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The Squabble and the Penguin: Icy Relations and Lawsuits Over Credit for Oscar-Winning Doc

By madelyn most

Early this year, an article appeared in the French press and international trades that the cinematographer who photographed March of the Penguins was filing a lawsuit in the French courts to be recognized as co-director of the film. The producers countered with accusations that this was just a technician being greedy, looking for extra money now that the film was so successful. They scoffed at the idea that Laurent Chalet should share co-authorship credit. After a bit of research into the events, what became clear was something distinctly different to what was being presented to the public: principles of honesty, integrity and the spirit of collaboration were betrayed. The story unfolded as "une verité qui derange." (translation: an inconvenient truth).

In 2002, Luc Jacquet approached a Parisian production company, Bonne Pioche, with the idea of making a documentary about emperor penguins in Antarctica, a rare polar species of birds who every year walk 80 to 100 miles during the winter's fiercest winds and coldest temperatures in order to procreate. Jacquet knew the story well; he encountered the species in 1992 as a research assistant with the CNRS (France's National Center of Scientific Research), when he spent 14 months at the French scientific station, Dumont d'Urville, in Terre Adelie, on Antarctica's eastern coast. Jacquet, a biologist with a degree in animal behavior, learned how to operate cameras in order to make wildlife documentaries in the mid-1990s.

He recruited two men to do the filming and recording; they would live at the Paul Emile Victor Polar Research Center for 13 months, nine of which they would be totally cut off from the rest of the world. When asked by Le Monde how he recruited Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison for the project, Jacquet replied, "It was like Ernest Shackleton's announcement for his 1914 Polar expedition: ‘Men Wanted: For Hazardous Journey, Small Wages, Bitter Cold, Long Months of Complete Darkness, Constant Danger, Safe Return Doubtful. Honour and Recognition in Case of Success.'"

Chalet's background was in feature films. He had never worked with Jacquet, and this was his first nature documentary and his first trip to Antarctica. Maison worked as an assistant to Jacquet and had already spent a winter shooting and recording in the Kerguelan Islands.

Jacquet would be directing the film, but he would not be present in Terre Adelie for the filming, except for a brief period in February 2003 and again in November and December 2003. "Over the last ten years, I spent three years in the Antarctic," Jacquet told Le Monde in 2004. "My daughter was to be born in April 2003. I am extremely nostalgic about the Antarctic winter, but the social, psychological, family costs of spending a winter there... I was not prepared to pay. I also wanted the film to have a fresh look that only a crew who had never been down there before could give."

According to Yves Darondeau of Bonne Pioche, "It was difficult to raise money; no one would take the risk as there were too many unknowns. We could not get insurance for the film negative as there was no way to see any of the rushes." Bonne Pioche had never made a nature film, but with a huge leap of faith, agreed to produce three television documentaries entitled The Legend of the Emperor, Antarctic Springtime Express and Of Penguins and Men, which Jacquet would supervise. "With very limited funding, only two pre-sales agreements with Canal + and France 3," Darondeau says the company was in a very fragile financial position, on the brink of bankruptcy. "Only after the crew had been shooting for three months were we able to secure the necessary insurance."

Starting in November 2002, Chalet and Maison had only weeks to prep and test the equipment that would have to perform in temperatures of -10° for the next year. Bonne Pioche did not have sufficient funding for the project, so the cinematographers accepted a minimal salary, agreeing in good faith that if all went well and the film made a profit, they would receive additional compensation at the end. Chalet received 500 euros ($650) per week for the 52 weeks of filming.

In late January 2003, Jacquet, Chalet and Maison arrived in Terre Adelie. Jacquet helped Chalet and Maison settle in to life with the station's 26 other inhabitants, and on February 7, they began filming Antarctic Springtime Express, a documentary about many different animal species on the South Pole. On February 27, Jacquet departed for Paris, and from then on, communication between him and Chalet and Maison would be by e-mail or satellite phone. Jacquet stipulated that he wanted the film to be shot like a fable, not like a traditional nature documentary. Chalet and Maison followed a 26-page "shot list" or "sequence plan." Once the emperors arrived, they would follow them closely, filming their behavior and each stage of their biological and reproductive timeclock.

Known for their reliability and punctuality, the penguins arrived at the same time and same place each year--late March to early April, between the Jean-Rostand and Mauguen Islands--for their courtship ritual. Every day Chalet and Maison walked 20 minutes to film the colony and returned to base ten hours later, each dragging 120 pounds of film equipment.

