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Lemurs Star (Briefly) in New IMAX Film

Six weeks of training sleepy lemurs for 30 seconds of glory

Five fat-tailed dwarf lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center are getting a taste of the silver screen.

Nighthawk, Vireo, Raven, Crow and Jaeger are starring in the new IMAX film "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar" that opens April 4 in Raleigh and around the country.

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Though the half-pound primates appear for only 30 seconds of the film and its theatrical trailer,  Lemur Center animal training expert Meg Dye and technicians Fallon Owens and Mack DesChamps worked daily for six weeks to train them for their roles.

There was only one hitch:  dwarf lemurs are creatures of the night. Daylight is their cue to return to their nest and head to bed. The challenge was to prepare the animals for the bright lights of a movie set so they would play their part without curling up and going to sleep.

Working in the dark and turning on the lights for just a few seconds at a time, the technicians taught the lemurs to follow a trainer's finger -- not an easy task with five curious lemurs scurrying on branches in all directions.

Finally the film crew arrived. Their mission:  to re-enact the arrival of the first lemurs to Madagascar for the opening scene of the film.

The ancestors of today's lemurs are thought to have made their way to Madagascar more than 60 million years ago by drifting across the Mozambique Channel from Africa as castaways on floating rafts of debris blown out to sea during tropical storms.

Producer Drew Fellman and his crew spent a week in April 2013 filming at the Duke Lemur Center to depict the epic journey, using a hollow log in front of a green screen to create the illusion of lemurs lost at sea.

With the 250-pound IMAX 3D camera in place, the stars of the show were brought out from their "dressing room" cage and placed at one end of the log.

The lemurs obligingly played their part and scampered to the opposite end in the direction of a technician's finger. But as soon as they got into the bright light at the other end, they began to slow down and fall sleep.

Finally the technicians enticed one of lemurs, a young female named Raven, into the light by dangling a meal worm at the end of the log.

"There's a reason you don't see fat tailed dwarf lemurs in action movies," said film director David Douglas.

Licinius the ring-tailed lemur, a veteran of a research protocol in which lemurs choose items on a touchscreen computer, also appears for a few seconds in a scene where he does his trick to explain the primate family tree.

Catch these and other lemur stars at the Duke Lemur Center, or on the seven-story-tall IMAX screen starting April 4 when the movie hits more than three dozen select theaters across North America, including Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh.

For more about the film, click here.