In 1997, Super Speedway became the first large-format film to capture on-track racing action at actual race speeds. The company developed camera mounts that enabled onboard filming from an Indy Car with an IMAX camera at speeds of up to 240mph. Filmed from an Indy Car supported by Newman-Haas Racing and driven by racing legend Mario Andretti, Super Speedway pulled audiences into the world of championship auto racing and accelerated them to a new giant screen high. Super Speedway became an instant classic of the giant screen and two decades later is still the definitive motion picture racing experience.
Mario Andretti drives the camera car for an on-track point of view shot at Homestead speedway in Florida. (Frame from Super Speedway).
How the Film was Made
The development of Super Speedway got under way in 1993. Stephen Low, a longtime enthusiast of open-wheel racing, had harboured the dream of producing a film about auto racing since his father, acclaimed filmmaker Colin Low, filmed Jimmy Clark winning the Indy 500 in 1965.
Michael Andretti (left) and Mario Andretti (right) confer during filming for Super Speedway. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
From start to finish, the Super Speedway project took just over four years. By the time the pieces of the production puzzle fell into place, the producers of the film had succeeded in getting Newman/Haas Racing, a top racing team, to field and maintain an actual Indy car equipped with an IMAX camera; convinced legendary driver Mario Andretti to pilot the camera car; landed Mario and his son, racing star Michael Andretti, as subjects of the film; and secured IMAX coverage of the teams and drivers of the PPG CART World Series on the track and in racing action. To top it all off, the production team had miraculously stumbled across the work of expert car restorer Don Lyons. Lyons was in the process of restoring the wreckage of a classic 1964 roadster — a unique, hand-built machine (the last of its kind ever made) that was driven in 1964 by a rookie driver named Mario Andretti.
Super Speedway was filmed from an Indy car driven by Mario Andretti under real race conditions and at race speeds—the first giant screen film to feature extensive high-speed track action. The Lola camera car was originally driven to victory by Nigel Mansel in the 1994 season.
The camera car, innards exposed.
Once in a Lifetime
Pietro Serapiglia, the producer of Super Speedway, describes acclaimed IMAX® director Stephen Low as “a visionary who makes great films.” Low is also a man who seeks out challenges, and he and his collaborators have pulled off a remarkable coup with the making of Super Speedway. Some of the world’s most respected racing personalities and organizations came together in a unique collaboration with The Stephen Low Company to help in the creation of the film, making it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for audiences to experience the thrill, magic and danger of Indy car racing.
From start to finish, the Super Speedway project took just over four years. By the time the pieces of the production puzzle fell into place, the producers of the film had succeeded in getting Newman/Haas Racing, a top racing team, to field and maintain an actual Indy car equipped with an IMAX camera; convinced legendary driver Mario Andretti to pilot the camera car; landed Mario and his son, racing star Michael Andretti, as subjects of the film; and secured IMAX coverage of the teams and drivers of the PPG CART World Series on the track and in racing action. To top it all off, the production team had miraculously stumbled across the work of expert car restorer Don Lyons. Lyons was in the process of restoring the wreckage of a classic 1964 roadster — a unique, hand-built machine (the last of its kind ever made) that was driven in 1964 by a rookie driver named Mario Andretti. And finally, actor and team co-owner Paul Newman would agree to lend his seasoned voice to narrate the film, adding a further touch of authenticity and distinctiveness to the project.
Stephen Low and Mario Andretti were only interested in shooting a film that conveyed the reality of driving a race car at speeds up to 240 miles per hour. On the track, Andretti proved to be an exceptional camera operator with a natural feel for shooting, an instinctive finesse that contributed strongly to the power of the final movie experience. “Stephen explained that even with that big lump of a camera on the car, he expected me to drive as hard as I could,” says Andretti. “And I thought, now you’re talking my language. I didn’t want to just cruise around and be a donkey out there. They were looking for somebody who really wanted to put some teeth into the deal. I said to him, ‘Well, okay, let’s not use any trickery in the filming, no speeding up the camera. Let’s just be realistic. If we can represent reality, then I’ll do it.’ And we never looked back.”
Filmmaker Stephen Low in discussion with Mario Andretti (in camera car).
The First Spark
The production of Super Speedway got under way in 1993. Low, a longtime enthusiast of open- wheel racing, had harboured the dream of producing a film about auto racing since his father, acclaimed filmmaker Colin Low, filmed Jimmy Clark winning the Indy 500 in 1965. There was no doubt in Low’s mind that he had chosen the perfect subject for an IMAX film: Indy car racing was the most competitive form of racing, the cars were technologically the most interesting, and the types of race courses—ovals, big ovals, road courses and city courses—were the most varied. Pietro Serapiglia recalls that Low had plans for an Indy car film in mind as they were completing Low’s previous film, Titanica: “I remember we were in Newfoundland finishing the movie about the Titanic when Stephen said, ‘think Indy car’.” Later, Low took Serapiglia to a race, where he felt the adrenaline rush of thousands of fans as the race reached its climax. At that moment he was sold on the idea, and the experience fueled his ambition to raise the financing for the film.
