeries to observe the birds from the recommended distance. After setting up their equipment, the crew members realized that the longer lenses weren't necessary. "The Adelies don't have any natural predators on land, so they are quite calm about approaching you to see what you are up to," Feeney said. "They would simply walk right up to us and inspect our camera equipment. Once they realized that you had no stones (for nest building) or food, they would wander off at their own abling pace."
During December and January, the crew worked around the Antarctica Peninsula via a ship and observed more species from afar. "It was almost like a welcoming party the first day we reached the peninsula from across the Drake Passage," Feeney said. "We were met by a lone Emperor that circled the boat once we anchored, and sounded off in that very recognizable Emperor call."
The crew also observed Gentoo Penguins at Port Lockroy and Chinstrap Penguins at Petermann Island as well as South Polar Skuas. "Everywhere we went, and every different penguin species we saw, we always saw that they had the same neighbors: skuas," Feeney said. "It was egg-laying season, and the skuas would hang around the rookeries' perimeters, waiting for someone to get up and wander away from their coveted egg."
While observing all this activity and the surrounding environment, the crew took digital photographs and 35mm motion footage of the landscape, using a helicopter to fly over interesting sites. "We only used the 35mm motion camera on a small number of penguin shots, where we would run it at high speed for slow-motion footage of them negotiating tough areas to commute or jumping in and out of the water," Feeney said.
The crew arrived in Antarctica with many drawings and photographs, with the goal of finding similar sights. "This also included a list of penguin behaviors to observe while we were there," Feeney said, "such as the entering and exiting of the water or negotiating difficult terrain or even just examples of penguins walking, running or sliding."
Feeney observed some of the most interesting behavior around the Adelie Penguins' nests, which are built with stones--items that are in short supply. The males build the nests to attract a mate, and the more stones on a nest, the better. "The interesting thing about all of that was that they all build nests just out of pecking range of other nest-bound neighbors," Feeney said. "Then they fiercely protect their nests, but while they are protecting on one side, their other neighbors see the opportunity to grab a stone or two from behind the bird currently fending off birds in front of him.
"Then the one who is quietly stealing from his distracted neighbor is having his neighbors steal his stones while he is busy watching and stealing from the first one," he said. "It would be interesting to track a single stone over the nesting period, to see how many nests it occupied over the course of the season."
During his three months with the penguins, Feeney was surprised to notice the different nature of the various species, which he described as "the regal nature of the Emperors, the sombre happy nature of the Gentoos, and the frantic good-time-looking Adelies."
The birds' comical appearance on land also made an impression, as did their underwater agility. "For all the struggle it looks like to be a penguin on land, they look like the best underwater ballet dancers you have ever seen,Ó" he said. "They can go from zero to flat-out in the flick of a flipper, once in water."
The Adelie Penguins entertained Feeney the most with their activity around their nests and their "general frantic approach." That difference proved extremely helpful to the film crew, regarding how to portray the different species. "We went for having an underlying order to the Emperor community, while the Adelies were by contrast a devil-may-care society, very dedicated to having a good time all the time," he said.
The film crew also observed the darker side of penguin life: predators in the form of leopard seals. "These guys are probably the biggest danger to all types of penguins," Feeney said. "Once the leopard seals are on land, however, they pose very little threat to the penguins, and they know it. The leopard seal is no match for the awkward agility of a penguin on land, but put them in the water together, and all the Adelies seem to have is numbers to protect them."
South Polar Skuas, however, pose a threat to the penguins' eggs and chicks. "They work in teams and do things like have several on the ground in key locations around a penguin rookery," Feeney said, "with one skua in the air that dive-bombs the penguin nests near the ground-based skuas. This usually frightens the Adelies off their nests or sends them into a rage where they might chase the skua, which leaves an unprotected nest for one of the sneaky ground-based skuas to quickly steal from."
After three months in Antarctica and his work on "Happy Feet," Feeney calls himself a "weekend expert" on penguins. "Every project that I work on gives the opportunity to get hold of a lot of knowledge on odd animals and phenomena. Because you have to know a lot about what it is you are trying to rig, animate, light or provide effects for, you end up learning some amazingly interesting facts."
Before working on the film, Feeney casually observed birds while growing up in the country and always having a plethora of birds in the back yard. "Living in the city for years later has made me notice the birdlife more, because there is less of it to see in the city by comparison," he said. "Having been invited to work on this project, however, has made me very aware of the world of Antarctic penguins. I feel I could probably converse with some of the best on penguin behavior and at least be able to hold part of the conversation."