A series of articles on our site explores the adventure of making giant screen films, beginning with “The Road to Rocky Mountain Express.”
Our work outcomes are stories that more than fill the screen: they open giant new vistas, seize the imagination, and take audiences where they could not otherwise go. That, at any rate, is our goal as makers of films for the giant screen. Our projects have reached out to, informed and moved people around the world. But in creating these giant screen experiences over the last 25+ years, the team at The Stephen Low Company have had some of their own pretty giant, imagination-seizing experiences. While we consider ourselves prudent folk, to get spectacular scenes on screen, we’ve had to take our share of risks in the field and even, in the back office. Shared in our posts on this site are some of the unique stories, details, challenges and outcomes from our work, past and present.
Of course, some people take big risks every day of their lives by choice, while others are at risk simply because of time and place and the circumstances of their lives. (Some seek adventure while others have it thrust upon them). The subjects of our films have been involved in all kinds of risk and adventure, with rewarding or tragic outcomes—pilots and race drivers, earthquake victims and shipwreck survivors to name a few. Of course no one has a monopoly on risk-taking or adventure, or the stories that come of them. Our experiences at the company have been of all kinds—adventures small and large, and some surely worth sharing.
Unfolding in the posts on the At Work page will be an ongoing exploration of our adventures in production—past and present, from our work documenting the Titanic (Titanica, 1991) to our emerging adventures with the Trolley project and beyond. Check back in with us now and then to share in the latest instalments. Our series begins with “The Road to Rocky Mountain Express“.
“The Road to Rocky Mountain Express”
“Super Speedway: the Making of a Motion Picture Classic”
“The Making of Rescue 3D“
[Above: filming the Race. Stephen Low (left) and director of photography Bill Reeve film Championship auto-racing for Super Speedway with an IMAX® camera]
One of the top challenges of giant screen filmmaking is getting the camera (and audience) to where the action is or, when necessary, getting the action to where the camera is. Without close access to engaging action and environments, you can’t tell a compelling story. The success of The Stephen Low Company has hinged in part, on getting the right moments on film to relate an authentic and emotive tale—despite the challenge of working with the world’s largest motion picture formats—film or digital.
An IMAX camera mounted inside a Russian Mir deep-sea submersible during filming for Titanica (1991). Filmmaker Stephen Low (left) and sub pilot Evgeny “Genya” Cherniev (right). Visible are the black IMAX film magazines which carry 1000′ loads of 65mm negative film. One mag holds the unexposed film, while the second takes up the exposed film. One thousand feet of film runs through the camera in approximately 3 minutes.
The Camera conundrum. A key distinction between large format filmmaking and other filmmaking has been the size of the camera. Large film stock (e.g. 70mm film) has been able to deliver a crisper and more realistic audience experience than other formats. However a large film format has also required a larger, heavier camera, with all the attendant challenges that bulk and weight can bring. Typically, a large camera cannot be hand-held and requires dollies, cranes and other substantial mounting systems; it cannot fit in tight spaces or be manoeuvred rapidly.
Camera and Film Format. IMAX Corporation engineered one of the world’s largest cameras in the early 1970s to accommodate a novel film format: 15 perforation/70mm. And for some four decades, the large 15 perforation 70mm film frame has been one of the defining characteristics of giant screen success, enabling the capture, storage and projection of vast amounts of picture information. Total information and resolution (information density) are key factors in the realism and quality of the giant screen experience.
3D Wow. The introduction of IMAX 3D, pioneered by Colin Low (father of Stephen Low) with the National Film Board of Canada and IMAX Corporation in 1986 changed the game significantly. Suddenly one big IMAX camera became two big perpendicularly-mounted cameras (capturing left and right-eye images) married together with a giant beam splitter—a half-silvered mirror enabling the same scene to be captured by both lenses. The two-camera rig necessary to shoot IMAX 3D weighed over a ton and required a crane to manoeuvre. Now the action almost definitely had to come to the camera. The results of the new IMAX 3D system, captured in Transitions (1986) and Stephen Low’s The Last Buffalo (1990) were truly remarkable however and propelled the development of a new 3D cinema industry.
