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Originally published April 27, 2014 at 6:21 PM | Page modified April 27, 2014 at 10:13 PM

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From Boeing to snow monkeys: a filmmaker’s progress

An interview with Renton filmmaker Joseph Pontecorvo, whose documentary on Japanese snow monkeys plays this week on PBS’ “Nature.”

Special to The Seattle Times


‘Snow Monkeys’

Narrated by Liam Neeson. Noon Tuesday on KCTS and KYVE (check local listings).

Tonight in Prime Time


Renton filmmaker Joseph Pontecorvo had some doubts when PBS’ “Nature” commissioned him to make a film about Japan’s snow monkeys in 2011. Pontecorvo said snow monkeys had been seen in previous natural-history films like 1992’s “Baraka” and 2009’s Discovery Channel series “Life.”

Past efforts often focused on macaques at hot springs in the Japanese Alps — near Nagano — so Pontecorvo took a different approach, following one troop of snow monkeys that had been studied by scientists for decades.

“This place afforded us the opportunity, if we did it right, to follow individuals,” he said. “That became our challenge. We want ed to give viewers an insight into the personal lives of this troop.”

The resulting hourlong film “Snow Monkeys” debuted last week on PBS’s “Nature” and has a rebroadcast at noon Tuesday on KCTS.

Pontecorvo, a 1989 graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, began his career as a cameraman for Boeing before moving into natural-history documentary filmmaking. His first film was on Siberian tigers for Discovery Channel. Recent efforts include 2011’s “Bears of the Last Frontier” for “Nature.”

Pontecorvo was writer, producer and director of photography for “Snow Monkeys,” which was filmed over 19 months beginning in December of 2011 and concluding in spring 2013. The crew was pretty much just Pontecorvo and his cinematographer wife, Nimmida Pontecorvo, who spent about seven months on the ground filming.

There are pros and cons to such a small crew, Pontecorvo said. “The cons are it sure would be nice to have help hauling all this gear. The pros are its less disruptive. Because it was just the two of us we were able to insert ourselves into the troop with less trouble.”

Pontecorvo said winter was the most challenging season to film in because it was difficult to keep snow off the camera lens and tough at times to see the monkeys. Pre-shoot visions of soaking in Japanese hot tubs gave way to the realities of working in snowy terrain.

“People would see us come down [from higher up the mountain] in the middle of the day and we’d be a mess,” Pontecorvo said. “People from Tokyo would step off the train looking like fashion models and we’d show up with twigs in our hair, all dirty and scroungey.”

Another challenge: Being able to distinguish one macaque from another.

“In the beginning, my wife was much better at it than I was,” Pontecorvo said. “Now I can look at any picture online from the park and I can tell if it’s one of our 50.”

At the start, Pontecorvo said it was unclear which of the monkeys would become central characters in the film, so they shot footage of the whole troop. Eventually low-ranking monkey Hiro and his friendship with troop leader Kuro-san provided the best focus.

In total, the Pontecorvos generated 700 hours of footage that had to be whittled down to an hour. Pontecorvo said there are more stories to tell from the troop and he’s trying to raise money for a “Snow Monkeys” feature film.

Now the Pontecorvos are at work editing a new “Nature” program that they shot simultaneously with “Snow Monkeys.” Their next program, on orangutans in Sumatra, will air on PBS in 2015.

Freelance writer Rob Owen: or on Facebook and Twitter as RobOwenTV.

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