To The Arctic, being released exclusively in IMAX theaters on April 20th, is a stunning documentary adventure that takes audiences on an extraordinary journey to the top of the world while revealing a compelling tale of survival. Narrated by Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, and with songs by Paul McCartney, the film’s stars are a mother polar bear and her twin cubs who must navigate the quickly changing Arctic wilderness, in a way that is more up-close-and-personal than has ever been seen before.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, director Greg MacGillivray and his son, producer Shaun MacGillivray, talked about the challenges of making IMAX nature documentaries, how they are always blown away by the beauty of nature and the natural wonders of the world, being surprised by how curious and intelligent polar bears truly are, having moments out in the wild where they feel like they’re in danger, the emotional connection that artists like Meryl Streep and Paul McCartney add to the film, how once-in-a-lifetime experiences change the way you see and appreciate the world around you, and their One World One Ocean campaign initiative that’s been created to inspire people to protect the ocean. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Collider: Shaun, was it just always a given that you would go into the family business, or did you come to this path on your own?
SHAUN MacGILLIVRAY: I was lucky enough that I got to go on location with my dad, with the film crew, since I was two, so I got to experience all these incredible places, meet new people and see wildlife in a way that most people don’t get to. I caught the film bug early. The big thing for me was that not only did I love the craft of filmmaking, but being exposed to so many different cultures and wildlife, I really loved the fact that you could not only create emotional storytelling but storytelling that could actually inspire people to want to protect the planet and the ocean. That’s why I’m so excited to be working with my dad on this.
What were your specific duties on this film?
SHAUN: For this film, I was a producer on it. My job is to find the stories, find where to go, do the research, do the logistics, be there on location, and do as much as possible for us to get the footage that we need to make an incredible film. There are major challenges, when it comes to making a film in the Arctic. It is difficult to make IMAX films, in general, because we’re filming for a giant screen, so we’re using 400-pound IMAX cameras and we’re using film that’s 10 times bigger than 35mm. You have about three minutes per roll, and then you have to reload, and it’s 10 to 15 minutes to reload. And, it costs about a thousand dollars per minute. So, when you’re filming wildlife and that wildlife doesn’t necessarily take direction, you can spend a lot of time waiting, where you’re debating whether or not you should press the record button because it costs a lot of money. But, in the end, we were able to get probably the most amazing footage I’ve ever seen, being up close and personal with a polar bear family. We were lucky enough that this took four years of filming in the Arctic, eight months time period, over those four years, and it wasn’t until the last expedition, when we went to Svalbard, Norway, just 90 degrees south of the North Pole, where we found our main characters. We were able to be with them for five days straight and really get a sense of what it was like to be a polar bear family in an environment that’s changing rapidly, every day.
When it’s so much more difficult to shoot for IMAX, why is it so important for you to do it for these films?
SHAUN: We’ve been making IMAX films for the last 35 years. Many of those films have been on conservations. What I love about IMAX is that, when you’re in an IMAX theater, in a museum, science center or aquarium, it’s eight stories tall and it’s immersive, and you can see it in 3D, you really feel like you’re being transported to that place. It’s difficult to have that feeling, if you don’t film the proper way. So, using the most incredible cameras and film, where it looks so sharp on that giant screen, and the color, resolution and clarity are so good, it gives you that extra umph to be able to get audiences to feel like they’re there and inspire them to care about the Arctic. That was the mission of the film. We want people to walk out of the theater, so emotionally connected to this wildlife that they want to do something afterwards. We’ve partnered with WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, in helping them through our One World One Ocean campaign. You can go to our website at www.OneWorldOneOcean.org and audiences can donate to this protected area for the polar bears that WWF is creating.
Greg, with all the years that you’ve spent making these films, are you still always surprised by the beauty that surrounds us? Is it something that you’re always struck by, no matter how long you do it?
GREG MacGILLIVRAY: Yeah, after shooting movies since I was 12, I’m still blown away by the beauty of nature, of the natural wonders of the world, and of the ways to actually photograph it in new dimensions, and not just 3D, but using new lighting, new camera techniques, new helicopters, gyro-stabilized mounts, underwater cameras, and all that stuff that we have enjoyed co-developing with other people. We have new tools that can give the audience a sense of not only being there, which is the key element in an IMAX film, but also seeing things in a way that they won’t see on television or in feature films. We spend a lot of time on our films, making sure they’re surprising and original, and not just something that people see as commonplace.
Were you surprised by how curious and intelligent these polar bears are, especially when it came to your cameras?
