MacGillivray Freeman Film’s large-format IMAX feature The Living Sea.

You are surrounded by an ocean of indescribably rich blue, the surface still visible many yards above. Suddenly, from all around you, a perfectly symmetrical bubble ring appears. This watery circle within the ocean calmly drifts upward and begins to expand around you. You follow it slowly, gracefully, until the circle seems to finally disappear. With beautiful oceanic sounds enhancing your environment, you experienced all of this without getting wet. But that doesn’t mean that you wore a wetsuit. You have been witness to Dolphins, the latest offering from MacGillivray Freeman Films, one of the premiere producers of large-format movies. And, like a growing number of movie viewers, you thought it worthwhile to visit a special theater to view this spectacle, likely on a 70-foot high by 100-foot wide screen, with six channels of surround sound. It is a cinematic experience you will surely want to have again.

The name that most often arises when discussing the large-format film industry is IMAX, a Toronto-based hardware company which chiefly provides theaters with its specialized film projectors, in addition to producing the films and constructing the cameras with which they are photographed. IMAX works in the world of 70mm film, unlike most theatrical feature films, which predominantly deal in 35mm film. The obvious benefit of an IMAX production is that the size of the film is 10 times greater than that of most movies. IMAX’s format constitutes 15 perforations per frame of film, compared with the standard four perforations for a frame of 35mm film. Also, the film runs through its cameras and projectors horizontally on a "rolling loop," allowing a much greater area of exposure and a smoother presentation of the selected image. The result is a breathtaking combination of size and clarity in both sound and picture.

Inarguably, large-format films are a significant presence in today’s moviemaking world. With over 300 large-format theaters in existence, the medium has gained considerable ground in its 33-year history. "It’s a completely new way of making movies," said Greg MacGillivray, co-founder of MacGillivray Freeman Films and Dolphins’ director. "It is so different from a 35mm feature film that a filmmaker has to throw away all his preconceived ideas and learn again. The audience comes to an IMAX theater expecting something that’s bigger, more experiential, and more thrilling than a normal movie experience. Since the audience looks at it differently, the filmmaker has to consider the medium in a completely new and different light."

To Fly.

THE HISTORY  In 1967, the IMAX Corporation built the first large-format projector for the Montreal EXPO, followed in 1970 by the first camera. At the time, Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman were partners, having graduated from self-produced surfing films to specialized sequences in mainstream features and TV commercials, including a great deal of helicopter photography. "Our own films were so different," recalled MacGillivray, "that they got a lot of press and attention in Hollywood. The first thing that we did in large-format was a Cinerama film for Mazda Motors in 1973. Cinerama was a three-screen format where you shoot with three cameras and the image is projected on three screens which overlap. We later did a Circle-Vision film on China, which involved nine cameras and nine screens! It still plays at Disney’s Epcot Center at the Chinese Pavilion. We have always been a company that’s tried to use strange formats better—how to amaze an audience with something technically new, but also with strong storytelling content."

MacGillivray Freeman’s efforts led to their first IMAX film, To Fly, in 1976. At the time, the IMAX Corporation had only two large-format cameras. Built in 1970-71, those first-generation units were somewhat crude and weighed 80 pounds each. "On To Fly, we were shooting scenes that would take the format another big step," said MacGillivray, "so we paid IMAX to build three new cameras with better specifications. Then, Jim and I studied every IMAX film that had been made—there had only been 12. We tried to put the audience into the action, much like our surfing films had done." Playing exclusively at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, To Fly became the highest- grossing documentary and IMAX film of all time and helped the IMAX Corporation build more theaters. "The Smithsonian has grossed around $50 million with that one film," said MacGillivray. "It took a while for the word to get around that they were doing so well with To Fly. Then, starting in 1980, every museum in the world wanted an IMAX theater."

Amazingly, at that time, only three other IMAX theaters existed: in San Diego, St. Paul and Spokane. With the success of To Fly, IMAX theaters rapidly began construction across the U.S and Canada and eventually in 22 other countries. Sadly, Jim Freeman was killed in an accident shortly before To Fly’s 1976 release, and was never able to share in the phenomenon he helped create. Greg MacGillivray has faithfully carried the torch they both lit: MacGillivray Freeman Films followed To Fly with Behold Hawaii in 1983 and has been the leading IMAX creator with over 20 productions.