Fueling the Project
The initial step for Low was to convince executive producer Goulam Amarsy that an IMAX film about Indy cars was a worthwhile project. Amarsy quickly recognized that Low’s keen passion for the subject coupled with the potential power of car racing on the giant screen made for a good project. Low and Serapiglia both feel that without Amarsy’s efforts in lining up sponsors and securing financing, as well as obtaining the cooperation of key people in the racing world, Super Speedway could not have been made.
Raising funds for the project was accomplished over a three year period. Serapiglia and Amarsy, persistent in their efforts, were helped by Low’s reputation for successful large-format films, the hot subject matter and the growing market for giant-screen entertainment. Because of Low’s name, they were ultimately able to attract two principal sponsors (Texaco and Kmart), secure financing from the Banque Nationale de Paris, and convince the Quebec film-funding agency, SODEC, to back the agency’s first IMAX project from Quebec.
The company adopted a shrewd strategy by approaching theatres individually in an effort to open up their own international support network — a network of theatres that would commit financially to exhibiting the film before it was even fully shot. The strategy was successful. Initially in 1993, The Stephen Low Company succeeded in securing pre-lease agreements with four IMAX theatres. To attract other venues, Serapiglia showed theatre managers an assembly of test footage that Low had shot in late 1995 and early 1996 at tracks in Sebring and Homestead, Florida. When they saw the material the managers were stunned by the magic of experiencing Indy car racing on the IMAX® screen and rushed to sign pre-lease agreements. Altogether, 37 theatres signed early-lease agreements for the film — far more at that time than any other project in the history of large-format cinema.
Opening the Doors
Making the film meant finding an Indy car team willing to cooperate with the project. This was not an easy job. The world of Indy car racing is a closed one, and not just anyone can enter with camera loaded and ready to shoot. Low needed a team that would allow the production crew to get behind the scenes as the team pursued a championship over the racing season, something that had never been done in other racing movies such as Winning, Grand Prix, and Le Mans.
From left: Mario Andretti, Christian Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
The only Indy car team to show an interest in the project was the team run by Carl Haas and Paul Newman, which in 1996 was fielding cars driven by Christian Fittipaldi and Michael Andretti.
According to Low, every film has a godfather, and in this case it was Neil Richter, the man in charge of finances for Newman/Haas Racing. Richter was very interested in the film from the beginning, and was able to convince Carl Haas that the project should be taken seriously. He was also instrumental in opening doors at Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), the governing body for Indy car racing, and getting the attention of other racing teams. Low’s credibility as a filmmaker was an important factor; without it, Richter would not have pursued the concept. “At the end of the day,” he says, “you want a high-profile, quality product. The people who are producing it have got to be top-notch.”
Behind the Wheel
Once the Newman/Haas team was involved, Low had to find out if a 1,600-pound Indy car with a large IMAX camera mounted on the roll-bar could reach race speeds. This was a perilous proposition: Indy cars are delicately balanced machines worth close to half a million dollars, and their performance is altered even by the weight of a few extra litres of fuel. Could the car safely withstand the aerodynamic drag and extra burden of a camera and mount?
The camera car during practice with the IMAX camera mounted in front of the driver. (Professional driver on a closed track. Don’t try this at home!) Photo: Patrick Gariup.
To develop the specialized mount for a real Indy car, the team turned to race engineering expert Alec Greaves. Working with camera specialist Bill Reeve, Greaves engineered a mounting system that allowed the camera to be mounted in a range of postitions on the car: on the nose cone, off the side pods, over the roll bar and directly under a specially modified rear wing. Combined with varied camera angles and lenses, the mounting system provided an infinite number of fixed position mounts on the car including the side-views that were ultimately to capture neck-to-neck duels with drivers Mark Blundell, Bryan Herta and Al Unser Jr.
From a reverse angle mount on the front of the camera car. (Frame from Super Speedway.
A reverse angle close-up. (Frame from Super Speedway.
The insurance companies, racing officials and other drivers were still nervous. This was where racing giant Mario Andretti came in. Originally, Low had thought he would do the filming using Michael Andretti between racing engagements. It soon became clear that the logistics of this were impossible. At the urging of Newman and Haas, Low and his team approached the elder Andretti about testing the car and camera. Andretti, recently retired but eager to get back behind the wheel of a race car, was intrigued by the project and agreed to meet Low.
