Polarized lens: Greg MacGillivray focuses on dramatic changes for Arctic wildlife

For 40 years, MacGillivray Freeman has been the first name in large-format films. To the Arctic 3D, opening on April 20, marks the company's 35th IMAX production. Narrated by Meryl Streep, the Warner Bros. release documents changes to the Arctic that put polar bears, caribou and other wildlife at risk.

"When I first visited the Arctic, I thought, 'Wow, I never knew it was this gorgeous,'" director and cinematographer Greg MacGillivray tells me by telephone from his offices in Los Angeles. "People haven't really seen the size, the scale of the Arctic. There's never been an IMAX film about the Arctic, and I knew this would be a fantastic story."

MacGillivray and his team of 20 visited the Arctic on five separate shoots spread out over four years, working in all seasons. The director points out that research is just as important as location work. "We spent nine months on research, interviewing people and trying to figure out what the storyline should be," he says. "Naturalists, guides and scientists who were experienced in the area."

Climate change inevitably became a central component of the film. Since 1950, sea ice has decreased 40% in the summer, and the summer ice could be gone entirely by 2050. "The temperature there is rising twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth," MacGillivray warns. "You end up having to include climate change in any kind of story about the Arctic."

To the Arctic 3D skirts around the politics of climate change by presenting the story in personal terms as a drama of survival. We see walruses, a caribou herd, and in remarkable, close-up footage, polar bear mothers and cubs, all struggling with a changing environment. "Through the eyes of these animals, you get an understanding of how this warming trend impacts their daily lives," MacGillivray explains. "Everything up there is seasonally based, and with the permafrost melting, the Arctic Ocean thawing quicker and freezing later, the animals are having trouble adapting."

Capturing the animals and their habitats on film was unexpectedly difficult. "This was the harshest environment I've ever worked in," MacGillivray—the veteran of films like Hurricane on the Bayou and Everest—says. "The cameras don't like it, the batteries hate it. It's always subzero, and there's always the chance that the wind will come up and you're going to get down to minus-30 wind chills."

It took MacGillivray and his team four weeks to track down a caribou herd. They had actually given up and sent their equipment to the airport in Fairbanks when an aircraft service crew spotted the herd. The resulting aerial footage provides a magnificent view of the herd galloping across the tundra.

Famously camera-shy, the polar bears were even more difficult to film. Cinematographers Rob Cranston and Howard Hall donned heated scuba gear to take the 400-pound IMAX cameras underwater in order to film the bears swimming overhead. The scenes are astonishing, especially when a bear dives down to check out Cranston and his camera.

"You get underwater and after about 40 minutes your head is freezing, your hands are freezing, and you start to make mistakes," MacGillivray says. "And when you're below the ice pack, you don't want to lose sight of your escape hole—there's only one, and you can't lose where it is. Valves freeze up and all of a sudden you're not breathing and you've got to get to the surface. It's a tricky deal, it's not like diving in the Bahamas. It's probably the scariest thing you can do with a camera."

IMAX filmmaking brings its own sets of demands and challenges. A large film magazine will give MacGillivray and his crew three minutes of shooting time. Since it takes ten minutes to reload, they have to plan their shots carefully, anticipating how their subjects will move.
"It's become second-nature to me," MacGillivray says. "I started out shooting surfing movies, and you never wanted to be reloading when a set of big waves came in."

The director takes a different approach for IMAX than for a feature film or television. "The shots are longer, and you're shooting wider—wider lenses and wider scenes so that the audience experiences the material in a kind of interactive way. It's like how you see in normal life—you take in the entire scene north to south, as it were, and then you focus on particulars almost as if you're zooming your attention in on something.

"The same thing happens with IMAX. You're sitting before a big screen choosing where to look. That's what the audience loves about it. In a normal movie, the director controls what you look at. The shots don't last very long because you're getting the audience to look at specific things. An IMAX shot, on the other hand, can be 20 or 30 seconds long. The audience has time to look around the frame, see the birds flying in the distance, a flock of geese coming overhead, the wind whipping up in the background. The viewers aren't manipulated, they're experiencing it on their own terms."

MacGillivray believes this interactive experience is one reason why IMAX has maintained its popularity for over four decades. "And IMAX is growing by leaps and bounds in developing countries," he adds. "Particularly China. In five years, there will be over 200 IMAX theatres in China."

Over the years, MacGillivray Freeman has built up a network of collaborators. This is the third film Streep has narrated for the company (after The Living Ocean and Hurricane on the Bayou). "I knew I wanted a female narrator for To the Arctic 3D, and I thought Meryl would be perfect. Partly because of her delivery, what she can pull out of words. But mostly because she's a mother. That fit our main theme that being a mother in the Arctic is more difficult than ever."

Streep, for years a fan of both the IMAX process and MacGillivray Freeman films in particular, was working with a tight schedule. She narrated the film's trailer the Friday before the Academy Awards ceremony. After winning a Best Actress Oscar for The Iron Lady on Sunday night, she showed up at MacGillivray's offices on Monday morning to narrate the feature version. "I was sort of split between wanting her to win and not, because if she wins, she was going to go out and party all night," MacGillivray admits. "I was on the phone with her publicist to reschedule when I hear this cheery voice saying, 'I'm here.'"

The director wanted what he called "storytelling music" to back up To the Arctic 3D. Having worked with former Beatle George Harrison on Everest, he asked Harrison's widow Olivia to approach Paul McCartney to see if he would help. McCartney, a well-known animal-rights and environmental activist, offered a half-dozen songs, including titles such as "Little Willow" and "Maybe I'm Amazed." The music brings warmth and nostalgia to the imagery, as well as a sense of playfulness.

"As a director, you're always using tricks that will get an audience to connect to the subject more deeply," MacGillivray reveals. "To get the audience to be more emotional than they would normally be. Music helps the audience to listen harder and to appreciate the movie more."

To the Arctic 3D is being presented through the One World One Ocean Foundation. Founded by MacGillivray and his wife Barbara, the new initiative is intended to raise awareness of ocean issues through IMAX and feature films, television specials, YouTube videos and other social media. The director cites the work of Jacques Cousteau, who in the 1960s would broadcast as many as three or four ocean-related television specials a year. "The ocean needs a voice in the entertainment base, and we're going to try to bring the same continuity of effort that Cousteau did some 40 years ago," he says.

To that end, in its closing credits To the Arctic 3D offers concrete advice to viewers concerned about oceanic issues, especially with regard to energy.

MacGillivray Freeman's commitment to environmental problems has helped place the company at the forefront of large-format film production. Titles like Everest, Dolphins and Grand Canyon Adventure have earned over a billion dollars at the box office, a new benchmark for documentary filmmakers. To Fly, the company's first IMAX production, is still screened regularly at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

"We love to take moviegoers to where they're not able to go on their own—into outer space, to the bottom of the ocean, to the top of Mount Everest," MacGillivray says. From its opening shots, a majestic aerial view of a glacial shelf complete with calving icebergs, To the Arctic 3D more than fulfills that goal.