Roy Conli joined the Disneynature team in 2015, and has been producing wildlife documentaries ever since. Photo Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company (SEA).

When Roy Conli co-produced his first Disney animated movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996, the scenes were mostly hand-drawn, save for a few massive crowd scenes that were completed with the help of computer-generated imagery (CGI).

Fast forward to 2014, when his Oscar-winning superhero film Big Hero 6 was completely computer animated.

“I’m always learning because animation is always evolving, and the tools in CGI change all the time,” said the American film producer. He has also worked on Hercules (1997), Tarzan (1999), Treasure Planet (2002), Tangled (2010).  

Before Conli was scouted by Disney, he spent 4 years at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles’ leading regional theatre. Given his background in classical theatre, he knew about script development, acting and casting. The process of animation, however, was alien to him then. 

“[Animation is] a totally different culture than theatre. All the elements of storytelling are the same, but animators are ‘introverted actors’. They do their acting on the computer instead,” he explained. 

Giving back to the world and its creatures

In 2015, Conli took on another challenge – producing wildlife documentaries. He joined the Disneynature team, an independent film unit of Walt Disney Studios that produces nature documentaries.

The first Disneynature film that Conli produced was Born in China , which featured the ever-elusive snow leopards. As avid supporters of snow leopard conservation, Conli and his wife have been donating to The Snow Leopard Trust for the past 20 years. Snow leopards were classified as an endangered species, but have since been moved to the vulnerable category.

“I want the audience to walk away understanding that we are stewards of the world, and it’s up to us to protect not only the world, but the creatures,” he said. “That we are responsible as part of the community and that we all need to be one.” 

To achieve the goal of moving the audience, Conli makes good use of the 3 tenets of storytelling that he learnt from the animation team: “Build an amazing world, make characters you’ll fall in love with, and tell a great story.” 

With a Disneynature film, the production team starts by exploring a world and developing the characters. They then create a story that will “touch the hearts of the audience”, helping them “feel the wonder of the world”.

“We take the behaviour of animals, put it into a structure and create a story, so that people don’t look at these films from a scientific point of view, but through the heart too,” he added. 

Conli’s documentary Born in China is now streaming on Netflix. Two other Disneynature films Dolphin Reef and Penguins will be available on Disney+, the OTT subscription video-on-demand service set to launch on November 12 2019. Elephants is currently in the works and is slated for release by early 2021.