Andretti was skeptical at first: “I looked at the car and thought – oh man, we’ll be lucky to average 150.” However, all doubts about the ability of a camera-equipped car to run at racing speeds disappeared when Andretti took the car to 210 miles per hour in his first practice session. But the initial tests failed anyway: as the car reached speeds upwards of 200 miles per hour high-frequency vibrations from its engine tore the camera’s electronics apart. The team persevered, and after engineering some additional dampening into the camera mounts, was finally able to resolve the problem. It was only when Low reviewed the first rushes and saw how amazing 200 miles per hour looked in IMAX® that he realized he could make the movie he had long dreamed of making.
From Super Speedway.
Low found that Andretti was the perfect person to operate the camera. Andretti was able to switch the camera on and, in Low’s words, “go crazy for a lap or two or three.” Low came to respect Andretti’s instincts about what to film. His vast experience in auto racing and his thoughtful approach to the Super Speedway project enabled him to recognize a good opportunity when he saw it.
It Must Be Something Good
Andretti’s involvement was critical to the success of the project. As Serapiglia describes it, “The day we got Mario to participate was the day other people became interested in the film. They said, ‘Hey, if Mario is doing it, it must be something good,’ and more doors swung open.” CART agreed to work with Low in May 1996, organizing four races for Andretti to drive in with the camera on the car. Securing the cooperation of the other 26 CART teams was another story; Low, Andretti and company had to overcome the various fears of the teams, the sponsors, the drivers and the insurance companies. In time, thanks to Andretti’s influence, Low’s reputation and Richter’s enthusiasm, the doubts of the other teams subsided, then disappeared completely when they saw the initial footage.
Mario Andretti (foreground) and Michael Andretti duel in the rain. (A frame from Super Speedway.)
Shooting in the rain. Mario Andretti in the camera car (left), Michael Andretti out front. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
Michael Andretti hot on the tail of the camera car driven by Mario Andretti at Homestead Motor Speedway, Florida. (A frame from Super Speedway.
Enthused by the calibre of the IMAX racing footage, many of the drivers and teams became actively involved in making the project work. Drivers such as Mark Blundell, Bryan Herta and Al Unser Jr., were keen supporters, sacrificing time from tight schedules to race Mario Andretti and the camera car in specially arranged exercises.
A car-to-car shot from Super Speedway/.
The camera car driven by Mario Andretti was a two year-old Indy car acquired from Newman/Haas and maintained by Newman/Haas mechanics. The same car was driven by Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansel in competition in the 1994 PPG CART World Series.
While the engine output of competing CART cars is constrained by stringent rules, the camera car was not under similar restriction. Competing cars are equipped with a mandatory ‘pop-off’ valve which governs the maximum power engines can generate and helps keep race speeds within acceptable limits. The ‘pop-off’ valve on the camera car was deactivated, providing the machine with significant additional power. The aerodynamic design features of the older car also generated greater downforce than has been available to cars under more recent CART rules. (Downforce, the product of wings and body shape, is the aerodynamic force which helps keep a fast moving car pressed to the track).
The superior power of the camera car helped offset the encumbering effects of camera weight and drag, while superior downforce helped counteract the destabilizing effects which resulted from having the camera mounted high above the chassis. Both power and downforce provided Mario Andretti with the speed and control necessary to manoeuvre with the competing cars and drivers from the PPG CART World Series.
Specially placed microphones on the car accurately picked up the sound of the car and the unique sound experiences of driving in the racing environment, including the powerful oscillating effect created as the car blasted along speedway walls.
Filming On the Track
Initially, shooting was accomplished at team practices only. Mario Andretti and the production team and car crew, worked in narrow windows of opportunity, sometimes with over 20 cars on the race course at once. Coordinating via radio, the production team helped synchronize the efforts of the different teams and drivers, and kept camera car operator Mario Andretti apprised of the constantly changing situation on the track.
Participation in the project reached a climax when the full support of CART and the teams was obtained to put virtually all the cars in the series on the track for the camera just moments prior to the start of actual races. Twenty-five cars and drivers blasted around courses in Toronto; Brooklyn, Michigan; Lexington, Ohio; and Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, just minutes prior to start of each event. This unprecedented exercise provided Mario Andretti and the production crew with a truly unique opportunity to record the racing experience from the driver’s viewpoint.
Mario Andretti with the IMAX camera mounted overhead during preparation for filming at the Toronto Molson Indy. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
Mario Andretti climbs into the camera car to begin filming an on-track sequence. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
The IMAX-equipped camera car on the track at the Toronto Molson Indy, Mario Andretti at the wheel.
In the pits during filming of Super Speedway. Photo: Patrick Gariup
Filmmaker Stephen Low (left) and IMAX camera specialist Bill Reeve (right) working trackside with the IMAX camera and telephoto lens.
