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It's a Big World After All: Nature Writ Large at 2004 LFCA Film Festival

By Ray Zone

The "Sombrero" galaxy, from 'Hubble: Galaxies Across Space and Time', produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute, and photographed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

Since 1970, the giant screen 15/70mm IMAX format has provided a close-up and experiential view of nature's wonders. Historically, natural history and science films have provided the colorful backbone for content in this most immersive of motion picture mediums. The 15/70 film frame, which travels horizontally through the camera and projector, is almost nine times larger than a conventional 35mm film frame. Combine that kind of realism with 12,000 watts of surrounding six-channel sound and you have a medium that places audiences directly into the environments they depict, whether it is an African veldt or the cosmic depths of outer space.

The Large Format Cinema Association (LFCA) is an international group of large-format producers, exhibitors, manufacturers and distributors dedicated to promoting giant screen entertainment. The LFCA holds an annual conference and film festival in Los Angeles that includes panels, technical sessions and screenings. This year's LFCA Conference and Film Festival, held in April at the Universal City IMAX theater, included seven 40-minute feature-length films and three short films. Each year an LFCA Film Festival Award is given to Best Feature and Best Short.

The 2004 LFCA Best Feature Award went to Forces of Nature, produced by Graphic Films and National Geographic, directed by George Casey and distributed by Destination Cinema, Inc. Forces of Nature showcases the immense power of earthquakes, erupting volcanoes and on-rushing tornadoes. Following teams of scientists investigating these destructive phenomena, the film conveys nature's violent energy with larger-than-life images and sounds that rock the viewer in the theater seat. Ten years in the making, Forces of Nature is one of the most dramatic nature films ever to unfold on a screen of any size.

Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, directed by Stephen Low and produced by the Stephen Low Company and Rutgers University, uses cutting-edge lighting and film technology to record deep ocean habitats with temperatures hot enough to melt lead. Filmed at depths in excess of 12,000 feet with the use of a submersible Alvin (a one- or two-man submarine with a viewing port, out of which a cameraman can film), Volcanoes of the Deep Sea presents footage of dense communities of marine life fueled by volcanic and hydrothermal forces arising from energy deep inside the earth. Plumes of "black smoker" chimneys are seen along with a newly discovered organism that may be one of the earth's oldest survivors.

In a special LFCA tribute, Low was also presented the Kodak Vision Award for his dynamic contributions to Large Format Cinema with giant screen films such as Across the Sea of Time (1996), Flight of the Aquanaut (1993), Titanica (1993) and Mark Twain's America (1998). The Kodak Vision Award selection committee consisted of Christopher Reyna of New Paradigm Productions and previous honorees Sean Phillips, Reed Smoot, David Douglas and Rodney Taylor.

Another National Geographic film that played at the festival, Roar: Lions of the Kalahari, directed by Tim Liversedge, is the first large-format film to have been mastered with Digital Intermediate (DI). Roar is a story of power and dominance in the day-to-day life of African lions living around a water hole in the arid lands of Botswana's Kalihari Desert. Close-up images of wildlife and intricate sound design put the audience right into the site.

Shooting Roar over an 18-month period on various film formats ranging from 15/70 to 8/70 to 35mm, Liversedge found a strong narrative, in which a nomadic young contender for the throne challenges a real lion king. The powerful story has a unity of effect in great part due to the visuals created by Sean Phillips at MacLeod Productions and Tim Sassoon of Sassoon Film Design. By giving the various film origination formats a unity of look, continuity is conveyed and the story arc seems to happen over a short period of time, which increases the dramatic impact.

Walt Disney Pictures' Sacred Planet, directed and edited by Jon Long, is a visual tone poem celebrating some of Planet Earth's remaining pristine environments. From Namibia and Monument Valley to Thailand, Borneo and Southeast Alaska, Sacred Planet takes viewers to remote sites full of natural wonder. The giant screen is a perfect vehicle for this celebration of Earth's awesome beauty.

The time-lapse photography by Lee Parker, accompanied by a diverse array of musical forms, provides an unprecedented view of the natural world. Shadows move up canyon walls as day turns to night. Stars, splayed across the giant screen, turn in the night sky on a sidereal course.

Of the three short films at the LFCA Festival, Hubble: Galaxies across Space and Time, a two-minute, 51-second journey across nine billion years of cosmic history and produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute, took the Best Short Film Award. Hubble is a computer-generated flight through a field of over 10,000 galaxies to a time when the galaxies were first forming. 

The galaxies were photographed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope as part of the Great Observatory Origins Deep Survey (GOODS) project. The original source image, representing a sliver of the sky comparable to that covered by a quarter moon, contained over 600 million pixels. Under the guidance of Dr. Frank Summers, the Hubble team worked for months to extract individual galaxy images out of the original source image and place them in a 3-D model built according to their approximate true distances. Hubble represents an intriguing marriage of extremely high-resolution telescope imagery and the large-format film medium.

There is, perhaps, no better medium today to present science and the natural world in motion pictures than large-format film. The 2004 LFCA Film Festival provided ample evidence of the suitability of 15/70 and its creative potential to dramatize both the natural world and scientific information.


At the 2004 LFCA Film Festiva,l Ray Zone presented the LF industry premiere of A Better Mousetrap, a 90-second LF CG 3-D film that he produced.