Everything went smoothly until September 2, 2003, when an unusually clear, bright, sunny day emboldened the filmmakers to venture three miles away. Without warning, a freak blizzard suddenly swept upon them and they were blinded in a "white out." They called the base to say they were in danger, and with the GPS they managed to walk two miles in temperatures of  -10° F. with winds of 90 mph (windchill factor:  -76° F), until they could move no further. Chalet fell into a pool of thin ice, his leggings froze instantly, which added an extra 20 pounds to his legs. Maison's bare fingers went numb from manipulating the GPS. The hood on his jacket was full of snow so his neck and head were exposed to the winds, he lost hearing in his right ear and his right eye was frozen shut. They waited for help to arrive. "While we waited, we never panicked," recalls Maison. "We thought we were going to remain there, but what is strange about freezing to death is that you don't feel any pain. You just go to sleep, and I began to fall asleep."

It was one and a half hours before the base's rescue team found the pair crouched in the snow. On the way back, Chalet tripped over a frozen metal bar and badly damaged his knee and leg. Maison's face was severely frostbitten and his eye was sealed shut. The two were confined to the infirmary for one month and the Polar Institute withdrew filming permission. News of the near-fatality was communicated back to Bonne Pioche in Paris. Darondeau says he did not know how or when Jacquet received news of the accident because he was in China and Australia at that time, making another film for another production company.

It took one month for Chalet and Maison to recover permission to film was somehow renegotiated and shooting resumed in mid-October. In November, Jacquet returned because in December, the trio should have left Terre Adelie together. But because the ice was still frozen, the chicks could not dive into the sea, which is the final chapter of the film. Chalet and Maison decided to stay another two months to complete this sequence. Jacquet left for Paris on December 27, with all the exposed rushes to date. 

In February 2004, Chalet and Maison completed filming and left Terre d'Adelie for Paris. Their return was both harsh and disorienting as they not only found it difficult re-adjusting to life in a noisy city, they found their personal lives had changed. Unlike their animal companions, their human companions were not as loyal, reliable or patient, and Jacquet's "a price too high to pay" had now become an eerie foreboding.

Darondeau called Chalet to a meeting in June 2004 and announced that because the imagery was of such an exceptional quality, Legend of the Emperor would be turned into a feature-length film with a theatrical release. New contracts would have to be signed. Chalet expressed that he would like recognition of his work, that his role on the film was more than just a cinematographer as there had been no director present. He had been left on his own to film the sequences, and he wanted to be recognized as co-author and remunerated as such. Darondeau refused, saying there were already too many people claiming rights to this film. Chalet was told to tear up his original contract and sign three new contracts. These contracts were to be "retroactive" and were backdated to appear as if they were signed at the project's inception. On these contracts the original "good faith" clauses promising "added remuneration if the film was successful" were removed.

Additional staff and personnel were employed for the enlarged project. A narrative story was written by Michel Fessler. An electronic new age music soundtrack by Emily Simon was added, as were stock shots and effects for the underwater sequences. New financial partners came on board to share in the film.

La Marche de l'Empereur was released in France, distributed by Buena Vista International, and became a big hit. The film screened at Sundance in 2005 and was bought by Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic Feature Films, who re-edited the film before distributing the English language version, with a new narration and score. The English language March of the Penguins is a very different film experience from the French La Marche de l'Empereur

March of the Penguins is the second-highest grossing documentary in North America and the highest grossing French film of all time. The film earned the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 2005. Jacquet and the producers at Bonne Pioche attended the ceremony with their wives and a journalist from Canal +, but no invitation was extended to Chalet or Maison, nor were they thanked in the acceptance speeches, or referenced in the many Oscars season interviews.

In the extensive press coverage of the film, Jacquet talks about how physically enduring the shooting was for him, how difficult it was to return to life in Paris after a year in the Antarctic, and how he gets chills up his spine remembering the sudden blizzard that caught him up when he nearly froze to death. Jacquet made this statement publicly at a screening, the audience at which included members of the French Society of Cinematographers (AFC). Their reaction was one of disbelief and outrage: an in-depth interview with Chalet and Maison had already been published in their magazine, Lumières, and these were Chalet's words.

When Chalet announced his decision to start legal proceedings against Jacquet and Bonne Pioche, the AFC issued a statement of complete support. A letter from one of France's most honored cinematographers, Pierre L'homme, stated that Jacquet and Bonne Pioche had "disgraced the entire French film industry."

After a year of reflection, Chalet has filed legal papers in the Paris courts. "Bonne Pioche is trying to portray me as some kind of opportunist who is out for money," he says. "I had asked for proper recognition and remuneration when the film was in the cutting room and no one knew it would be such a success. What I find amusing is that producers feel it is perfectly okay to ask you to make all kinds of sacrifices for them when they don't have any money, but when they get some, they get very upset if you claim back what you are entitled to--what they promised you originally.

"Now I want the truth to be known about the extent of my involvement, my engagement and my contribution to this project, which represents one and a half years of my life," he continues. "I want to be recognized as the true author of the images and co-author of the film."


Madelyn Grace Most is a camerawoman based in Paris and London who now writes about the film industry.