Working around the tight schedules of the teams, the Super Speedway crew was ultimately able to cover dozens of practices, including action at Sebring FL and spring practice at Homestead, FL. Altogether they covered five key race events: the U.S. 500 event at Michigan International Speedway, and races in Detroit, Toronto, Mid-Ohio (Lexington, Ohio), and Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Through the effort, the production team secured more than enough material to create an extraordinary experiential portrait of the sport.
As an IMAX filmmaker, Stephen Low is in a class by himself. He brings drama to the art of documentary filmmaking by finding larger-than-life characters and telling their stories. Indy car racing is an extraordinary event. Low knows that the men who compete in these races have a burning desire to push themselves and their machines to the edge of physical possibility. In this sport he has found his ultimate characters: Mario Andretti, one of the most successful men in auto racing history, and his son, Michael, himself a champion and veteran of the sport.
Low recognized the importance of placing Mario Andretti at the centre of the film. Mario Andretti’s experience spans 30 years of racing technology, as well as countless milestones in the ever-evolving sport of racing and he has been teammates with, and raced against, many of the world’s best drivers, including his own son.
Low had an additional motivation. As Low explains it, “I like eccentric people. The characters have got to be bigger than life, and you go with it. That’s the essence of filmmaking. I was attracted by Mario because he’s a funny guy. He was a great choice for the key character because of his charm and thoughtfulness. Obviously, he’s an incredible driver, and Newman/Haas wanted him to pilot the camera car, but I didn’t have to make a film about him. I could have made it about Michael Andretti or Indy cars in general. But I thought Mario was really interesting. Anybody who has a pig given to him by his wife and who hates it at first but then becomes its best buddy, well, he’s got to be quite a character.”
Mario Andretti at the wheel of the restored roadster. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
Mario Andretti pilots an ultralight with the IMAX camera for a shot in Super Speedway. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
Mario Andretti at the controls of an ultralight during filming of Super Speedway. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
Mario Andretti with IMAX-equipped ultralight. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
The crew of Super Speedway take a break during filming with Mario Andretti and his pet pig. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
While making the movie the two men developed a very special relationship with a tremendous amount of mutual respect. By showing a genuine interest in all aspects of Andretti’s life, Low got Andretti to reveal himself. And so Mario Andretti, originally approached for the crucial role of driving the camera car, soon became a key subject in the film as well.
Building the Story
Super Speedway delves into the death-defying drama of Indy car racing and delivers several interwoven story lines. At the core of the film’s action is Michael Andretti, taking on the challenge of testing a newly fabricated car and, ultimately driving it in hot pursuit of the championship in the PPG CART World Series. Michael’s struggle is seen in part through the eyes of his father, Mario, who participates in testing the new car and reflects on his own racing experiences and on the art, science and risk of high-speed competition. As a driving legend and as Michael Andretti’s father, Mario provides audiences with insight into the driver’s psyche, the balancing of risk and opportunity, and the unique relationship that exists between two generations of champions.
From the film Super Speedway: Mario Andretti (left) and Michael Andretti (right).
Set against the drama of the track are two story threads that follow the extraordinary craft of creating Indy cars: the building of Michael Andretti’s state-of-the-art Indy car at the Lola plant in England and the restoration of a car from an earlier generation, a 1964 roadster — a thoroughbred once driven at Indianapolis by Mario Andretti.
Early in the project the production team traveled to chassis manufacturer Lola Cars and engine manufacturer Ford-Cosworth in England to film the creation of a new racing machine for the Newman/Haas team — Michael Andretti’s car for the approaching season. On the giant screen in time-lapse, viewers witness the shaping of the powerful new beast, including its magical assembly by engineers at the Lola plant.
Filming at Lola in the UK. Filmmaker Stephen Low discusses the setup of a shot with Lola personnel and film crew. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
A body mold for an Indy car is shaped by a computer-driven milling machine. The IMAX camera dolly is at right. Photo: Patrick Gariup
Will the newly finished car perform? Will it be fast and will it be forgiving? To win races and to stay alive, the driver must be able to feel the car’s performance limits and consistently take the machine to this edge without straying beyond. As Michael Andretti and Mario Andretti blast around the track testing the untried machine, the audience experiences the tension and viscerally understands the risk.
Director of photography Bill Reeve works with the IMAX camera inside the chassis of the roadster during filming of a restoration sequence for Super Speedway.
An important story counterpoint for Super Speedway presented itself when Low learned of auto restorer Don Lyons and his plans to rebuild the 1964 Dean Van Lines Special roadster. Mario Andretti had driven the car as a rookie, and when Lyons discovered it in a chicken coop in Indiana, Low knew he had found another dramatic hook for his film. Lyons has restored more than 50 vintage automobiles since he began his hobby at age 14, and in the film, his passion for his craft is readily apparent as he rebuilds the wreckage of the roadster, striving to restore it to its original glory.
Filming the roadster restoration process. Director Stephen Low (left) and DOP Andy Kitzanuk (center). Photo: Patrick Gariup.
