Interview with Greg and Shaun MacGillivray
This father and son IMAX filmmaking team are launching the biggest ocean conservation media campaign in history. Their first venture? The 3D IMAX film 'To The Arctic,' currently at Edwards Irvine Spectrum IMAX theater.
|Make a Difference
Find out how to contribute to the world’s
oceans through One World One Ocean,
or go see Greg and Shaun MacGillivray’s
film To the Arctic for a first-hand account
of our changing climate seen through
the experiences of a polar bear family.
World-renowned IMAX filmmaker Greg MacGillivray made his first film in high school and by the time he was a freshman in college, after four years of shooting, he was ready to release it theatrically. But unlike his films of today, his first film, a beautifully shot surf movie called A Cool Wave of Color, was anything but a major event. In fact, it was a family affair when he took it on the road in 1964, renting out theaters from Hawaii to San Diego and narrating it live with a mic.
“I couldn’t afford the $3,000 for a soundtrack,” he says with a laugh. His parents not only supported his decision to take a year off school to tour with his film, they came along for the ride.
“My parents were super supportive,” he says. “They came to every screening, regardless of where it was, just to help me. They’d help me sell tickets, then collect tickets at the door. My sister helped run the projector and my grandmother would watch the exits to make sure no surfers snuck in for free."
That first film was a success. Still, MacGillivray went back to school to study physics for one year. Then he left again. His second film, The Performers, was even more of a hit. “So I just kept doing it,” says MacGillivray of his decision to become a full-time filmmaker.
And while the soft-spoken, universally liked lifelong Laguna local did do a lot of work for Hollywood productions over the years, he never “went all Hollywood.” To the contrary, he stuck to his true love: making films that both entertain and educate his audience about nature. Becoming a pioneer of the 70mm IMAX film format, over the past 40 years, MacGillivray has ventured to some of the most remote, difficult places in the world to bring back images that will forever play in the minds of his audience. From the summit of Everest to the depths of the oceans and the middle of deserts, MacGillivray has survived some of the harshest environments on earth to get the shot. And he’s been rewarded with two Academy Award nominations, major commercial success and a passport filled with colorful stamps.
His life of cinematic adventure has also strengthened that love for the ocean that made him pick up a camera as a teen and film his friends riding waves. It’s a reverence for the oceans of the world that has led him to his most ambitious effort yet: the launch of the One World One Ocean (OWOO) nonprofit campaign to help bring awareness to and protect what many consider our most valuable resource: the ocean.
The campaign is a $100 million, multi-year effort that will produce IMAX movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, social media, classroom presentations, books... just about every medium short of claymation.
By partnering with leading NGOs, such as World Wildlife Fund, Oceana and many others, the goal is to make OWOO the world’s largest ocean conservation media campaign. As MacGillivray says, it’ll be IMAX to iPhones. And the effort has already begun with the premier of To The Arctic 3D, which will play at Edwards Irvine Spectrum 21 and IMAX April 20 through May 10. It’s a touching and poignant IMAX 3D film that follows a polar bear and her two cubs as they struggle to survive in their changing arctic environment.
It’s a fitting theme, this one of family, for just like MacGillivray’s start in filmmaking, the OWOO effort is also a family affair.
MacGillivray’s son, Shaun, a USC film school grad and producer and managing director at MacGillivray Freeman Films, served as a producer on To The Arctic and will help manage the OWOO campaign.
We spoke to the father and son team about the rigors of filming in what might be the harshest environment on the planet, why we should care about the oceans, polar bears and fish stocks, and how they plan to make getting involved really fun.
What were some of the challenges in making To The Arctic?
Greg: It’s just not an easy or pleasant place to go, especially for filmmaking. You’re going into an area where half of the year is dark. The temperature is minus 30 to 40, with howling winds. Even in the summer, there are sub-zero temperatures. So we had to build winterized cameras, we had to have batteries built from lithium and placed in heated containers. Electric cords and film would get brittle and break. Cameras would break.
And IMAX cameras make it harder?
Shaun: Much harder. The camera is three to four times as heavy. They only film three minutes per load. Then it takes another 10 minutes to exchange the film. It costs $1,000 per minute. Then you start working with wildlife and it stacks up as a very difficult feat.
Yes, the animals. Wildlife filmmaking is notoriously rigorous. Was the arctic true to that?
Greg: Definitely. The wildlife is spread out because the food sources are spread out, unlike Africa where the animals are all bunched together. Plus, there are very few animals. The polar bear population of the world is only 20,000. There are more people in Laguna. And they’re spread out all across Russia, the north pole, Canada, Alaska, Norway, Denmark, Greenland. It’s a huge area. So it’s hard to find them.
So how did you find them?
Shaun: In Norway, we were on a 120-foot icebreaker in the extreme cold, and found about 300 polar bears in an area the size of two miles. We were able to accompany this mother polar bear and her two cubs for five days straight. Nobody had ever gotten that access before. And we got a really emotional story about how difficult it is to survive when you’re a polar bear family dealing with an environment that’s changing every day.
