Imax to lense panda pic

'Adventure' focuses on woman who brought animals west

Those preternaturally cuddly and cute giant pandas are going to be truly giant in size, as Imax puts them on its very big screens in “Panda Adventure,” set to start shooting in China in April.

Pic is loosely based on the real-life story of Ruth Harkness, a New York dress designer who, after her husband died while studying pandas in China in the 1930s, traveled there to retrieve his ashes and wound up bringing the first live giant panda out of China to the West.

“Panda Adventure” mixes drama with spectacle and is in 2-D, rather than 3-D, like such Imax outings as “Wings of Courage,” and thus reps an effort to expand Imax’s reach in the storytelling area. Imax is hoping the film will work in commercial bigscreen venues as well as the museum locations that favor science and travelogue films.

“We’re not targeting any particular segment of our theater group,” said Andy Gellis, Imax senior vice president. “It’s an adventure intended to have broad appeal.”

Film’s helmer is Robert M. Young (“Dominick and Eugene,” “Extremities”), with a script from Jeanne Rosenberg, who co-wrote “The Black Stallion.”

Producers are Antoine Compin and Charis Horton, who also produced “T-Rex” and “Wings of Courage” for Imax. Associate producer is Michael McDermott, who has produced pics in China and worked with top helmers there such as Zhang Yimou.

Producers sought A-list actresses for the lead but found star salaries too big for their budget of about $7 million. Casting is ongoing.

“Panda Adventure” will shoot for nine weeks in China, starting on a backlot in Shanghai, then moving to rural Sichuan Province, to shoot with actual giant pandas in their natural habitat. One frustration was finding locations in crowded Shanghai that can accommodate Imax’s size: “There’s no place in the city with the scope of an Imax screen where you can shoot” and maintain the ’30s period, said Horton. That necessitated the work on a backlot.

The panda Harkness brought out of China in 1936, Su-Lin, became a celebrity animal at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, but died in 1938. Filmmakers have given Harkness an antagonist, a white hunter who is killing pandas.

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