The art and technology of building fast cars has undergone a radical transformation since the 1960s, when tubular, steel-framed roadsters like the 1964 Dean Van Lines Special dominated the Indy car circuit. In the old days, car manufacturers attempted to build faster cars by increasing engine horsepower. Today however, all aspects of a car’s design including engine power, are governed by the rules of the sport. These rules change regularly in an effort to limit speeds and enhance safety. In this environment, teams work within and around the rules to achieve the competitive edge; aerodynamics play a key role in the process, making wind-tunnel testing an essential step in the shaping of winning cars. In the film, the Newman/Haas team turns to wind-tunnel testing, using a model in an attempt to fine-tune the aerodynamic forces at work on Michael Andretti’s finished car—ultimately they must make the car more controllable and more predictable.
Technicians prepare an Indy car model for testing in a wind tunnel at Cranfield University Centre for Aeronautics in the UK during filming for Super Speedway. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
The wind tunnel test from Super Speedway.
The wind tunnel test from Super Speedway. Fluorescent dyes track the turbulent air flow across the car’s surfaces.
In the wind tunnel. (Super Speedway).
A crash test dummy prepares for the worst during crash testing of an Indy car nose cone. (From Super Speedway.)
Crash testing the nose cone of an Indy car. (From Super Speedway, An IMAX Experience).
In Super Speedway, classic archival footage depicts some of racing history’s most dramatic crashes, calamities that are, for drivers, an everyday risk. Although the sport has become progressively safer, it can still yield instantaneous tragedies, a fact driven home for the production team when rookie driver Jeff Krosnoff and a track marshall were killed during a race event being covered for the film.
Super Speedway culminates in a dramatic portrayal of the racing season. Track action was shot with an on-board IMAX® camera and a full field of competing CART teams during specially scheduled pre-race exercises, as well as track-side during actual race events. In the film, never-before-possible giant-screen footage captures the drivers, machines and teams of the PPG CART World Series battling each other for supremacy; among them are Michael Andretti and the Newman/Haas team. From the pits, a proud, encouraging and sometimes apprehensive Mario Andretti looks on.
Michael Andretti during a practice. (From Super Speedway).
Preparing for the season. (Super Speedway).
Preparing for the season. From “Super Speedway”, an IMAX Experience.
Preparing for the season. From “Super Speedway”, an IMAX Experience.
The season is a challenging one, and in the end it is driver Jimmy Vasser that takes the championship on points, but Michael Andretti and the Newman/Haas team triumph as well. On-screen Michael and other drivers in the winner’s circle douse the media and audience with jets of champagne. Michael wins five races — more than any other driver in the series.
A frame from Super Speedway.
A frame from Super Speedway.
A jubilant moment in the pits.
Mario Andretti at the wheel of a restored roadster he first drove as a rooky at the Indianapolis 500. Photo: Patrick Gariup.
Don Lyons’ patient restoration work on the 1964 Dean Van Lines Special is finally completed and the sparkling white and chrome roadster is triumphantly rolled out of the workshop. In Super Speedway’s concluding moments, Mario Andretti is reunited with the car that once initiated him, as a young man, into the high-profile world of Indy car racing. In a final stroke of luck, the production team managed to locate three decade-old archival black and white footage of a young Mario Andretti, strapping himself into the same roadster for an historic career-launching run.
In the present, Mario Andretti, veteran of thirty-six years of high-speed competition, straps himself once again into the great old roadster and roars off through the fall colours of the Michigan countryside.
Super Speedway – An IMAX® Experience™
The IMAX experience of Indy car racing bears no relationship to the television experience. On-board action as seen through the narrow window of television has the effect of slowing down the action, and as a result television does not give a true picture of what the racers see and feel. Mario Andretti should know. According to him, “This IMAX stuff will keep you on the edge of your seat because everything is happening the way we see it.”
The way producer Pietro Serapiglia sees it, “Super Speedway is like no other racing film ever made. In IMAX, 200 miles per hour is suddenly wonderfully fast. Nobody in the history of cinema has ever experienced what it’s like to sit on a roll-bar. In the film, all that’s missing is the wind. For the first time audiences will viscerally know what auto racers experience—the speed and the danger.” Stephen Low says, “For the better part of the century people have wondered what it was like to sit in the cockpit, and now we’re going to show them.”
More about the film: Super Speedway page.
Where to see Super Speedway.
Shaping a Portrait of Disaster Response
Filmed for presentation in IMAX 3D and 2D, Rescue plunges audiences into the hard, but inspiring work of saving lives in the face of a natural disaster. This documentary project began with a simple, if challenging approach: follow the training of individuals for disaster response and then follow them as they respond to a real disaster. But what individuals and organizations and what crisis might they end up responding to? Could the production team be ready to film an unfolding disaster? The filmmakers knew before starting that this would be a very fluid documentary—evolving with emerging opportunities and unknowable disasters.
