You won’t see chimpanzees on the red carpet this film awards season – but 11 chimps from the Budongo Trail at the Edinburgh Zoo are headliners of The Chimpcam Project, a new BBC Natural World documentary, debuting today in the U.K.
Betsy Herrelko, an American behavioral scientist who worked on the film – 18 months in the making – says the project was a “gamble.” The idea was to introduce the group, ages 11 to 48, to touch-screen technology as well as a chimp-proof camera to see “what they would do with it, what they would film, if anything.”
Herrelko says the project – a collaboration between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the University of Stirling and Burning Gold Productions – “lucked out” with the Edinburgh Zoo. The zoo had completed a new enclosure for the chimps, who themselves were also new to research. “I was really lucky to be able to work so closely with the keepers who were helping me give them experience with the properties of video,” Herrelko says. “We weren’t teaching them how to zoom, how to hit record. We were just kind of trying to give them an idea about what video is, what it looks like and what they can expect.”
The end result? Footage of “a lot of feet. A lot of grass,” she says of the monkey shots. “Just things that they were looking at when they carried it around the enclosure.” There are also “rare moments,” which she considers beautiful coincidences, including one “pan up shot of two chimps grooming each other.”
Herrelko, who is working on a Ph.D., says the youngest chimp, Liberius, was the one most fascinated by the camera. “He even was daring enough to keep it away from the senior ranking chimps,” she says. That said, the chimps worked well together, leaving their mark with the film – and on the camera itself. “We have a couple of teeth grooves in there.”
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