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Save Our Oceans! 'Coral Reef Adventure' Makes a Large Format Plea

By Ray Zone

A healthy coral reef in Fiji, from 'Coral Reef Adventure.'

"It is important to make the primary distinction between a method which describes only the surface values of a subject, and the method which more explosively reveals the reality of it," wrote John Grierson. With this observation in his essay, "First Principles of Documentary," Grierson could well have been writing about Large Format (LF) film. 

With a film frame ten times larger than 35mm, the 15/70 IMAX format has a unique ability to transport audiences into the environments it depicts. Projected on a giant screen 100 feet wide and eight stories high, served up in six-channel sound, the LF image offers an unprecedented immersion in the worlds it presents. To a mission-driven documentary filmmaker, 15/70 offers the potential to deliver a powerful message wrapped in overwhelming beauty to an audience.

Greg MacGillivray, as an LF filmmaker and head of MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF), has been working to realize that potential on the giant screen for over 20 years. And MacGillivray is a documentary filmmaker with a long-standing mission. Previous MFF films such as the Academy Award-nominated films The Living Sea (1995) and Dolphins (2000) powerfully illustrate the beauty and fragility of the ocean environment.

Coral Reef Adventure, MacGillivray's newest film, was born out of his concern for fragile and endangered underwater ecosystems. It documents the hidden world of coral reefs and a threatening siege caused by global warming, overfishing and pollution.  Over 58 percent of the world's reefs are at risk from a condition known as "coral bleaching."

"I'm a surfer and a diver," says MacGillivray. "This film is a personal mission for me in getting the audience to understand what a critical point reefs are at." The producer/director has put his money where his mouth is. Over 60 percent of Coral Reef Adventure's $10 million budget was put up by MFF. "It's a huge gamble for our company," says MacGillivray. "But it's something that is vitally important to me and I'm willing to take the risk."     

The balance of the funding for Coral Reef Adventure was provided with a grant from the National Science Foundation and a combination of investors and partners including the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and Lowell, Blake Associates.

MFF is based in Laguna Beach, California, and MacGillivray lives with his family right on the ocean front. In fact, the ocean has played a huge part in MacGillivray becoming a filmmaker. Growing up as a "surf rat" in Corona del Mar, he was influenced by the surf films of Bruce Brown, Bud Browne and John Severson. "I got my first 8mm movie camera in 1957 or 1958," he says.  "And it was when they were all just starting to produce surfing films. That's basically where I learned everything."

Alec Lorimore, his fellow producer on all of the MFF ocean productions as well as Coral Reef Adventure, also lives near the sea shore. Lorimore feels that LF film is uniquely suited to capture and convey the ocean environment. "These films have a unique ability to transport the audience in a very visceral, experiential way to places they have never been," says Lorimore. "That's particularly true with the ocean films, where we are trying to familiarize and educate the audience with the incredible beauty and wonder of the undersea environment."

To photograph Coral Reef Adventure, MacGillivray hired Howard Hall, whom he calls "the best, most qualified underwater cinematographer in the world."  Hall worked previously with MFF on The Living Sea (1995) and Journey into Amazing Caves (2001). He also photographed and directed Into the Deep (1994) in 3-D for IMAX. Hall's wife Michele accompanied him on the ocean exploring expedition and served as a production manager on the film. 

It's fair to say that Howard and Michele Hall are the stars of Coral Reef Adventure. While not exactly a behind-the-scenes documentary, the film follows the Halls on a 10-month journey in South Pacific seas to document some of the world's most threatened reefs. Principle photography took place from May 2000 to May 2002.

"Howard and Michele Hall are poster children for environmental awareness in action," says Lorimore. "So we figured they would be great subjects for a film and we persuaded them that it would be an interesting approach."   

First stop on the Hall's expedition was the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, followed by visits to Fiji and Tahiti and the great Rangiroa atoll in French Polynesia. Along the way, the ocean explorers met Jean-Michel Cousteau, who introduced children to the wonders of the Fijian coral reefs, expert Fijian diver Rusi Vulakoro, and Dr. Richard Pyle, an ichthyologist and academic expert on fish who, while diving with Hall, discovered five new species of fish living at rarely explored ocean depths.

To photograph the deep-sea beauty of coral reefs on Large Format film, Hall and his crew set a record by taking the camera down to a 370-foot depth in open ocean. Over 100 miles of 15/65 film, more than any other Large Format feature, was shot during 2,400 separate dives.

Considerable technical innovation was required for underwater photography with the LF IMAX camera at such extreme depths. Underwater filming deeper than 300 feet is also done at a significant risk to the cinematographer and his crew. In all, Hall, who developed a case of bends during one dive, made 21 deep dives beyond 300 feet. At 350 feet underwater, the ambient pressure is about 12 times greater than at sea level. "If you were to measure the pressure in pounds per square inch it would be about 150 psi," says Hall. "A lot of the gear we used hadn't been tested to those depths."

To build media and conservation organization support for his film, MacGillivray held ten work-in-progress screenings of Coral Reef Adventure in 2002 at eight IMAX Theatres in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, DC, Chicago, Boston, Bristol and Johannesburg. Soliciting the audience's advice and suggestions, he undertook extensive re-cutting of the film based on the input from attendees that included scientists, educators and museum directors.

Reef Check, one of the partners for Coral Reef Adventure, is a reef-monitoring program based at UCLA's Institute of the Environment. Professor Gregor Hodgson, head of Reef Check, is the author of a recent paper that reported that only one reef out of 1,100 examined worldwide was in pristine condition.

Coral reefs are over 100 million years old and provide homes for 25 percent of all marine life; 350 million people worldwide depend on corals for their survival. Coral reefs are also a great medical resource, providing antibiotics and treatments for illnesses ranging from asthma to leukemia and heart disease. Yet, in the last seven years, ten percent of the world's coral reefs have died.

In an editorial titled "Slow-Motion Disaster Below the Waves" published in The Los Angeles Times November 17, 2002, USC marine biologist Randy Olson discussed a new term in the environmental movement called "shifting baselines." "'Shifting baselines' are the chronic, slow, hard-to-notice changes in things, from the disappearance of birds and frogs in the countryside to the increased drive time from LA to San Diego," Olson wrote.

Coral Reef Adventure and the other MFF ocean films have established a baseline for the ecological state of the ocean in 2002. That has been part of the filmmakers' intentions all along. "We wanted to document the reefs before it was too late," Michele Hall has stated.

"I felt that the footage would always be valuable, if not to entertainment, then to science or to people 40 years from now who will want to see what a coral reef used to look like," says MacGillivray. 

John Grierson had the highest appreciation for documentary films about nature, including those that dealt with "life under the sea." He wrote, "Here, if anywhere, beauty has come to inhabit the edifice of truth."  


Ray Zone is a documentarian, freelance writer, film historian and contributing editor to American Cinematographer magazine.