Filming from the helicopter bay on the Canadian Navy destroyer HMCS Athabaskan.
The makers of Rescue had some hard choices to make about how to focus the film and how to get the footage to tell a compelling story about people who answer the call when disaster strikes. Responding to catastrophe inevitably involves many people and organizations of different specialities and capabilities. No group alone has the resources and expertise to respond to all the deep needs of communities impacted by a major disaster. Military actors have the hardware, training, mobility and organizational structure to respond rapidly to disasters in remote areas—acting as rescue technicians and helping maintain order in communities and countries fragmented by disaster. Civilian agencies and non-governmental organizations bring a strong humanitarian focus, international perspective, an ability to solicit resources from the international community, experience in supporting and managing refugees as well as a longer-term focus on redevelopment.
Major Matt Jonkey, US National Guard
Captain Lauren Ross, US Air Force
Steve Heicklen, volunteer fire fighter and rescue coordinator
The final film Rescue is a journey of real-world disaster and emergency response captured (in 3D) with unprecedented scale and impact for the giant screen. Behind the scenes, the film follows a Canadian naval commander, two pilots, and a volunteer rescue technician as they train for action. When an earthquake strikes Haiti, creating one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of the century, the audience is swept along, joining with the massive effort that brings military and civilian responders and hardware from around the world.
Rescue was filmed in the North Atlantic, Halifax, Montreal, California, Nevada and in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Production began with filming aerial and naval action featuring some of the hardware typically used in major disaster response—C-17 transport aircraft, twin-rotor Chinook helicopters and navy ships.
Filming the Canadian Navy frigate HMCS Halifax in a rough Atlantic swells.
Production team filming on the flight deck of HMCS Athabaskan. Foreground from left: Philippe Prud’homme (1st Assistant Cameraman); Marc Poirier (Director of Photography); Stephen Low (Director).
Nine-days at Sea in the North Atlantic with the Canadian Navy on a training leg—traveling from the Irish Sea back to Halifax—gave the production crew a true immersion in naval operations on the high seas. The crew would occupy berths on the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan sailing under Commander Peter Crane. The team covered everything from man-overboard exercises to emergency medical intervention.
HMCS Athabaskan is refuelled and provisioned at sea by supply ship Protecteur.
By remarkable coincidence it was HMCS Athabaskan under Crane and the frigate HMCS Halifax that would be sent mere weeks later to respond to the Haiti earthquake and the massive humanitarian crisis unfolding in its wake. The film crew would follow.
Heading into Disaster. The production team arrived on site in Haiti on February 2nd, 2010, two weeks after the initial quake in Haiti. The situation on the ground was still in flux — and dangerous.
The rubble of Port au Prince, Haiti from the production helicopter. January 2012.
Crew. In comparison to conventional crews, filming in a situation such as the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, where you’d have maybe a 2 or 3 person team, for IMAX® 3D, a crew of nine people was necessary. The camera itself requires more personnel, for rigging and so on. There was also some lighting gear, though minimal considering the situation — and all this equipment had to be mobile. When shooting stereo film, many elements are doubled: two film magazines have to be loaded instead of one and you’re carrying twice as much film at any given moment.
Preparation. To form a plan of action before departure, the production screened information from a wide range of sources — such as the World Food Program, the U.N., various NGOs and online sources — and they pre-established contacts with the Canadian Navy and the U.S. Air Force. But the information was inevitably incomplete — the actual situation on the ground in Haiti was simply too chaotic.
Haiti after the quake. A frame from Rescue.
Where to go? The production team didn’t want to go into the heart of the disaster, where they might contribute to the confusion — and possibly get stuck and be unable to function. So a decision had to be made on where to go in Haiti and how to get there. It was decided against going by boat. Instead, the team went via the Dominican Republic. With the assistance of a production company on the ground in Barahona in the Dominican Republic, the team was able to organize the logistics of accommodation, vehicles and also how to get into Haiti. The Canadian navy ships the crew had been filming on had been sent to Jacmel in Haiti, so it was decided that Jacmel would be the crew’s prime destination. From there, they’d have to improvise.
A frame from Rescue.
Arriving in Haiti, a country with virtually no surviving infrastructure, was like arriving in a war zone. With a lot of military personnel and equipment from around the world present as part of the rescue effort — and crumbled buildings everywhere which looked like they’d been bombed out — it really contributed to the feeling of a war zone.
Supply convoys converge on the impacted region around Port-au-Prince.
The USNS Comfort anchored off Haiti in January 2010. In the aftermath of the quake, the hospital ship treated some 1,000 Haitian wounded and performed 850 surgeries.
