Though he spent most of his professional career as a biologist, documentary filmmaker Luc Jacquet fell easily into making movies. Jacquet had always wanted to be a scientist, but the idea of being cooped up in a laboratory lacked appeal. His seminal film, "March of the Penguins" (2005), a stark, but entertaining look at the mating habits of emperor penguins in Antarctica, was embraced by diverse groups of people around the world, though sometimes to bolster arguments for questionable political or theological agendas. Nonetheless, the film underscored a career spent traveling to remote parts of the world and enduring unbearable conditions in order to capture exquisite creatures doing remarkable things.
Jacquet grew up near the Jura Mountains in eastern France and learned to ski by the time he was 3-years-old. As a child, he never dreamed of becoming a filmmaker or going to the South Pole, but he grew up fascinated with animals and nature. Eventually he earned his Masters in animal biology and ecology from Lyons University. At 24, he answered a classified ad that read, "Looking for a fearless biologist, ready to spend 14 months at the end of the world." Jacquet jumped at the opportunity, which required him to learn how to shoot on a 35mm motion picture camera. He made his first journey across the 66th parallel where he shot the footage for "The Congress of Penguins" (1993), a look at how pollution and other destructive human habits endanger the indigenous penguin population. Jacquet earned critical and award recognition for his startling cinematography.
Jacquet returned to the Dumon d'Urville French Antarctic station several times over the next decade, studying and filming emperor penguins, his new obsession. In between stints at the Earth's southern axis, Jacquet worked on numerous documentaries and nature series for his native France. He was the cinematographer on the children's series "Pauline à la ferme" (1995), as well as on "Les Hirondelles" (1996), "Les Lézards" (1996) and "L'art de vivre d'une Baleine Tueuse" (1997). After serving as scientific editor on the first 12 programs of "Animal Zone" (BBC, 1998), a weekly nature magazine show, Jacquet returned to directing documentaries, including "La Part de l'Ogre (La Chasse de Leopard de Mer)" (1998), which won the Silver Flipper at the 1999 Festival Mondial de l'Image Sous Marine in Antibes, France. Jacquet also won Best Director at the 2001 International Film Festival on the Environment and Natural Heritage in Prague.
His next directing project, "Une Plage et Trop de Manchots" (2000), earned a Special Jury Prize at the 2001 Nature Film Festival in Ménigoute, France. After directing "La tique et l'oiseau" (2002) and "Shedao, l'Ile des Serpents Immortels" (2002), Jacquet devoted himself to making "March of the Penguins," a process that took four years. It was difficult at first - two years passed before any producer became interested - and even then, raising money was hard. Though an award-winning filmmaker, Jacquet had to grovel for backing at Cannes like anyone else. But he eventually received the financing he needed. Along with cinematographers Jérôme Maison and Laurent Chalet, Jacquet braved 100 mile-an-hour winds and negative temperatures to capture on film the perilous journey the penguins take to produce offspring.
Every spring, thousands of 3-4 foot tall emperor penguins stuffed with krill, fish and other aquatic goodies waddle across the bleak white desert of Antarctica to the place of their birth, in the hopes of producing a single egg with their newfound mate. Peril looms over the entire process. If and when the penguins find a romantic match, birthing an egg requires physical stamina almost unheard of in most other parts of nature. The female must keep her egg warm underneath her fattened belly, but when she needs her own nourishment in the ocean, she transfers the egg to her male mate - a hazardous exchange that often results in exposing the incubating baby to a fatal, frigid cold. A successful switch allows the female to feed in the ocean while the males huddle together in the bitter wind and cold to protect the unborn-an exhaustive process. If the female survives feeding (she can be eaten by leopard seals or simply keel over in exhaustion), she returns to protect the hatchling under a newly fattened belly. Eventually, the baby penguins have enough fortitude to brave the elements on their own and all waddle back to the ocean only to begin the journey anew the following spring.
Jacquet and his team - clad in orange gear that for some reason, signaled they were harmless to the penguins - spent 13 months in Antarctica filming the exhaustive process, one that was not without its own perils to the filmmakers. During a vicious storm, both Maison and Chalet were lost in the blinding snow and were almost near death when the Dumon d'Urville rescue team stumbled upon them. Another time, Laurent fell into a pool of melted water and became encased in ice, prompting an immediate defrosting. Eventually, Jacquet and his team filmed over 150 hours of footage, but they weren't sure if any was useful because they had no means to watch it. Luckily, the footage was good and Jacquet edited the film into its first incarnation, the French-released "La Marche de l'Empereur" (2005), which became an immediate international hit.
For the film's U.S. release, the French voiceover was replaced by Morgan Freeman's narration. After premiering at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Warner Independent Pictures took a chance and picked up the risky film for wide distribution. To much amazement, the documentary took in an impressive $77 million at the box office - second only to "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004). Jacquet's labor of love also earned numerous awards and nominations, including the 2005 award for Best Documentary/Non-Fiction Film by the National Board of Review. "March of the Penguins" also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Meanwhile, Jacquet began work on his next film - a look at a woman's childhood friendship with a fox - entitled "The Fox & the Child"
By Shawn Dwyer