Larger than life

Wildlife is one genre that works well in 70mm. This is partly because it travels well internationally, and partly because it can succeed without talking heads
August 1, 2001

Wildlife is one genre that works well in 70mm. This is partly because it travels well internationally, and partly because it can succeed without talking heads on camera. The educational and ‘experiential’ nature of both 70mm film and the natural history genre means each is also ideal for the museum circuit. Additionally, its family-oriented subjects are attractive to commercial theaters.

But, with increasing competition from ‘mainstream’ large format films and wall-to-wall natural history programming on television, the giant screen wildlife genre could be in jeopardy if it doesn’t evolve.

Alec Lorimore, producer at MacGillivray Freeman Films (which produced the Academy Award-nominated Dolphins), feels the proliferation of channels like National Geographic and Animal Planet has placed a stranglehold on the market. ‘Straight-ahead natural history wildlife programming in IMAX is a thing of the past, at least on any kind of successful commercial level,’ warns Lorimore. He cites 70mm films Africa’s Elephant Kingdom and Island of Sharks as examples of highly acclaimed efforts that disappointed at the box office. ‘People are not going to go through the time, trouble and expense of going to see an IMAX film when they feel they can get the same thing at home, on-demand, for free,’ says Lorimore. The key, he insists, is to invent new hybrid genres like the adventure-wildlife film, or devise films with unique personalities or celebrities rather than just the wildlife.

Steven Morris, director of distribution at Montreal’s TVA International and co-exec producer of LF doc Great North, concurs. ‘We consciously made a decision to include a human element in our natural history film. We didn’t feel that caribou as a stand-alone would carry for 45 minutes,’ he says. Although the film is about the migration of caribou, it centers on one particular animal, and tells the story of aboriginal peoples in northern Canada and Sweden.

Budgeted at about us$4 million, Morris produced Great North with the financial input of two equity partners: the Museum of Natural History in Stockholm (its first venture into production), and Japanese prodco Imagica Corp, coproducers of the Academy Award-winning 70mm animated film The Old Man and the Sea.

How much?!?

The cost of producing lf films generally runs between $4 million and $6 million for a 40-minute 2D effort. Dealing with budgets in this range can be a challenge for a large scale wildlife project, simply because the shooting ratio is much higher than with other formats and genres. Costs skyrocket due to the lengthy waiting time required to shoot wild animals, with shooting ratios running anywhere from 10:1 to 30:1, compared to much lower ratios possible with a 35mm film.

Other cost factors include the tremendous expense of lf equipment – even rentals run from $10,000 to $12,000 per week for a basic camera package – and complications resulting from the fact that a 70mm camera holds only about 90 seconds of film before having to be re-loaded (during which time animals invariably perform tricks, which cease when film starts to roll again).

While the cost of using 70mm isn’t likely to diminish, there are some cost-cutting measures. Alternate shooting formats, such as Vistavision or 8:70mm (rather than 15:70mm), help to equalize costs. ‘A lot of people are shooting wildlife films for large screen projection on other standards and blowing it up,’ says Morris. ‘There are purists who think it’s sacrilegious to do so, but the blow-up technology and digital technology is such that you can really treat a lot of images. If it is done properly and there are a lot of quick cuts, the general public never notices, and I don’t think it’s cheating,’ he says. A great deal of progress is also being made with high definition video and digital capture.

Presales from individual theaters are a thing of the past, so producers generally finance their 70mm natural history films through government funding agencies (such as The National Science Foundation in the U.S.), distribution advances and corporate investors, in addition to self-funding.

Sponsorship is becoming an essential ingredient for financing lf films, and both public and private organizations are generally willing to sign on. This is especially true if the project has a conservation component, in which case a contributor is seen as philanthropic. Not to mention such contributions qualify as donations, which can mean hefty tax write-offs.

‘I don’t think films like this can be made without a title sponsor,’ says TVA’s Morris. ‘They get their logo on everything, but it’s clean money because they don’t have equity,’ he says. Morris signed Hydro Quebec as the title sponsor for Great North, and also got funds from Falconbridge Limited, Tourisme Québec, and the Nunavik Tourism Association.

Many believe there is currently a glut of wildlife lf films in the marketplace, especially in North America. However, Christine Lemoine, VP at Paris-based XLargo Distribution, says the large format network is still looking for wildlife films. She cautions that the films must use the format creatively in terms of image, sound and script.

Lemoine was part of the jury at WildScreen in Bristol last year, where for the first time several lf films were included in the competition. She notes: ‘The audience often felt that compared to ‘traditional’ films, LF films were rather poor in terms of creativity. lf filmmakers often rely too heavily on the impact of the format. As the public gets used to the format, they become more demanding.’

The onus is on the LF wildlife filmmaker to remember that the format is about the experience, not just the pictures. After all, seeing the animals on the giant screen is as close as many will ever get to animals in the wild.

Bears and Tech: An Exercise in Patience

‘Shooting wildlife in imax is like doing [other] documentary films, but you’ve got six times the chance for problems,’ laments David Lickley, director of large format films at Science North in Sudbury, Canada. Lickley recently produced and directed Bears, a Primesco film by Science North and The National Wildlife Federation.