The production team did not want to impose itself on Haiti with the region already stretched for resources. It was decided the team would stay in the Dominican Republic, and everyone flew in and out each day by helicopter, meeting up at a pre-arranged location in Haiti with a flat-bed truck, hired from a local trucking company (which was completely out of work due to the quake). This flat-bed served as the production’s mobile base camp during the time in Haiti. A guide was also hired who spoke Creole.
The guide took them around, and they followed director Stephen Low’s “nose”; his instincts for where they’d find the right moments to film. Stephen wasn’t looking for anything bloody or shocking. He wanted to show the scope of the disaster and how NGOs and militaries from around the world were helping.
Going into places where there is a lot of misery, where kids pull at your shirt and say I’m hungry, you have to keep your armour up, so as not to just stop and break down; each day the team brought along a cooler with food, biscuits, granola bars, etc, but they felt they simply couldn’t eat in front of their drivers and other Haitians, so they gave all the food away, except for keeping some water. It felt wrong to be “stuffing your face” when you saw what was going on. Crew members came back deeply disturbed and upset. They came back with a lot of troubling memories.
The film crew flew from Barahona into a little airport near Jacmel, meeting up with the Haitian drivers and guide on a daily basis. It was a little crumbled up airport. On the first day of filming, the crew linked up with DART (the Canadian Disaster Assistance Response Team). From there, the production went with whatever was presented or seemed interesting, for example going to an orphanage being rebuilt by the Canadian Navy. Daily improvisation was essential.
Communications were spotty in Haiti, and the team was often in the dark during the day. They remained in contact through the main base in the Dominican Republic where they returned each night, checking in with the production company in Montreal. For example, they’d receive a message in the Dominican Republic forwarded from Ottawa, sent from the Athabaskan, saying the navy was ready to greet the film crew and show them around Leogane. A lot of this was done by text messaging; for some reason, Blackberry texting worked while cell phones did not. Even the military said that texting was their main way of communicating! Suffice it to say communications were a bit complicated. It was the same with the contacts with the U.S. military and Air Force. The K2 co-producers (American based) would get word from the 82nd airborne regiment from L.A., which would be transmitted to the Dominican Republic and then the film crew would arrange to fly in by helicopter to meet with the 82nd.
Just getting a helicopter was a task in itself. First of all, the Spacecam mount doesn’t fit on just any helicopter. And a lot of helicopters in the immediate area around Haiti were being used for rescue operations. The production eventually found a suitable helicopter in Puerto Rico, so they had to fly the Spacecam from L.A. to Puerto Rico, and then the helicopter had to make short refuelling hops to reach Haiti. They shot for four days using the helicopter mounted Spacecam, with the director on board. Meanwhile, the rest of the film crew in Barahona prepared for shooting on the ground in Jacmel.
The Spacecam system mounted to an Aerostar helicopter sourced in Costa Rica for the shoot.
For getting authorization to fly in Haitian airspace, the U.S. military base unit SOUTHCOM had to be contacted. SOUTHCOM was in charge by request of the Haitian government. Their reply to the production team was: come on in — just wing it! It was a free for all. You had to be careful with radar, watching for wandering aircraft. You had to observe by eye. Mid-air collisions were a real concern … and the helicopter had to fly frequently into Port-au-Prince for refuelling.
Shooting the Spacecam footage gave the team a sense of what was happening and what route to take for further filming. The aerial footage also yielded an extraordinary, detailed high-fidelity record of the disaster and its impact across the region.
Collapsed cathedral from Rescue.
Frame from Rescue.
Frame from Rescue.
Out-of-control fire in a scene from Rescue.
A scene from Rescue.
Image from the giant screen film “Rescue”
Rescue workers attend an injured child. (Steven Heicklen rear center).
It was on one of these refuelling trips that the film crew met Stephen Heicklen, a volunteer emergency manager with a number of disasters under his belt. Through force of personality, Heicklen hitched a series of rides on the production’s helicopter to Port-au-Prince. He “hijacked” the documentary crew, which was fortunate; they later filmed him organizing a medical evacuation, and Heicklen became one of the principal characters in the film — an example of a documentary film being a true work in progress. At the same time, the production was not satisfied documenting the disaster from the sidelines, but contributed to the relief effort by donating the use of their helicopter to airlift victims of the earthquake.
Training for Disaster
Beyond the weeks spent in Haiti covering the immediate aftermath of the Earthquake, the production team filmed a variety of training activity related to the work of the individuals profiled in the film.
As Rescue opens we are introduced to the film’s featured personalities and are thrust into some of their remarkable training, at sea, in the air and on the ground, discovering something of their backgrounds, pastimes and motivations. The film follows the stories of four main personalities: Canadian Navy Commander Peter Crain of HMCS Athabaskan; United States Air Force Captain Lauren Ross, pilot of a C-17 military transport airplane; U.S. Army Major Matthew Jonkey, pilot of a CH-47 helicopter and; Steven Heicklen volunteer Emergency Manager.