The innards exposed. Director of Photography Bill Reeve sits next to a SOLIDO IMAX camera, its inner mechanism visible, during filming of the Stephen Low film Mark Twain’s America (1997), a production for Sony.
By 1995, IMAX had developed an alternative system, the SOLIDO camera, which combined the optics and film paths of two cameras into a single 3D camera unit (no beam-splitter required). The new camera remained massive and still challenging for a crew to manoeuvre. While a number of remarkable films have been shot with the SOLIDO system, the enormous cost and inflexibility of the giant camera has pushed filmmakers to seek film and digital camera alternatives to capture 3D.
The Future is Kind of Digital. While the future is digital, film motion picture cameras still hold a place in filmmaking, particularly where the capture of large amounts of information are concerned. While digital camera systems continue to evolve in resolution and are increasingly used in giant screen filmmaking, with their fragile cables and protruding modules, they have yet to be proven to be definitively more user-friendly in the field than film-based camera systems. At this writing, film also still holds an edge when it comes to filling the giant screen with crisp, high-resolution scenes—particularly the grand, sweeping vistas and aerials for which the format is known.
The Constant Debate. Cinematographers and theater managers, distributors and technologists will debate the merits of one technology over another—for image capture, for processing and for projection—forever. And when all cameras are digital, there still will be debates to be had. In the end, the goal is the same, the delivery of the best movie-going experience for audiences that can reasonably be achieved. The giant screen, and in particular, the IMAX solution in all its incarnations has always stood for something significantly more than ordinary—something extraordinary. And as filmmakers, that’s what we are always aiming to achieve in our work.
The Right Balance. Most of our projects are substantial in budget and logistical scale—driven by the reality that the giant screen is a very demanding medium. Audiences expect to see things they couldn’t otherwise see and they expect to see them better than ever. But novel, big and better are not enough by themselves to immerse audiences and assure success in theaters—a film also has to tell a compelling story. Balancing the demands of any medium and the expectations of audiences against available resources is a challenge for any filmmaker. Doing it using the world’s largest and most expensive motion picture format, is another skill altogether. But achieving the right balance can be enormously rewarding for audiences and satisfying for stakeholders (filmmaker, sponsors and theaters). Our team has been remarkably successful at consistently achieving the right balance over the course of our 16+ projects for the giant screen.
Timescale. Some of our most prized ventures have taken a decade to secure funding. Some endeavours have required filming over many years, while still others have materialized suddenly and required near instant response. The filming of Rescue took crew members to Haiti in 2012 in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that devastated the capitol city Port au Prince and surrounding areas. While the project had been underway for some months, the opportunity to film first responders in action was at the heart of the film and necessitated that the team respond quickly to the events unfolding in Haiti. The production Rescue documented the disaster from the ground and the air and followed the remarkable work of first responders, military and civilian. The experience inevitably and profoundly effected all involved in the shoot. Read more about “The Making of Rescue 3D“.
Flattened buildings in Port au Prince as seen by helicopter shortly after the 2012 earthquake during filming of Rescue. Photo: Michel Chauvin.
Our groundbreaking deep-sea film Volcanoes of the Deep Sea took almost a decade to come to fruition, from first treatment to final cut—delayed by funding challenges, the logistics of deep-sea filming in two oceans and finally by the wide ripples of 9/11. Major funding from the National Science Foundation together with our science collaborator Rutgers University, enabled this groundbreaking ocean science project. The project involved a record 20 filming dives in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, documenting the diversity, visual magic and scientific intrique of vent habitats. The film’s focus on the remarkable hydrothermal vents and the abyssal life supported by these tectonically active systems had a deep impact on audiences (and the filmmakers). Science for general audiences can be treated with remarkable depth and educational impact on the giant screen.
- Deep-sea submersible Alvin is launched from the research vessel Atlantis, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in a scene from Volcanoes of the Deep Sea.
A black smoker surrounded by shrimp on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge–a scene filmed from the deep sea submersible Alvin for Volcanoes of the Deep Sea.