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Big Time Reality: Size Does Matter to Large Format Filmmakers

By Ray Zone

From Mike Slee's 'Bugs!.' Courtesy SK Films, Inc.

The bigger the image, the bigger the impact," says Robert Dennis. "Filmmakers have been experimenting with large format since the early days of filmmaking." Dennis is a real large format (LF) film buff. He is also president of the Large Format Cinema Association (LFCA) and director of sales and marketing for the 70mm Group at CFI/Technicolor.

"The unique nature of LF allows documentary filmmakers to immerse the audience in the world they're showing," says Dennis. Each LF film frame, ten times larger than 35mm, is 15 perforations wide on 70mm film, which travels horizontally through the camera and projector gate.

Documentary subject matter about nature, wildlife and flight have made up the bulk of over 200 films created in the 15/70 format since 1970. Working with engineers Robert Kerr and Bill Shaw, LF originators Graeme Ferguson and Roman Kroitor developed the horizontal 15/70 format and founded the IMAX company in 1967.

Their first use of the format in 1970 was inaugurated with a multi-image film called Tiger Child for Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. One of the highest grossing documentaries of all time, To Fly, a 26-minute overview of transportation and flight in America produced by Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman in 1976 for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, is a 15/70 LF film.

The mission of the LFCA is to promote international public awareness of large-screen entertainment formats, provide a forum for sharing information among 70mm filmmakers and foster the growth of the large-screen entertainment industry. For the past five years, the LFCA has held an annual conference in Los Angeles that has included sessions on funding, marketing, works-in-progress and technical issues, as well as screenings of numerous LF films.

At the May 2003 LFCA conference, screenings of 14 new films took place at the IMAX Bridge Theater in West Los Angeles and the California Science Center at Exposition Park. Both feature-length and short films were shown, with four of them in 3-D. Nearly every film shown was a documentary and demonstrated the unique artistic potential that large format presents to the nonfiction filmmaker.

The new LF 3-D film Bugs , for example, which won the LFCA Best Film Award in the feature category, can be described as a live-action nature drama. Narrated by Dame Judi Dench, the film examines 40 tropical insects along with scorpions, tarantulas, vipers and bats, all of which are magnified 250,000 times normal size on the giant screen in immersive 3-D. Director of photography Sean Phillips' deft hypostereo 3-D, in which the left and right eye camera views are only a quarter of an inch apart, makes the diminutive creatures appear monumental on the large format screen.

Aerial footage is always dramatic in large format. Adrenaline Rush: The Science of Risk, featuring breathtaking footage shot in free fall, tells the story of skydiver Adrian Nicholas and his team, who have built winged skydiving suits. The jumpers and scientists from Oxford worked from Leonard da Vinci's 15th century drawings of the first-ever parachute, which the team put to the test of flight as a dramatic conclusion to the documentary narrative.

Another film at the LFCA conference, Straight Up!: Helicopters in Action examines the role helicopters play in our world, with sequences featuring a MedEvac rescue following an avalanche in Switzerland, relocation of black rhinos in South Africa, a dangerous high-tension power line repair and an air-sea drug interdiction. Most of the helicopter sequences are examples of straight documentary recording of actual events. Following earthshaking footage of an actual snow avalanche, the MedEvac rescue is dramatically staged with actors for the large format camera.

Straight Up! was directed and photographed by large format pioneer David Douglas, who has traveled far and wide with the 250-pound IMAX camera, making such LF films as Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (2001), Wolves (1999), Destiny in Space (1994), Fires of Kuwait(1992), Blue Planet (1990) and Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic (1986). At the 2002 LFCA conference, Douglas was presented with the Kodak Vision Award for his achievements in large format cinematography.

In 1999, the year of the first LFCA conference, the late Noel Archambault was honored with the Kodak Vision Award for his groundbreaking IMAX 3-D cinematography on such films as Galapagos: The Enchanted Voyage (1999), T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998), Mark Twain's America in 3-D (1998), The Hidden Dimension (1997), and Across the Sea of Time (1995). Archambault's career was tragically cut short in June 1998, when he perished in an airplane crash while filming Galapagos.

