Production Tales: Discovery spreads like Wildfire in IMAX

Imagine a wall of flame and rolling smoke - an 80-foot-high tempest of fire - racing towards you at 60 miles an hour. Now imagine yourself standing in front of it, 50-pound imax camera in hand, hoping the wind doesn't make...
December 1, 1997

Imagine a wall of flame and rolling smoke – an 80-foot-high tempest of fire – racing towards you at 60 miles an hour. Now imagine yourself standing in front of it, 50-pound imax camera in hand, hoping the wind doesn’t make a sudden change causing the flames to instantly engulf you.

A 40-minute IMAX feature from Discovery Channel Pictures, Wildfire follows firefighters and smoke-jumpers as they battle some of America’s 45,000 annual forest fires. There are fewer than 400 smoke-jumpers in the world; men and women who rappel from helicopters, or parachute from planes, into the path of advancing fires, hoping to control and eventually extinguish them.

The feature is Discovery’s second foray into the world of the large screen. The first, Africa’s Elephant Kingdom, was barely six months into production before groundwork was being laid for this feature. Mick Kaczorowski, the film’s executive producer, says dcp couldn’t wait to get involved in another IMAX project. ‘There are things we find really exciting about the big screen. Firstly, where the IMAX films are shown – 90% of IMAX films play in museums and science centers. Secondly, imax films just stay around a lot longer.’

Most imax features play for up to six months, far longer than regular theatrical releases or brief television windows. With its exceptional clarity and staying power, Kaczorowski calls IMAX the ‘ultimate format’ for a filmmaker.

As 80% of forest fires are caused by lightning strikes, the Discovery team played a waiting game for most of this year. Two full crews of nine, one aerial and one ground, were on stand-by in both Idaho and California, waiting for the conflagrations to begin. Most of the fires filmed this year were neither large nor long-lasting enough to provide all the footage required, so filming will continue into next year, pushing the release back to the end of ’98.

Planning the shots for Wildfire took the better part of eight months. 11 different rigs for mounting the IMAX camera to planes and helicopters had to be designed. Far more complicated than that, Federal Aviation Authority approval had to be secured for each, as the fire-fighting planes are government property, and modifications must meet federal approval. ‘It’s an extremely long and time-consuming process because you have to be absolutely safe,’ explains Kaczorowski. ‘You have to ensure everyone’s safety – and make sure you can still get the shot.’

One of the most complicated sequences will involve the first-ever IMAX skydive. Discovery hired parachutist B.J. Worth for the planned shot; A world-renowned jumper for his work in the Bond films, Worth also accompanied former U.S. president George Bush on his famous jump. The danger isn’t the weight of the camera, but the fact that it is positioned on the jumper so it can achieve a POV shot. Such a shot usually means the jumper exits the plane in an end-over-end roll, which is not the best position for a novice skydiver.

The entire Discovery crew had to undergo firefighting training in order to be authorized to film the project, and not endanger the lives of the firefighters they were filming. In some conditions over the worst terrain, Federal authorities refused to allow them to accompany the firefighters on DC3 flights. In those instances, the flight crews themselves were coached on when to hit the switch to start the cameras rolling.

A related two-hour special, Wildfire, made for tv and shot by a different crew, will air on the little screen next year, fanning the hype Discovery is hoping will accompany the release. The special was an independent production, and had nothing to do with the approximate $5 million price tag accompanying the imax film. There are also plans in the works for a making-of-Wildfire special.

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