How is it changing?
Greg: The arctic is warming twice as fast as everywhere else on the planet. The ice cap is melting from both the top, due to the sun, and from the bottom because the ocean is warming. Because the ocean is dark, relative to the ice, it absorbs the sun’s heat. When the ice cap is there, 70% to 80% of the heat is reflected back into the atmosphere.
And it’s been happening for some time?
Shaun: This has been happening for at least the past 30 years. If you look at NOAA’s reports from satellite, you see how it has changed every year, getting less and less ice during the summer in the polar ice cap. We show it in the film. Where we went, 25 years ago, there would have been tons of ice. Now there isn’t that much, and the ice that is there has blown together, so all the polar bears are on these last places for them to be able to hunt. That’s why we were able to see so many.
Why did you focus on polar bears to tell the story of the arctic?
Shaun: Polar bears are an iconic animal. They resonate with people the way many other forms of wildlife in the arctic don’t. So we use that in the film to draw people emotionally in and fall in love with them and want to protect their habitat, the arctic. It’s hard to get people to care enough to take action to protect a place. In this film I think we tap into that emotional level so they will care enough to take the next step to try to protect this incredible habitat, which is one of the last truly wild places on this planet.
To The Arctic is the first IMAX film in your multi-year One World One Ocean campaign. What is the inspiration behind the OWOO campaign?
Greg: Because the ocean looks nice on the surface, the devastation is invisible to most people. They’re not really thinking about the impact we’re having on the depths of the ocean. I feel they should know, that they have to know, so we don’t deplete this valuable resource. Fifty to 70% of the oxygen that we breathe comes from the ocean – from plankton and other plants of the ocean. If we ruin or damage that habitat, we may suffer consequences that are unknown right now. So before it’s too late and everything is gone, we’re trying to convey to the public how wonderful the ocean is, and why we should protect certain areas of it before we damage it irreparably.
Can people see the harm on a local scale?
Greg: Definitely. We’ve taken 90% of the big fish out, mostly through overfishing, and I see this in my backyard when I snorkel, which I do almost every day during the summer. I’ve been doing it in the same location for 40 years. In those 40 years, there’s almost a 90% depletion of large fish, 90% depletion of schooling fish of any size bigger than two inches long. Where we used to have schools of various fish of a foot or more, those are all gone from Laguna now. The difference is really dramatic and obvious.
For us of course, it’s a loss of beauty. For many around the world, the loss is more profound.
Shaun: That’s right. A billion people, mostly poor people, get their main source of protein from the fish they catch and eat. We’re losing at a very quick rate the ability to be able to feed them because we’re over-fishing by so much. There are a lot of things we can do to reverse that trend. The most important thing right now is to make people aware of how important the ocean is.
How will One World One Ocean work?
Greg: Through education and entertainment. We’re part of a greater effort, which is conducted by 50 to 100 NGOs, like Oceana and World Wildlife Fund, which do good work to try to get governments and individuals to work to protect the ocean. Our job is to get the public interested enough so that it becomes an easier job for them. We have to tell them what’s wrong and how we can fix it, and our medium is everything from IMAX films to iPhone content. So we’re building this 20-year campaign to try to make that difference.
Are you hopeful that we can turn things around?
Shaun: I have complete hope that we can reverse this. And I think we do a good job in our film of not having it be all doom and gloom. It’s inspirational and people can make a difference by making small changes. That’s our most compelling message in the film. And we provide a lot of resources if they want to be part of the solution. For instance, with To The Arctic, we have a great campaign with World Wildlife Fund and Coca-Cola where people can donate to a fund for a protected area for the polar bear in Canadian high arctic.
You’ve said there’s a void of good wildlife and ocean documentaries. Why?
Greg: Part of the reason is that TV stations are driven by ratings. And they get their best ratings from shows like "Ice Road Trucker" or "Create Your Own Motorcycle" – male-oriented shows focused on young men. That’s what National Geographic and Discovery Channel have gone for. So there are very few high quality nature documentaries now. Those blue chip shows have almost disappeared. We’re trying to fill that void with even higher quality documentaries about the ocean.
You’ve put in $10 million of your own money. So you believe in this?
Greg: I completely believe in it. And I think the public will believe in it once they gain more information. If we make these films as good as we made our other films – and I think they’ll be better – we’ll be able to reach over a billion people in the next 10 years. That can make a difference.
What do you say to people who don’t believe in global warming or that man has any role in climate change?
Greg: Over time, people will understand that reading a thermometer is a very easy thing, and [thermometers] show us that the planet is warming. Whether or not it’s due to our industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels is the question that most people have. But [nearly] 98% of scientists feel that [humans] have a significant impact on that. I don’t want to battle the oil companies, who have a vested interest in confusing people on the topic. Instead, I want to educate people to conserve energy, and believe that’s an important thing to do for many reasons, including but not solely for climate change. One of the strongest motivators, for instance, is saving money. And I don’t think anyone will deny that clean air is an important thing and that burning less fuel is good for that. So I am completely hopeful and optimistic that we can change things for the better.