Sean Phillips was the recipient of the Kodak Vision Award at the second LFCA conference in 2000 for his work on LF films such as Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box (1999), Encounter in the Third Dimension (1999), T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998), Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun (1997) and Wings of Courage (1995).

All of the LF Kodak Vision Award winners have photographed innovative turns for the documentary form. With IMAX's China: The Panda Adventure (2001), for example, 2001 winner Reed Smoot, ASC, shot a dramatization of the true-life story of Ruth McCombs Harkness, who traveled to Shanghai in 1936 and ventured deep into forests to track the elusive panda. This giant-screen film combined the substance of a documentary with the storytelling style of a feature film. Other LF documentaries of Smoot's include Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets (1983), To Be An Astronaut (1991), Yellowstone (1992) and Mysteries of Egypt (1997).

A similar re-enactment of history that screened at the LFCA festival this year is India: Kingdom of the Tiger, which deals with the experiences of early 20th century adventurer Jim Corbett, who pioneered Indian wildlife conservation. This colorful tribute to India and the Bengal tiger was produced by the National Wildlife Federation.

The 2003 Kodak Vision Award recipient Rodney Taylor has photographed a variety of LF films that range from wildlife and sports to music documentaries. "I'm trying to find a way to give the audience an emotional response to the images," says Taylor. "That's what you do on feature films, and I think you can do the same thing in large format."

With his work on such LF documentaries as Alaska: Spirit of the Wild (1997), Amazing Journeys: The Great Migrations (1999), Michael Jordan to the Max (2000), All Access: Front Row, Backstage, Live! (2001) Ultimate X: The Movie (2002) and Our Country (2003), Taylor has expanded the visual vocabulary of a rigorous cinematic language. From fellow Kodak Vision Award recipient David Douglas, Taylor says that he "learned to let the camera run out" to capture the actions of nature and wild animals. That's a daring proposition when photographing with expensive 65mm stock, a camera that sounds like a chain saw when film is rolling and the maximum load runs three minutes.

Taylor also shot Home of Freedom (2003), a seven-minute LF "signature film" that uses Philadelphia as a backdrop to life in America, which also screened at the LFCA conference. A signature film is an LF niche invented to spotlight the greatness of a city or region. Home of Freedom was funded by The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia and plays there on a daily basis.

Another LF signature film, running 39 minutes and screened at the conference, was Texas: The Big Picture, photographed by Sean Phillips and T.C. Christenson for the State of Texas and the Texas State History Museum Foundation. This larger-than-life LF film, partially funded by Southwest Airlines and ExxonMobil, conveys the magnitude of the Lone Star State and plays on a daily basis at the IMAX Theatre at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. The LF signature film represents a very specialized and unique niche for the documentary filmmaker.

Three films that screened at the conference dealt with marine life, a perennial subject of interest for LF filmmakers. MacGillivray's Coral Reef Adventure reinvents the documentary form by focusing on LF filmmakers Howard and Michelle Hall and their journey to document some of the world's most beautiful and endangered reefs in the South Pacific. Ocean Wonderland 3-D, shot with two HD cameras and blown up to 15/70 film, is a visual tone poem, a wordless tribute to life under the sea and its beauty.

"I've always wanted to make one of these films," said James Cameron in his keynote address at the conference. "And much more so since IMAX 3-D was introduced." Cameron's LF 3-D film Ghosts of the Abyss, which revisits the wreck of the Titanic in a deep-sea dive and was shot with specially built custom HD 3-D cameras, was shown to conference attendees immediately after his address. Ghosts of the Abyss, released in both LF and 35mm 3-D, was Cameron's first foray into the documentary field.

"It was a true documentary, which meant it was going to get made into a story in post," said Cameron. "Trying to structure all this material into a narrative was one of the toughest creative challenges I've ever faced as a filmmaker."


Ray Zone is producing a 60-second Large Format 3-D film. He writes about LF for numerous publications, including The Big Frame, American Cinematographer, Los Angeles Times and The Hollywood Reporter