What’s It Like to Make an IMAX Movie? Q&A with Director Greg MacGillivray

Last week, we blogged about “Journey to the South Pacific,” a new IMAX 3D film chronicling a boy named Jawi as he discovers the ocean’s beauty and importance, thanks in part to the MV Kalabia, an environmental education boat. Today, I interview Greg MacGillivray, the film’s director, about his experience making the film.

Greg MacGillivray filming in West Papua, Indonesia

Greg MacGillivray, director of the IMAX 3D film “Journey to the South Pacific,” filming in West Papua, Indonesia. (© 2014 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films. IMAX® is a registered trademark of IMAX Corporation.)

Q: Why did you decide to make this film?

A: After completing our last IMAX film “To The Arctic,” which explored the perils of climate change for polar bears, we wanted to make an upbeat film about successful ocean conservation.

Extensive research consultation with our One World One Ocean Campaign science advisors led us to West Papua and the Bird’s Head Seascape. The more we talked to scientists and divers working in this area, the more we became convinced that we had found both an area with spectacular visuals above and below the water that were worthy of the IMAX format, but also a story of creative community efforts to preserve reefs whose diversity encompasses 75% of the world’s coral species.

When we spoke to Dr. Mark Erdmann, senior advisor for CI-Indonesia’s marine program, and learned about the Kalabia — the tuna trawler turned floating classroom that now teaches island children about their ocean environment — we knew we had a great story.

sunset in West Papua, Indonesia

Sunset in West Papua, Indonesia. (© 2014 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films. IMAX® is a registered trademark of IMAX Corporation.)

Q: How did you find Jawi, and what led you to make him the focal point of the film?

A: Knowing that we wanted to use the colorful Kalabia as a main story point, we also knew that the story would best be told through the eyes of a child in one of the more than 130 villages that have benefitted from the ocean lessons taught by the Kalabia’s enthusiastic teachers. Despite its remoteness, this species-rich region still experiences the threats of overfishing and destructive fishing practices found throughout the world’s oceans.

From video presentations of about 40 children, one 13-year-old boy stood out for his charismatic smile, as well as his ability on the ukulele. Jawi became our hero on and off screen. The most stoic kid we’ve ever encountered, he worked through several abscessed teeth and even the onset of malaria, until we found out and sent him off for medical attention. Five days later, he was back on the set, laughing and playing his ukulele. We were also able to work with his uncle, Menas, who was an instructor on the Kalabia, as well as his adoptive father, Yesaya, who was a renowned dancer/musician in the area.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges during filming?

A: West Papua, Indonesia is very difficult to reach. Sixty-five hours by plane and boat is bad enough, but then try to get 20,000 pounds of gear there along with five camera crews, and you’re really asking for problems — and we had them.

While we reveled in the beauty surrounding us on the water, we also had to contend with the currents which make this region so bountiful in species. West Papua’s Raja Ampat region of more than 1,500 islands lies at the intersection of the Pacific and Indian oceans, where deep trenches between islands channel powerful currents. While these powerful currents are great for creating the upwellings of deep, cold water rich in nutrients that feed all kinds of fish, they are not so great for creating easy filming conditions.

Only the most experienced and skilled underwater cameramen are able to work in these conditions; fortunately, our underwater cinematographers Howard Hall, Peter Kragh and DJ Roller were more than capable. Getting permits for gear and filming rounded out the host of challenges that beset us.

filming with IMAX camera underwater, West Papua, Indonesia

The IMAX crew filming underwater in West Papua. (© 2014 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films. IMAX® is a registered trademark of IMAX Corporation.)

Q: I’ve heard that the IMAX camera could only be used for three minutes at a time. How do you deal with that when filming something that is especially action-packed?

A: It’s very hard! Every minute you run the 3D IMAX camera, you’re running through US$ 2000, so you want to be sure that you’re ready for the shot. That means the best light as well as the best action, and that means lots of waiting until all conditions are perfect for those three minutes of footage, before you have to re-load. The only way to have the oxygen required for this patient waiting underwater is to use what are known as re-breather systems rather than normal, time-limited scuba tanks. Re-breathers allowed Howard Hall and others to remain underwater for up to eight hours.

Q: Did you use any especially new or cool technology during the shoot?

A: The Solido 3D IMAX camera is exceptionally cool, since it allows for one camera, albeit the size of a small refrigerator, to shoot 3D with two rolls of huge 70 mm film running through at the same time. So long as there are four able bodies to transport the camera even an inch, you’ve got a great set up for spectacular 3D visuals. The SpaceCam system for the helicopter filming is another very cool camera system, which permits incredibly smooth aerial shots due to its uniquely gyro-stabilized mount.

Q: What was one of your favorite moments during filming?

A: I’d have to say that my consistent favorite part of shooting was just being with the Papuan people, experiencing their love of music, community and their reefs.

One very special highlight has to be the two days that we spent underwater with the resident population of juvenile whale sharks in Cenderawasih Bay. Watching Jawi go from his initial fear of these largest of sharks to his love of swimming with them was a wonderful experience. He became so enamored with them, that we had to instruct him to not touch them or hold onto them. He then just swam as close to them as he could.

Indonesian boy swims with whale shark

Jawi swims with a whale shark. (© 2014 IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films. IMAX® is a registered trademark of IMAX Corporation.)

Q: If you could ask the audience of this film to remember one thing from it, what would it be?

A: Help promote and create marine protected areas! When you spend time with island people whose lives depend on the ocean, you gain a whole new, visceral understanding of the importance of our underwater world and its resources.

For centuries, the people of West Papua have practiced a cultural tradition known as “sasi,” which has taught them to live in balance with their marine environment, stopping with great ceremony the practice of fishing a certain species when it was diminishing in numbers and then resuming when numbers rebounded, again with great respectful ceremony.

Jawi learned from his travels to different communities the importance of his traditions, as well as what modern science is now telling us about the need to protect our reefs and ocean resources through making special areas off-limits to fishing so nature can rebound.

Jawi and his fellow Papuan islanders, with the help of NGOs like CI, have created more than 13,000 square miles [almost 34,000 square kilometers] of marine protected area. Theirs is a story of hope for the ocean. Nature is resilient, but it needs our help to come back.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature. Greg MacGillivray is a documentary filmmaker and co-founder of the One World One Ocean Foundation.


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