It may only be a matter of time now before the first film made by a "lower" primate is chosen for a showing at the Sundance Festival for consideration of its artistic merits. In the meantime, animal and film lovers will have to settle for a BBC documentary, made entirely by captive chimps in the U.K. and premiering tomorrow, January 27, at 8 p.m. (GMT), on the wildlife documentary, Natural World on BBC2.
The chimps that took part in the film making project are residents of the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland and range in ages from 49 (at the oldest) to 11 (at the youngest).
Primatologist Betsy Herrelko hit upon the idea to allow the chimps to carry around specially designed "Chimpcams," which would allow them to film the world as they saw it, making choices as they went along. Besides a recorder that would capture what the chimps were seeing through the viewfinder in real time, the Chimpcam also gave the nascent film makers the option of watching videos of different environments and characters, with an ability to choose one over another based on preference.
For example, the chimps were given the option of watching video feed of the food preparation room, where zoo staff prepares the food for the chimps, or footage made of the chimps' outdoor enclosure. They did not appear to want to watch footage of their enclosure, but they also did not appear to be particularly keen on watching food being prepared either. What the chimps did like to do was watch the action that was happening in real time on the camera view screen.
The behavior of the chimps was similar to that of humans. It was Liberius, the youngest chimp (pictured here), that first grasped the nature of the new "toy" that had been placed in the chimpanzee enclosure, and who fought to maintain control of the camera once the others realized its value. As we all know, adults eventually win out, and this was the case with the chimps as well.
Whether the chimpanzees knew they were making their own footage, or whether they intentionally aimed the camera toward preferred subjects is debatable, but with practice, they may soon be on par with classic movie directors like Ed Wood.
While Natural World is not available to U.S. audiences, those in the UK who are interested in watching the Chimpcam Project can find the program at the BBC2 Natural World Web site, where it can be downloaded using the BBC iPlayer. The program will be available online after it has aired on television.
You can read more about this project at BBC Earth News, and you can meet the chimpanzees that reside at the Edinberg Zoo's Budongo Trail and helped make film history.
Image: William Warby / via Flickr