GREG: I didn’t know they were curious. I didn’t know they were as smart. There are movie bears. There was one called Bart, that was in The Bear by Jean-Jacques Annaud, so you know that they’re probably smarter than dogs and cats. But, when we were up there filming these wild animals, and being with them for five days in a row and being able to watch them, 24 hours a day, through telescopes and binoculars, and then photograph them with telephoto and wide-angle lenses, you really get a sense of what their lifestyle is and what they have to go through and how intelligent they are. This mother polar bear, for example, made the choice not to try to get away from our boat. She sensed that we were not going to do her any harm, so she didn’t use up any heat and energy getting away from us. That energy conservation is something that she knows she has to do, every day of her life, and that’s what she tries to teach to her cubs. They have to make a choice about whether they really have to run away from the male polar bear or is he just going to walk on by, or when they jump in the water and get cold and lose energy by doing so to catch a seal. All of the cool little choices that she makes, and hopefully her cubs will learn to make, were really fascinating to us. I wrote up a three or four page log of observations afterward because I knew that what we were treated to, by being next to these three animals for five days was unique. It was just a delight, being so close to them.
Being out in the wild and in these environments, do you guys ever have moments where you feel uncomfortable or like you’re in danger?
SHAUN: Yeah, all the time. There are always those moments. The interesting thing for us, when we were up there on this icebreaker, was watching this polar bear mom teach her cubs how to survive in this difficult land, we knew that seeing these cubs and how cuddly they were and how they kept playing with each other almost looks like it’s two of your pet dogs playing with each other.
GREG: We didn’t expect that. I never expected to see that kind of activity. I see exactly the same thing, where the male cub is nipping at his mother’s heels. Our dog does that. I never expected to see them stretch. I got this great shot of the mom stretching her back out, as she gets up in the morning, and then the little cub did exactly the same thing, right after that. When I got that shot, with this film camera that didn’t run out of film in the middle of the shot, I went, “Oh, my god, that’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve been shooting movies for 50 years.” That was one of those moments that gives you a chill. You’re just watching nature at its finest.
SHAUN: They’re the most cuddly animals, but you know that, if you fell off that boat, that mom would race over and eat you, and serve you to her cubs. They’re so cuddly, but they’re also ferocious. They’re at the top of the food chain.
What does it add to the film to have someone like Meryl Streep narrate it and to have the music of Paul McCartney to add another layer to it?
GREG: It’s a stamp of approval, for sure. For me, it also adds emotional resonance to the storytelling. I’ve been using famous songs, and famous songwriters and singers, in our films for about 17 years, and the reason is that, unlike generic or score music, because people have heard McCartney’s voice and Meryl Streep’s voice, over and over again, and usually in positive situations because they’re such artists, I can then benefit from that association. The warmth that McCartney’s voice brings to his songs, the way he phrases, what he writes about, and the melodies that are simple and memorable – he’s probably the best melody writer in the past 100 years – give a feeling of serenity and emotional connection. All the time and trouble that we go to, to engage Paul McCartney and Meryl Streep, is worth it. It takes us a lot of time to do it. It requires more money and a lot of sacrifice, on our part, but it adds to the movie in a major fashion, over and above just using a normal narrator and a regular movie score.
Do you guys know what you’ll be shooting next? Do you already have your next subject lined up?
SHAUN: Yeah, so what we’ve done is launch the One World One Ocean campaign initiative that’s the largest multi-platform campaign ever, to inspire people to protect the ocean. It’s three IMAX films, a feature film, a nine-part TV series, and hundreds of online videos and educational resources, over the next five years. It’s a sustained media campaign. We’re going to be doing this for the next 20 years, with incredible footage, incredible stories and educational resources, and then partnering with NGOs that are out there, actually doing the amazing work to protect the ocean and giving the opportunity for people that want to get involved, who see the film and get emotionally connected, to help the ocean and make it a place that my kid, when he’s my age, can say, “Oh, my gosh, there’s still this incredible marine wildlife there. The ocean is still as great as it was, when my dad first started.”
GREG: And our great, great, great grandchildren. It will be a pity, if what we’ve been able to see, in our lifetime, disappears. Our mission is to do whatever we can, while we’re here on this planet, to help that be preserved.
When you have incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences like this, how does it change the way you see and appreciate the world around you? Does it make it so that you can’t ever really look at it the same again?
SHAUN: You’re absolutely right, it does. It makes you appreciate the natural wonders of the world, much more than somebody who wouldn’t get to experience it. That’s what we’re trying to do. That is our mission. Most people won’t get to experience the Arctic like we did, but they can come to an IMAX theater and experience it, and fall in love with that wildlife that we were able to see firsthand, and come out of the theater and actually say, “I want to do something about this. I want to help this wildlife.” For us, it’s a major passion of ours. When it comes to the ocean, my dad started making surf films, back in the 1960s. I grew up by the ocean and have seen how our reef, right outside of our house, has changed over time. If we can get that educational message to more people and get them inspired to protect it, then we can do our job.