Dragging a LF camera around the wilderness through extreme weather and precarious terrain can be a logistical nightmare. A large format camera can weigh 50 to 90lbs, depending on the housing, compared to the operating weight of a 35mm camera, which averages about 30lbs. An HDCAM or DigiBeta weighs in at a measly 15lbs.

Perhaps the biggest problem in filming wildlife with 70mm formats is the noise. The camera sounds much like a small sewing machine, so animals shy away from it, and the animal behavior the filmmaker is trying to capture on film generally ceases once the film starts to roll. Lickley says the bears got used to the noise, but it was an issue at times.

Maintaining depth of field on 70mm is also a major challenge. ‘Long lenses don’t work very well. You want to be beside your subject. It’s a huge screen to work with.’ With Bears, the crew was often within 15 to 20 feet of the animals. ‘We did the film because we knew we would be able to get very close to the bears, and they would be fine with it,’ explains Lickley.

‘The result is very powerful, since you’ve got incredible proximity and real emotion.’ Lickley is currently in production on Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees, a 70mm film that has been shooting in Africa over the last two years. The Science Museum of Minnesota and Science North are the co-exec producers and co-distributors on the project, and the Bank of America has come in as title sponsor.

Deep Sea Peril

There are only a handful of filmmakers considered experts in shooting large format film underwater. Howard Hall is one of them. Along with partner Michele, Hall has directed two 15/70mm films and been underwater dp on four others, including Into The Deep and, most recently, Coral Reef Adventure, a project being produced by MacGillivray Freeman Films.

In shooting Coral Reef Adventure, Hall and his crew were the first underwater dive team to take a 70mm camera below 300 feet, and although they got incredible footage, the trip was a dangerous one. Diving to such depths required the crew to use tri-mix gas breathing systems that included helium. In such deep water, physical exertion can be fatal, so maneuvering a 250-plus pound 70mm camera was a daunting task.

The following are excerpts from Hall’s journal, kept while shooting at Mt. Mutiny, off the coast of Fiji, during production of Coral Reef Adventure. (The entire text is available at or

November 27, 2000 – Today we took our deep tri-mix skills to a new level. Our plan was to shoot a roll of imax film at 350 feet. We rigged the imax underwater housing with a pressure regulator and strapped on two 30-cubic-foot air cylinders. This system allows us to take the housing to any depth without crushing it. Our housing is only good to 140 feet otherwise. Unpressurized at 350 feet, it would crush like a paper cup.

February 12, 2001 – We shot three minutes at 350 feet, certainly some kind of record for IMAX film work. One shot was particularly magnificent. Bob and Mark were swimming through a forest of wire corals as I pointed the camera up the steep slope from 350 feet. The sheer spire of Mt. Mutiny was silhouetted against the deep blue ocean sky high above, providing a scale and perspective that could only be visualized from this depth.

March 16, 2001 – Just as I crested the ledge at 270 feet, I saw a shadow approaching to my right about 20 feet away. It was a twelve-foot thresher shark! I pressed my comm. button and yelled, ‘thresher shark, thresher shark!’ Thurlow saw the direction I was looking and turned his video camera on the passing shark… It was a spectacular sight to see at such depth. This was only the third thresher I have seen in 35 years of diving.

April 4, 2001 – At 250 feet I noticed a ledge with nice gorgonians and whip corals. I decided we would film there if we didn’t immediately find a better spot below 300 feet. A moment later, I heard an excited voice on the otc comm. earphone crying, ‘It’s leaking. It’s leaking!’ I turned to see Mark Thurlow pointing dramatically at the imax housing footage counter window where a strobe light was flashing! Then I heard the leak detector alarm.

Flooding an IMAX camera system is problematic for several reasons, the most obvious of which is the consequences of damaging a $100,000 camera. But at 250 feet, descending along the face of a sheer wall that drops well below 1,000 feet, water damage to the camera is the least serious problem. If the housing were to completely flood, it would become over 200 pounds negatively buoyant. There is simply no way we could lift it to the surface. Our only hope would be to lodge the falling camera against the cliff face and hope we could make it stick there before plummeting past 500 feet or more. Then we might return to recover it the next day. Chances of making a 200-pound camera stick on the sheer wall are slim. The camera would, most probably, fall into the abyss despite our most desperate efforts. Attempts to save the camera would be extremely dangerous.

We had discussed this possibility and decided that if our first attempt to lodge a flooded and falling camera against the cliff face failed, we would let it go. In practice, I’m not sure we would have the courage to let the camera go. And that scares me.

Having suffered a string of camera failures on our trimix dives, I just couldn’t face the prospect of another total failure on our last deep dive. I heard Bob say, ‘shoot it,’ and I immediately agreed. We would shoot the scenes as quickly as possible and as long as the camera worked, hoping the housing didn’t get heavy…. Anyway, we shot the roll. A half hour later, after the surface crew had inspected the camera, we learned via the underwater comm. system that there had been a cup of water in the housing but no damage. Our final trimix dive in Fiji had been a success.

About The Author