Other independent filmmakers began to make large-format productions during this period as well. In 1985, director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson made Chronos, a spectacular non-narrative IMAX film which relied on imagery and soundtrack to tell its story. Additionally, over the past 20 years, the IMAX Corporation itself has engaged in filmmaking and distribution, with titles including T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998) and Titanica (1992). 3-D has even entered the picture, with films like T-Rex and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Wings of Courage presenting the medium in an even more spectacular manner.

Currently, around 200 brand name IMAX theaters are in operation. With few exceptions, all are independently owned and operated, though IMAX projectors are installed in every theater bearing their name. In 1999, around 24 IMAX films went into production, and the number is only expected to grow in coming years. What’s more, companies such as iWERKS Entertainment and filmmakers such as special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull have produced numerous large-format "ride films" over the last 20 years. Typically stationed at amusement parks and Las Vegas theme attractions, ride films—which are rarely longer than five to 10 minutes, and are more driven by thrills than narrative—have become very popular with audiences. It seems that the only obstacle to creating large-format productions is its perception as being a specialized experience. "Not every subject lends itself to this type of treatment," said MacGillivray. "That’s not to say that some films could not be made in the format and benefit from it, but I believe it’s going to take at least 500-600 theaters before the financial equation makes it worthwhile to do a feature in the IMAX format. That might be another 10 years."

THE TECHNOLOGY  In the 1950s, to compete with television, movie theaters began to advertise the concept of "widescreen." In essence, Hollywood introduced a method of shooting and projecting anamorphic 35mm film—it was called Cinemascope. Basically, theaters could show a widescreen picture—first by building a wider screen—but still use their 35mm projectors; with Cinemascope’s anamorphic technology, the 35mm image was projected "wide" across the screen.

Though the novelty of Cinemascope died off, filmmakers began experimenting with larger film formats by graduating to 70mm film negatives and prints.

The breakthrough idea behind large-format films lies in the basic physics of film: 70mm is twice as large as 35mm film—clear enough. But taking the concept further: rather than utilizing the width of the frame as the width of the image on the screen, 70mm film is run horizontally through both camera and projector to achieve a larger film frame, using the width of the film as the height of the frame. In the IMAX format, with 15 perforations for one frame, as opposed to other 70mm formats, every frame is two inches tall by two and three-quarter inches wide, which makes it ten times larger than a 35mm frame. Eight-perf 70mm, another popular 70mm format, is half of the overall size of 15-perf 70mm. "Most Hollywood feature films are 4-perf 35mm with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1," MacGillivray explained. "David Lean’s films Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, and Lawrence of Arabia were all shot in 5-perf 70mm. Our films are all shot in 15-perf 70mm, with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the same proportion as a TV screen. That allows us to reduce to TV-video formats very easily."

Of utmost importance in creating a large-format film is adapting the camera technology to the needs of the filmmaker. While IMAX has leased cameras to various filmmakers, production companies like MacGillivray Freeman Films have supervised the construction of their own cameras. "We built the finest studio camera, the W-4, in 1987," said MacGillivray. "It’s about 100 pounds and is hard to use in the field, but it is the quietest, steadiest, and has the best optics for shooting in IMAX." For optimum results, many IMAX films like Dolphins use "fisheye," or anamorphic lenses—the 30mm and 40mm variety—and are shot at 24 to 48 frames per second.

Needless to say, you must have enormous cameras to run a large film format. The camera taken to the top of Mt. Everest for MacGillivray Freeman’s Everest weighed 42 pounds; in 1990, MFF developed the lightest possible IMAX format camera for Steadicam use and special shots. "It weighs 25 pounds, but only shoots a minute and a half of film," said MacGillivray. "It’s unreliable and fragile because it’s light. We also built a high-speed camera that we owned in conjunction with IMAX that ran 110 frames-per-second. Of course, it was about zero degrees on top and the wind chill factor was -30°, so the camera and equipment were weather-ized down to -40°."

For both Chronos and their large-format followup, Baraka, Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson constructed cameras that would execute complex time-lapse motion-control shots that were the centerpieces of those projects. "Our camera on Baraka electronically moved the film at a maximum frame rate of one frame per second," said Magidson. "The film magazine was two 35mm Arriflex magazines that were cut off and welded together to hold a 65mm negative, the negative size that makes a 70mm print. Ron designed it, and my company manufactured it in aluminum." Baraka, which was shot in 5-perf 70mm and theatrically distributed in 1992, has recently been released on VHS and DVD. (see MM #37—ed)

