After 20 years of producing documentaries about the giant panda for TV, co-writers/directors Lesley Hammond and Jenny Walsh were more than a little bemused when the guy who fixes their computers announced he’d found a YouTube clip they really had to see.
The hilarious footage of six-week-old baby Chi Chi letting fly a hugely attention-seeking sneeze after being abandoned on the floor by his mum had been pinched from one of their docos and posted to the video sharing website, much to the annoyance of Hammond and Walsh. Irritation turned to intrigue, however, when they realised the clip had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. That was just the beginning; it’s now hovering around 195 million. Its notoriety has seen the clip appear on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and South Park.
“Everybody was putting it on their websites with ads and making a buck out of it except us,” Hammond says. “We don’t mind people sending it to family or friends, but we draw the line at somebody taking work that cost us a lot of money to film and making money from it themselves.”
Their solution: fight piracy with panda sneezes. They knew they had an epically popular internet sensation on their hands with poor little Chi Chi, so why not turn it into their own good fortune? Rather than shoot another straight-laced doco, they hit upon the idea of filming a spoof mockumentary of sorts, conjuring up a fictional tale of a zoo in dire financial straits that needs a crowd-pleasing attraction to get folks flooding through the gates. “People want to see those great big sexy beasts,” Hammond says.
With tongue held firmly in cheek, Sneezing Baby Panda – The Movie is something of a genre mish mash, with Chi Chi’s fevered dreams encompassing everything from surfing, to ballet dancing, to space travel, as well as clambering up the Empire State Building King Kong-style.
“People are getting their entertainment from the net these days and we’ve tried to give the film a little bit of that feel,” Hammond says. “It’s not a big, glossy feature.”
Amber Clayton (Crawlspace) plays bright spark Australian zoologist Marnie, who comes up with the idea of travelling to China’s South Western Sichuan province in order to track down Chi Chi and bring him back Down Under.
“Amber personified what we wanted,” Hammond says. “She looks very credible as a zoologist and she’s very much a supporter of animals and conservation. She was a natural relating to the pandas. She’s a very good role model for children and she’s also easy on the eyes for dads, too.”
Prolific voiceover artist Jane Ubrien voices baby Chi Chi, who is, in fact, portrayed here by Tai Shan, the only panda cub born in Washington’s National Zoo. “[Ubrien] stepped into the part as if she’s been a panda all her life,” Hammond says. “She has a good sense of humour and was able to get across that delicate balance, so it works for an older audience and for the kids.”
So will comic capers be the new approach for Hammond and Walsh? “We’ve done 33 wildlife programs in 23 countries, and they’ve all gone to National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet or whatever,” Hammond says. “We sort of felt we really needed to go beyond preaching to the converted – 99 percent of the population is never going to see a wild animal in its own natural habitat, behaving normally, so this was the beginning of a new direction.”
Sneezing Baby Panda – The Movie is released in cinemas May 1.