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Taking IMAX to the Max: Greg MacGillivray Is the Grandmaster of the Giant Screen

By Michael Rose

Editor's Note: To the Arctic 3D, the latest from MacGillivrary Freeman Films, opens April 20 in select IMAX theaters across the country through Warner Bros. Pictures and IMAX Filmed Entertainment, as well as Greg MacGilliavray's One World One Ocean initaive. Here's an article about MacGillivrary that ran in the Summer 2011 issue of Documentary.

Which documentary producer can claim to have mastered the biggest format, tackled the biggest subjects in the most extreme locations, trekked to the highest summit with the largest format camera, produced the highest-grossing documentary, headed the first documentary company to top a $1 billion in box office receipts, made the longest running-documentary in a commercial theater--and maybe, had the most fun? This may sound like categories for an awards show, but these notches on the camera belong to the king of IMAX filmmaking: Greg MacGillivray, the grandmaster of the giant screen.

The secret to creating compelling films for a 70-foot-high IMAX screen is to create "a feeling of being in a place they the audience hasn't been," explains MacGillivray. "Something that will get people talking about it."

Whether he's taking audiences to the top of Mount Everest or the bottom of the sea in the South Pacific, shooting the rapids down the Grand Canyon or swimming with polar bears, MacGillivray has learned how to tell stories that peg your pulse, make you think--and make you laugh. "Comedy is the hardest thing," he admits. "You need some spirit and some suspense."

He began to learn about what audiences wanted when he started making movies, starring his friends, as a 13-year-old Southern California beach kid growing up in Corona del Mar. His 8mm epics centered around the beach culture, featuring his buddies surfing and "humorous skits" they'd make up.

After spending hours editing, MacGillivray would hold screenings in his garage, complete with benches for seating. Being a budding entrepreneur and auteur, he would charge a hefty five-cents admission, then provide running commentary, with musical accompaniment from his stereo. Afterward, he'd ask them what they liked and what didn't work. "Kind of like film school," he says.

Encouraged by the responses, MacGillivray kept at it and by the time he entered high school in 1959 he was ready to graduate to a more professional format, 16mm. He found an almost new Bolex camera advertised in the paper for $450 and bought it with the proceeds he'd made screening his films. It came with four lenses, a professional wooden tripod and cases for all the gear. To pay for his next film, he mowed lawns, did gardening, delivered papers and babysat. 

With the new camera in hand, MacGillivray decided to up his game and shoot a more ambitious project. He followed about 30 kids as they surfed up and down the California coast. He was still working on it when he moved to Santa Barbara in 1963 to attend college at the University of California campus. His plan was to become a physics teacher, but surfing and filmmaking kept intruding. The film was finally ready near the end of his freshman year. He was a little nervous about what he'd done.

"There was no surfing film like it before or ever," MacGillivray notes. "It was so bizarre and very visual." But there was no turning back.  He needn't have worried. The audiences loved it, and the filmmaker earned $15,000 from screenings--netting him $10,000. He decided to take a year off from college to make another film.

About that same time, MacGillivray met filmmaker Jim Freeman, who had made three surfing features himself. Together they cooked up a "great idea": It would be "part surfing and part adventure," says MacGillivray. They decided to follow two surfers on an odyssey through Peru, Chile, Equador, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Panama, Mexico, Hawaii and California, capturing all their "trials and tribulations." But unlike a highly produced reality show, the filmmakers were winging it. "We didn't even know where to go; we just went," MacGillivray admits. This was before surfing had really been introduced to South America, and the surfers drew a crowd wherever they went. After six months of shooting, surfing and wandering, the filmmakers had Free and Easy in the can. Like his previous cinematic efforts, it was a hit when it was finally shown in 1967.

There was no turning back. Word started to spread about the surfer filmmakers, and soon calls came for them to produce commercials. Charles Champlin, film critic for The Los Angeles Times, started writing about them. Then the local public television station, KCET, produced an hour-long special that was so popular that another one soon followed.

MacGillivray and Freeman made 22 documentaries together, including their last surfing film, Five Summer Stories (1972). But they were now ready to tackle new challenges. Their skills and personalities complemented each other. Freeman was the outgoing member of the team and would go to "Hollywood and schmooze," while MacGillivray concentrated on the technical and story sides of filmmaking.

