While it’s the scope and focus of the movies made by MacGillivray Freeman Films that thrill audiences, it’s the documentary giant’s technological breakthroughs that have made an impact on the larger entertainment industry.
As far back as 1964, the company was beginning to explore the cutting edge of technology, with Freeman’s second feature — “Outside the Third Dimension” — filmed and released in 3D, a vast departure for the technology that was mostly the domain of schlocky horror films at the time.
Eight years later, MacGillivray Freeman introduced “Five Summer Stories,” with a sound technology so advanced that theaters needed to be specially equipped with new dynamic range speakers, powerful amplifiers and a “double system” projection to let audiences experience the film as intended.
“Our audience for ‘Five Summer Stories’ was human beings under 30 years old. … This was a crowd that was used to better sound,” says Greg MacGillivray. “It wasn’t just a movie that was thought-provoking and beautiful to watch … it was a rock ‘n’ roll concert, and it was gorgeous to listen to. I always thought at least half of the audience came for that particular movie because of the audio quality of that film.”
It’s MacGillivray’s work with Imax that has sealed his reputation as a technical innovator, though. The company has helped develop several Imax specialty cameras (and photography techniques) that allow it to film 70mm footage in places where such lensing was previously thought impossible. That’s included mounting the cameras to a jet dragster and inside the P-3, a research plane that flies into hurricanes, and taking them to the bottom of the ocean.
In 1996, MacGillivray Freeman Films had what many consider its biggest technological breakthrough. Working with Imax, the company designed a lightweight version of the camera that could stand the most brutal weather conditions, which the crew used to document a climb to the summit of Mr. Everest.
David Keighley, an executive VP at Imax and president of David Keighley Prods. 70MM Inc., has worked with MacGillivray since 1978 and has done post-production on every Imax project MFF has done. The secret to the company’s success, he says, is MacGillivray’s commitment to getting the best images possible — and his refusal to accept limitations.
“If you skydive with an Imax camera, most people would say it’s impossible,” he says. “The camera’s big and noisy, and there are lots of places where it’s hard to get the shot. Greg would say it’s difficult — and he did it (with ‘Wild California’). He’s committed to getting the very best images possible.”
MacGillivray is currently in the far north, filming in the subfreezing salt water of the Arctic Ocean. Cameramen can stay down for no more than 40 minutes at a time — but the cameras are better equipped.
“You end up matching your technology to your conditions and what you want to do,” says MacGillivray. “We’ve been able to (film there) with cameras that are cold-readied. They’re looser. They have grease in them that’s very lightweight. The batteries are all lithium, so they work well in cold conditions. And the lenses are fitted with oil that’s thick, so it doesn’t bind.”
MacGillivray has resisted digital filming so far because he hasn’t felt the quality of the medium has been sufficient for the company’s work. (A frame of Imax footage, he says, is about 125 million pixels, a number no digital camera can come close to.) But that’s starting to change now as the digital field makes rapid advances.
The company is about to begin a five-year project called “One World Ocean” that will shoot in a variety of formats, including digital.
“The digital capture opportunities are getting better and better,” he says. “With this upcoming project, we’re developing new cameras and mounts. That’s exciting because I’ll be able to do new things with these cameras like get them into new spots where gigantic underwater housing can’t get to.”