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Delta Watch: MacGillivray Documents Katrina in IMAX

By Bob Fisher

A Spacecam shot of blues guitarist and wetlands activist Tab Benoit taking an aerial survey of the Louisiana's wetlands by floatplane. From Greg MacGillivray's 'Hurricane on the Bayou.'

"I wanted Hurricane on the Bayou to go beyond our previous films emotionally. It's such a huge tragedy with such heartbreak. I felt we had an obligation to tell this story right, so people understand the dimensions of the tragedy... I love New Orleans and the bayou. I think it's the most unique city and region in America. If we lose it and lose the wetlands of Louisiana, we have lost part of America that is irreplaceable."

- Greg MacGillivray


The seeds for Hurricane on the Bayou were planted about two and a half years ago when the Audubon Nature Institute in Louisiana contacted Greg MacGillivray. They told him that the wetlands surrounding New Orleans were eroding, mostly because of man-made causes. The natural buffer protecting New Orleans from storms was disappearing.

"They said that unless something was done, the entire area was going to be under water within 50 years," MacGillivray says. "Our research came to the same conclusion."

The institute offered to fund a major part of the cost for MacGillivray Freeman Films to create an IMAX theater film that warned the public about the tragedy that would inevitably occur when a hurricane swept into the bayou and city. IMAX is a compression of the words "image" and "maximization." Each image is 10 times larger than a standard 35mm frame. There are some 266 IMAX theaters with vertical stadium seating designed to put the audience in close proximity to a seven-story high screen.

"All of my IMAX theater films are part of a mission to educate people about the need to conserve the natural wonders of the world," says MacGillivray, whose previous work includes the award-winning Coral Reef Adventure, The Living Sea and Dolphins. "I put my heart and soul into these films. It's a contribution that my staff and I feel is important to each of us."

MacGillivray recruited local writer Glen Pitre as well as editors Jim Foster and Neguine Senani to work on the project. Pitre helped to craft a storyline that focused on local residents who have deep ties to the city's unique cultural heritage and the wildlife in the bayou. MacGillivray also planned to use computer-generated technology to simulate an apocalyptic hurricane and flood.

To find the film's main characters, some 600 local people were interviewed during pre-production. MacGillivray watched around 125 taped interviews and chose blues guitarist and long-time wetlands activist Tab Benoit, teenage fiddle player Amanda Shaw, singer-songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Allen Toussaint and zydeco performer Chubby Carrier.

The wetlands are home for many species of animals and birds and are on the natural migratory path for other wildlife. MacGillivray wanted to feature one animal that hasn't been overexposed in other IMAX films. He chose alligators and focused on how they live, breed and nest in the wetlands.

MacGillivray and his crewBrad Ohlund, Jack Tankard and Ron Goodmanshot the initial footage in April and May of 2005. Their tools included a 100-pound, sync-sound IMAX camera that MacGillivray has developed. In addition to shooting in the wetlands, they shot in the clubs where the featured musicians performed and on city streets.

"We always shoot sync sound on location," MacGillivray explains. "I found out early on that in an IMAX film I didn't want to replace dialogue because the audience will notice out-of-sync sound in an IMAX theater, where a character's mouth can be 10-feet tall."

The MacGillivray team filmed alligators in their natural habitat, using various techniques including surrounding them with invisible net fences hidden in the brush and grass. The filmmakers also built a tank that enabled them to film alligators from below. "We used food to attract alligators and filmed them looking around, eating and sometimes charging to within two feet of the lens," MacGillivray notes.

Bright daylight scenes were recorded on the Eastman EXR 100T 5248 color negative film, and the relatively new Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 stock was used in other circumstances. MacGillivray notes that the 5218 negative is at least a third sharper with 100 percent tighter grain structure than the film used to shoot his early IMAX works, like To Fly in 1976. "That's especially important in IMAX theaters, where you want to create a totally immersive experience for the audience as though they are in the environment," he says.

MacGillivray was deep into post-production when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005. The levees that separated Lake Ponchartrain from the streets of the city were breeched and some 80 percent of the city was flooded. There was no way for MacGillivray to contact the Audubon Nature Institute, so he took a leap of faith and invested about $250,000 to bring his production team to New Orleans in the immediate wake of the storm. From Los Angeles, they drove trucks loaded with water, fuel, food and IMAX cameras and arrived in the devastated area only two and a half days after the storm hit. "We carried enough gasoline, water and dry food rations to last 10 days, along with sleeping bags, phones we could charge, cameras, lights and generators," he recalls.

MacGillivray asked Spacecam inventor and operator Goodman to bring his gyroscope camera system to New Orleans. It was used to shoot aerial views of the ravaged city from a helicopter borrowed from a movie that was shooting in Florida. "We had no official authorization to shoot," MacGillivray says. "We carried big signs saying what we were doing and talked our way through police and National Guard roadblocks."

MacGillivray and his crew had three cameras. One was usually in a helicopter, another was on a boat and a third one was on a tripod. The team filmed rescue efforts, attempts to repair the levees, flooded and damaged areas, and survivors talking about the storm and its aftermath. They also shot in the bayous to see how the alligators and the wetlands had fared.

There was a third trip to New Orleans to film Toussaint, Shaw, Carrier and Marva Wright performing with a 20-person choir singing a gospel ode to New Orleans at the historic St. Louis Cathedral. Steve Wood, who has been scoring films for MacGillivray since the 1970s, wrote the song. Footage from that performance is cut into the beginning, middle and end of the film.

MacGillivray estimates a shooting ratio of 40:1. He saw sync-sound 35mm work prints projected on a 15-foot wide screen, while sitting at the proper IMAX theater viewing angle of about 90 degrees. MacGillivray dictated his comments and graded the importance of every shot. Those he selected were scanned for editing with an Avid system. The final cut includes computer-generated images recreating Katrina hitting the city and wreaking havoc. Sassoon Film Design and David Keighley Productions created the CGI elements. "We recreated things that actually happened, so the audience can witness and feel the impact of the devastation when the storm hit," MacGillivray explains.

Hurricane on the Bayou premieres August 29 at the Entergy IMAX Theater in New Orleans, where it is slated for a four-month exclusive run prior to worldwide distribution beginning in late December. Meryl Streep narrates the 40-minute film.

The negative, including outtakes, is archived by DPK 70MM Inc. in a humidity and temperature-controlled environment along with all the other MacGillivray films. "I feel a real obligation to archive our negatives because they are part of history," MacGillivray concludes. "Our archived footage includes images of the World Trade Towers being built in 1974 and many natural history scenes from around the world."


DKP 70MM Inc. is a Los Angeles-based subsidiary of the IMAX Corporation. Among its missions is archiving and maintaining both the original negative and intermediate film used for generating release prints. DKP 70MM president David Keighley notes that the library of IMAX films is a valuable asset in addition to being an irreplaceable record of the history of our times. Historic IMAX films are frequently re-released for new generations of moviegoers and also for new geographic markets, such as China in 2008.

Keighley also notes that ongoing advances in digital intermediate technology are making it possible for contemporary audiences to experience classic IMAX films the way they were intended to be seen. Keighley notes when new release prints are needed, DKP 70MM scans the original negative at 8K to 10K resolution per frame and creates a digital file that is recorded out to film in IMAX format. He points out that it would take approximately 18K resolution to scan all of the nuanced details in picture information on a single frame of negative recorded in IMAX format. It isn't practical to handle that much data today, but Keighley says the technology is evolving, so future audiences are in for a treat.