Hey, hey, it's the monkeys

But these guys aren't fooling around. Nigel Benson previews Dark Days in Monkey City.

One of the most extraordinary wildlife documentary programmes to screen in New Zealand premieres tonight.

Dark Days in Monkey City visits a warring colony of toque macaques in the ancient Sri Lankan temple city of Polonnaruwa - known by locals as "Monkey City".

The decaying jungle city was once ruled by Buddhist and Hindu kings, but is now bossed by gangs of feisty monkeys.

The ruins of the crumbling temples are turned into a savage battlefield as the monkeys fight for supremacy and survival against predators like flesh-eating monitor lizards.

It is nature's own rumble in the jungle.

The 13-part series was created for Animal Planet by Dunedin's Natural History New Zealand film unit.

The toughest tribe in Monkey City is the Temple Troop, which staunchly defends the best real estate in the area at Fig Tree Vale.

Their main enemies are the neighbouring Black Claws, who will stop at nothing to conquer that territory so they no longer have to feed on a diet of human rubbish.

The monkeys grow to 35cm in length (excluding tail), weigh up to 8.4kg and operate in troops of up to 20 soldiers.

The tension between the groups grows as they head for all-out war.

Dark Days blends wildlife footage with special effects to show the animals' highly complex society, in which rank and hierarchy determine nearly every aspect of day-to-day life.

The NHNZ crew spent nearly a month at Polonnaruwa Nature Sanctuary and Archaeology Reserve in Sri Lanka filming the monkeys in front of big green screens.

It took a week to build a portable studio featuring backdrops and a small stage painted with a special shade of green especially imported from New Zealand.

Then the monkey business started, as the crew tried to entice the wild macaques on to the set for filming.

They shot sequences created through comic book-style story boards crafted months before the shoot.

"We knew exactly what we wanted when we went to Sri Lanka," series producer Ian McGee says.

"We had wonderful story boards and fantastic shooting scripts.

"The trouble is, the monkeys didn't read them.

"So, we pretty much threw the scripts out the window and sat back and watched the monkeys.

"Fortunately, their natural behaviour was far more exciting than anything we scripted."

The images were then brought back to Dowling St, where visual effects artists integrated a series of backdrops with the wildlife footage.

Dunedin-based executive producer Lawrence Cumbo says it was an "intriguing" project.

"It's simply without precedent.

"Of all the projects I've worked on, Dark Days is one of the most intriguing," he said.

"Initially, it was daunting trying to imagine how our team would be able to capture animal behaviour, combine it with 3D CGI [computer-generated imagery] and great story-telling and then bring all those elements together to produce a compelling story to captivate audiences.

"One of the biggest challenges was the continuing nature of the story that unfolded.

Across all 13 episodes, Dark Days follows the lowliest female character, Portia, as she rises to dominance within the troop," he said.

"It's a style of programming that had never been produced before.

"We were pioneering a new form of storytelling, in many ways, but one thing's for sure: audiences are going to be seeing a lot more of this style of television series in the future."

The series also examines the behaviour of the animals and translates their motivations with macaque expert Dr Wolfgang Dittus, director of the Smithsonian Primate Biology Programme in Sri Lanka.

Dark Days in Monkey City was created by Emmy Award-winning writer Ian McGee in collaboration with comic writers Joe Kelley and Joe Casey (Uncanny X-Men, Justice League of America and The Adventures of Superman).

The series is narrated by Welsh actor John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings).


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