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Taking Sports to the IMAX

By Greg MacGillivray

As a documentary filmmaker and a surfer, I have always looked at sports and the pursuit of physical excellence as the perfect metaphor for freedom and human expression in nature, a theme that has consistently worked its way into almost all of my films.

As a young kid growing up in Corona Del Mar, California in the late 1950s and '60s, my two biggest loves were surfing and the movies. At the time, it seemed only natural for me to pick up an 8mm camera so I could film the local action and entertain my surfing buddies. The challenge was getting the camera as close to the action as possible in order to give audiences the sensation of being right there on a surfboard of their own, riding the tube on the inside of a wave. I shot a lot of the footage from my own unsteady longboard, and you can imagine the wipeouts we had!

The audiences loved those early surf films, films like A Cool Wave of Color and Five Summer Stories, which gave me an understanding that would prove useful in what would become another great love of mine-70mm large-format filmmaking.

When I began making large-format IMAX@ theatre films in the early 1970s the format was still in its infancy. My late partner Jim Freeman and I knew that the format's crystal clear 15/70 perf images projected onto screens over 80 feet tall gave us the perfect opportunity to create a visceral cinematic experience unlike any the audience had ever had before. The key would be finding dramatic moments worthy of being projected onto these giant screens. The world of sports, with its dazzling performers of physical daring and poetry, became a rich source of stunning visual images for us to explore.

Working with the bulk of the typical 80-pound IMAX® camera created its own unique challenges, but still we managed to get that camera into some crazy situations for some hair raising scenes, all with the help of remarkable athletes. We sent the IMAX® camera racing down a ski-slope with a professional downhill ski racer for a scene in To The Limit.We sent it hurtling out of an airplane strapped to the chest of a sky-surfer for Adventures In Wild California, and we hauled it up to the summit of Mt. Everest with a team of renowned mountain climbers for Everest. These athlete-cinematographers came back with some of the most dramatic, awe-inspiring images of people pushing their physical limits that I have ever seen.

Large-format audiences crave this kind of visual drama, in fact it's what they've come to expect. It's what we call the "large-format experience" and it's what makes such ardent fans of large-format films. For me, personally, working with such gifted athletes and dedicated individuals has inspired me to continue pushing my own limits as a filmmaker and to keep on dreaming up new ideas that will keep the audience coming back again and again.


Greg MacGillivray has directed 24 large-format films and is the president of MacGillivray Freeman Films in Laguna Beach, California. In 1996, To Fly! was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry. In 1995, The Living Sea was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary/Short Subject, and in 1998, Everest became the first large-format film to hit the top ten box office chart. Everest is expected to become the highest grossing documentary in history. The company recently released Dolphins (March 2000), the third film in its Great Adventure Film Series, which will be followed by Journey Into Amazing Caves in March 2001. For more information, visit