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Getting the Big Picture : Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray of Laguna Beach Sees the Imax Format as a Way to Create a Lasting Impression


You're in the audience as Greg MacGillivray's film classic "To Fly" begins:

An 18th century balloonist, in top hat and tails, is regaling a crowd of farmers about the wonders of flight. A brass band plays as he drops the sandbag ballast. And, as he ascends, the excited balloonist looks down at the awe-stricken crowd and yells, "It's magical! I wish you could all see it from here."

Suddenly, you can.

In an instant, the 15-foot-high and 20-foot-wide projected image expands to the screen's full dimensions: a staggering six stories high and 110 feet wide, a peripheral- vision- encompassing screen that makes viewers feel as though they are in the balloon themselves as it glides high above the countryside.

It's a pure Imax moment, and the kind that the Laguna Beach filmmaker does best.

"We're one minute and 20 seconds into the movie before we show the audience how big the screen is actually going to be," MacGillivray says. "Without exception, there's a noticeable 'ooh' from the crowd when that happens. It's one of the most memorable Imax kind of experiential moments from all of our films."

It's those "experiential moments"--from nature, science, exploration--that distinguish the medium MacGillivray works in from other types of filmmaking. Thinking big and delivering big.

As one of the premiere producers and directors of Imax films--the frame size is 10 times larger than standard 35-millimeter film--MacGillivray has made more of the large-format movies than any other independent filmmaker: 18 over the past 20 years, with four more in various stages of production.

MacGillivray's films--such as "To Fly," which has run continuously at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington since 1976 and is being shown in 10 other theaters worldwide--have a theatrical shelf life unheard of in Hollywood.

"To Fly," a visually stunning history of manned flight, was MacGillivray's first Imax film. One of his latest, "The Living Sea," has been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary short-subject category.

MacGillivray, 50, began shooting 8-millimeter films for fun as a Corona del Mar teenager in the late 1950s. Today, Laguna Beach-based MacGillivray Freeman Films is a leader in the Imax world, working with $5-million budgets to create films shown in science centers, museums and an increasing number of commercial venues--such as the new Imax theater opening in Irvine this week.

"The Living Sea," a 37-minute film that celebrates the world's oceans, opened to sold-out crowds at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater in San Diego last month.

It's only the second Imax film ever nominated for an Oscar--and MacGillivray's first. He was skiing in Mammoth with his family when the nominations were announced. MacGillivray's wife tracked him down on the slopes to tell him the news.

"He got very teary," Barbara MacGillivray says. "He was just completely shocked. He never even thought it would be possible."

MacGillivray's Oscar nomination comes on the heels of "To Fly" being selected by the Library of Congress as one of 25 films chosen this year for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

When MacGillivray began making Imax films two decades ago, there were only four Imax theaters; today there are more than 130 worldwide.

The Irvine addition, built by Edwards Theaters, is testament to the expanding, worldwide popularity of the big-screen experience. Although the theater will open with a 3-D production--a format MacGillivray doesn't work in--"2-D" films by MacGillivray and other Imax producers will be shown beginning this summer.

"From my vantage point, I think Greg understands the medium as a communication technology perhaps better than anybody else," says Jeff Kirsch, executive director of the space theater in San Diego and executive producer for the Museum Film Network. The network is a group of 14 museums around the world that finances large-format films for the science museum marketplace.

The network has funded two MacGillivray Freeman productions. "To the Limit," a 1989 film, follows three athletes--a prima ballerina, a mountain climber and a downhill ski racer--and explores, via endoscopic photography, what the body goes through under certain physical conditions. "Storm Chasers," a 1995 film, takes the audience around the world to experience extreme storms, monsoons, hurricanes and tornadoes.

In reflecting on MacGillivray's success, Bill Bennett, president of MacGillivray Freeman Films Distribution Co., cites the filmmaker's constant striving for the absolute best.

Bennett says MacGillivray's goal "is to always go one step further with each film that he makes.

"If you went through the library of films, you'd be able to see the evolution of always doing something different that advances the format. It's evident in each and every film that he's made."


MacGillivray never went to film school--he was too busy making films.

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