Finally, a vital element in realizing large-format films is in their ultimate manipulation and output. Typical feature films are processed, work-printed, and released in their original medium, for example, 35mm. With large-format films, this entire procedure is specialized. For Chris Reyna and Imagica USA, dealing with 70mm negatives is second nature. Reyna is a veteran large-format consultant on films such as Chronos and is president of the Large Format Cinema Association. He supervises 80 percent of all the visual effects for large-format films at the Marina del Rey area-based Imagica USA. First, most 70mm films are processed and printed at labs like Consolidated Film Industries (CFI) in Hollywood. Then, Reyna’s company will take the negative and create whatever effects or conversion to other film formats the moviemaker requires. Reyna cites a key example in the history of large-format films: "Using an optical printer, we converted the 15-perf negative of Chronos to 8-perf, which was a more readily available format as far as projectors were concerned," Reyna said. "That started a market that is now thriving. Sixty-five to 70 percent of all 15-perf films are now cross-printed to 8-70. Usually, the rule is that if it has commercial potential, it is converted. Many distributors are now marketing 8-70 at the same time they are releasing a film in 15-70, because some locations only have 8-70 theaters." The last step in the process is negative cutting, which is done at David Keeley Productions (DKP), a brand-new facility in Santa Monica with three IMAX screening rooms for viewing 15-perf 70mm prints.

Presently, Imagica also utilizes a revolutionary machine called Bigfoot, a 70mm digital film scanner which allows the company to bring frames of film into the digital world for various types of effects enhancement. Then, using digital film recorders, Imagica is able to output the digitized film to virtually any film format in existence. "We do 98 percent of the format conversions from 15-perf 70mm to 8-70 and to 10-70 in the world," Reyna said, noting that IMAX films might one day require routine "cross-printing" so that they can play in standard 35mm theaters. "There haven’t been that many films that require conversion from 15-perf 70mm to 4-perf 35mm. That market doesn’t exist yet, but it will very likely exist in the near future."

THE FILMS  "Our films are drawing about 15 percent of the population," Greg MacGillivray explained. "That group is very homogeneous in their makeup: very well-educated, affluent, and interested in educational topics. They come to an IMAX theater two to three times a year, whereas they may go to other films 10 to 12 times a year. I don’t think we’re going to get them to come more often. They look at it as something special—like going to a Broadway play or a ballet; they do it once or twice a year because they love the experience, but it’s not something that they want to do every week."

Understanding that reality of the large-format audience is crucial to the modus operandi of the 30 filmmakers who are continually working in the medium. "We distribute and market all of our films," said Alec Lorimore, vice-president of production and development for MacGillivray-Freeman Films. "Therefore, in addition to the educational criteria that the museum theaters are looking for—and they are the majority of the potential market for these films—we are looking for something that is uniquely benefited by the large-format medium, a story that wouldn’t be the same if you saw it on TV, for example. Whereas 10 years ago, there was a much lower bar in terms of what kind of content was required for an IMAX film; people are demanding more from a large-format film today. They’re looking for better content, stronger characters, better stories. It is pretty hard to satisfy all the criteria." As such, Lorimore and MFF are planning the Great Adventure film series—a 10-film plan starting with this spring’s Dolphins. In March, 2001, MFF will debut Journey into Amazing Caves, followed by Coral Reef Adventure in 2002.

Directing Caves will be MFF’s vice-president of production and post-production, Stephen Judson, who has edited every MFF IMAX film since 1983, including Dolphins and The Living Sea, the company’s first foray into the ocean. "One of the things that’s different about an IMAX film is that so much of it is about the experience of the shot," said Judson. "We try to select shots that will allow the audience to get the feeling that they are in a place that they couldn’t otherwise go to. When we do find such shots, we tend to build sequences around them rather than building scenes around a performance. Then, we tend to want to let those shots play."

In assembling films like Caves, Dolphins, and Everest—for which he went on the expedition and wrote the narration, in addition to producing and editing—Judson’s criteria for his large-format productions are a good summary of the genre. "Our films are a hybrid between features, dramatic films, and documentaries," he noted. "Photographically, we tend to achieve a style that’s very smooth and closer to features. In other ways, the films have the feel of a documentary. We have a script, but things happen on location, so there’s a fair amount of surprises in terms of what we are actually going to shoot. It’s nice to have more of a spontaneous feel to the camerawork—it always adds to the verité feel." MM

Scott Essman tells us he saw Chronos on a regular basis while at USC in the mid-1980s. He has written on several specialty topics for MM, most recently "The State of the Art in Animation," last issue. You can write to him at visionary, or send your comments to