The filmmakers set up their company in Laguna Beach and were out of the Hollywood filmmaking loop. But Freeman had forged a relationship with the head of Tyler, a company that made helicopter mounts used for aerial shots, who organized showcase screenings of their work and invited producers and agents. If the duo got work they'd rent his gear. It worked and they got calls for second-unit aerial work on the features Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Towering Inferno and, of course, the surfing action in Big Wednesday.

Others noticed their work. In 1974, the Smithsonian Institution was building its new Air and Space Museum and planned to install an IMAX film theater. It would be the fourth one in the world. The museum wanted a film about flying and there was only one filmmaker who had made an IMAX film. The museum cast a wider net and liked what they heard when they talked to Freeman and MacGillivray. 

But the duo had never seen an IMAX film, so they flew to Spokane, Washington (site of the 1974 World's Fair), to see the environmentally themed Man Belongs to Earth at the US Pavilion. The enormous screen and images of aerial shots over the Grand Canyon were exciting. "Jim and I got really pumped," MacGillivray recalls.

The filmmakers spent two years shooting and editing To Fly! for the Smithsonian. Then tragedy struck: Freeman was scouting locations for a Kodak commercial in California a few days before the premiere when he died in a helicopter crash. As a tribute, MacGillivray kept his partner's name as part of the company's name--MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF).

Despite the somber overtones surrounding the opening, the film was a tremendous success. So many people willingly paid 50 cents to see it during its first year that the museum staff felt guilty and decided to reduce the charge to 25 cents the next year. To Fly! is still playing at the Air and Space Museum 34 years later, and has grossed over $127 million over that time. Not a bad return on a $750,000 investment. "After museums heard about its success, every museum wanted an IMAX film," MacGillivray recalls. And he was "absolutely hooked."

But it took four more years for more theaters to be built and for him to deliver his next IMAX film, Behold Hawaii, which told the history of the islands that became the 50th US state. Others followed over the next two decades, and he assembled a core team early on, including camera operators, writers, producers and editors that make all of the MFF films.

Their 1996 film Everest was quite a challenge. "We hired the five best Sherpas in Nepal," says MacGillivray. Of course, they'd never taken a ten-person film crew up the mountain before. This expedition required extra planning because the technology is not only large and cumbersome, but to get the super-clear images, the film runs through the camera about three times normal speed--which means that one of the large loads gives you about three minutes of film, and the shorter ones only about a minute. So you have to plan what you're going to shoot, especially if you're in a remote location like the highest mountain on earth or under the Arctic ice. 

The struggle was worth it.  The completed film, Everest, has grossed over $148 million and is now the highest grossing documentary ever produced. Two others, The Living Sea and Dolphins, earned Academy Award nominations in the Documentary Short Subject category.

Each film comes with different obstacles that keep the experience fresh for MacGillivray. "It's like climbing a mountain," he explains. "It's that uncertainty that keeps you going as a mountain climber or a filmmaker." It's fun when it "gets you up in the middle of the night" because "you're thinking about how to solve some problem."

The team's next project is one of the most ambitious it has ever attempted: One World, One Ocean--a global education campaign centered around three IMAX films, eight hours of television programming, a feature-length documentary and a social media effort that will roll out over the next four years, starting in early 2012. The goal is to encourage support for the creation of national and international marine sanctuaries and raise awareness about the threats to the health of the ocean and its importance. There's a sense of urgency to this effort. The principal adviser to the project, oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle says, "The next ten years will determine the next 10,000."

The campaign is an outgrowth of the One World Ocean Foundation, which MacGillivray and his wife Barbara had started. They intend to fund conservation projects and prompt people to change the way we consider sea life that's been threatened by "over-fishing."

MacGillivray has no plans to coast on his laurels, and this won't be his last project. He's always looking for a new subject: "I was taught by Stanley Kubrick [for whom MacGillivray had shot the opening sequence of The Shining], who said, ‘Don't make the same film twice; challenge yourself.'"  

Look for To the Arctic either in December 2011 or January 2012, to be followed by One World Ocean: The Reef and One World Ocean: Humpback Whales. For more information about One World, One Ocean, visit


Michael Rose is a writer, director and producer.