When you think of film producers whose movies have grossed $1 billion, the usual suspects come to mind: James Cameron, Ron Howard, Jerry Bruckheimer. Add to that list a humble surfer dude from Southern California named Greg MacGillivray. In 1963, MacGillivray cofounded the Imax documentary studio MacGillivray Freeman Films. Since then, Laguna Beach–based MFF has made 35 large-format features, including Everest and To Fly, which has been running at the Smithsonian for 36 years. Today, Greg’s 32-year-old son, Shaun, is carrying the Imax banner as MFF’s producer and managing director. In 2010, Shaun helped launch One World One Ocean, an environmental campaign using the power of film to inspire people to protect the seas. The project’s first Imax film, To the Arctic 3D, premiered in April. Walker recently caught up with Shaun in Laguna Beach, just after the filmmaker returned from an underwater shoot off Costa Rica’s remote Cocos Island, to talk about the future of Imax and hear the stories behind some of MFF’s most exotic shoots.
How was Costa Rica?
Amazing. Cocos Island is a marine reserve in the Pacific, 340 miles off the coast. I shot from a submarine for the first time, and the film crew went down more than 1,000 feet. Most people don’t realize it, but that’s where most underwater life exists. Occasionally, a ragged-tooth shark, hammerhead, or manta ray would dart through, but the most amazing thing was these brilliant flashes of bioluminescence that would light up every 20 minutes or so like fireworks displays.
Tips on shooting below 1,000 feet?
Don’t drink coffee before going in a sub.
You’ve worked in all kinds of environments. Why the massive commitment to ocean filmmaking and conservation?
The ocean sustains all life as we know it. It produces more oxygen than all the rainforests combined.
One World One Ocean is billed as a 20-year effort. That’s a long haul.
A lot of ocean campaigns last six months or a year, and then everyone forgets about it. We want to do something people can’t ignore. In the next five years, we’re making three Imax films, a feature film, an eight-part television series, and hundreds of online segments. We’re investing $10 million ourselves, and profits go toward ocean-focused educational grants, conservation, and fellowships. We’re going to be slammed, but that’s what we want.
Your dad towed you around the world while making films. What’s your first memory from a set?
I was three, and my dad was shooting a scene with a trained tiger in Northern California. When the cat saw me, he got this look in his eyes. He wanted to eat me. The trainer saw what was happening, so he screamed at someone to lock me in the car. I don’t know if I was more upset about nearly being eaten or missing out on the scene.
Why do you guys shoot everything in Imax? It’s such a challenging format.
It’s a love-hate relationship. Imax cameras are by far the best way to capture images for the giant screen. But they shoot only three minutes of film at a time, they take 15 minutes to reload, and they weigh 400 pounds. An Imax film costs $1,000 a minute. Every time you press the record button, it’s hundreds of dollars. This isn’t conventional wildlife filmmaking, where you press record and see what happens. You learn to anticipate, or you lose a lot of money.
I’m guessing you’ve seen some pretty scary FedEx bills.
Seriously. You ever ship 5,000 pounds of film equipment to the Arctic? Twenty-five grand. That’s just for one shoot.