Commander Peter Crane in a scene from Rescue.
Commander Peter Crain, is the captain of a Canadian Navy destroyer (HMCS Athabaskan) — a prized assignment for the career Navy man who grew up in boats, but never learned to swim. For Crain, it’s a career that has taken him around the world, policing the seas, protecting the coastline. For Crain every day in the Navy has been an adventure.
Captain Lauren Ross.
Captain Lauren Ross, the young pilot of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster II has flown her jet around the world on a range of missions; at the controls of the giant transport aircraft she is realizing a childhood dream and following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather.
Steve Heicklen, volunteer fire fighter and rescue coordinator
Steven Heicklen is a multi-talented concrete contractor and volunteer fireman who builds swimming pools for a living, but in responding to fires and disasters at home and abroad has discovered a new outlet for his managerial talents and his skills with concrete and heavy excavation equipment.
Major Matt Jonkey is a Chinook (CH-47) helicopter pilot from the Nevada Army National Guard, who left home and joined the army to make something of himself and never looked back. Now he trains others in the unique skills of crewing giant twin-rotor choppers and accomplishing challenging missions, like water and desert landings and high-altitude rescues of injured mountaineers.
Rescue By Air
The prodcution’s Spacecam-equipped chopper hovers over a C-17 Globemaster during filming for Rescue.
C-17 desert take-off and landings, Nevada desert.
In the desert.
Boarding evacuees. A Canadian Air Force C-17 Globemaster on the tarmac at Toussaint Lourverture International Airport near Port-au-Prince.
In the belly of C-17 equipped for medical transport.
Rescue By Sea
The Royal Canadian Navy destroyer HMCS Athabaskan in Caribbean waters off Haiti. Image from the giant screen film “Rescue”.
Filming on the bridge of HMCS Athabaskan.
Destroyer HMCS Athabaskan plunges into heavy swells. From Rescue.
Commander Peter Crane and crew on the bridge of HMCS Athabaskan.
Filming helicopter take-off above the flight deck of HMCS Athabaskan.
From Rescue: a Sea King helicopter lands on the deck of Royal Canadian Navy destroyer, HMCS Athabascan.
Filming a water delivery.
A Canadian Navy Sea King helicopter makes a water delivery in Haiti. Image from the giant screen film “Rescue”.
Filming on the deck of HMCS Athabaskan. The 3D camera is prepared for filming with crane and dolly. Filming with a crane was not possible on the rolling ocean and was reserved for a special in-port shoot.
Commander Peter Crane, Royal Canadian Navy
Filming aboard a RIB (Rigid-hull Inflatable Boat).
A navy team dispatched from HMCS Athabaskan. Image from Rescue.
Canadian Navy personnel build temporary sleeping facilities at an orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti. Image from the giant screen film “Rescue”.
Canadian Navy personnel with Haitian orphans. Image from the giant screen film “Rescue”
The crew films a mountain rescue exercise in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
A high altitude rescue exercise with a twin rotor Chinook helicopter above Lake Tahoe (elevation 6,250 feet) in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Image from Rescue.
Rescue has been exhibited around the world, providing audiences with the first giant-screen bird’s-eye-view of an unfolding international disaster and a sampling of the diverse training, discipline and unique commitment of responders. The film was marketed in collaboration with the American Red Cross and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).
Rescue is exhibited in select giant screen theaters and is available on Blu-ray. See “Where to See Rescue 3D“.
Visit the official Rescue film site: www.rescue-film.com
The American Red Cross
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation’s blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org.
Ten cents from every Rescue ticket sold has been earmarked to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief to help those affected by disaster anywhere in the world.
The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)
The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) is the leading nonprofit membership association representing the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS, and rescue services. The NVFC serves as the voice of the volunteer in the national arena and provides invaluable tools, resources, programs, and advocacy for first responders across the nation. Learn more at www.nvfc.org.
IT WASN’T MADE IN A DAY. The award-winning giant screen film Rocky Mountain Express is a culmination of filmmaker Stephen Low’s remarkable 30-year career shaping films for the giant screen. Kindled in childhood, Low’s love of high-fidelity cinema and his fascination with the steam locomotive have come together in a giant screen experience that brings alive the magic and drama of the steam age for audiences of all ages.
How the Film was Made
Production work for Rocky Mountain Express took place over a five-year period (2006-2011). The production team worked to schedule perfect shooting opportunities with the star of the project, the Empress (CPR 2816), a steam locomotive built in 1930 and restored and operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Low filmed extensively from the air using a helicopter and gyro-stabilized camera mount to capture the train’s journey and the great diversity of the western landscape. “Ultimately, we mounted IMAX cameras all over the train as well,” says Low. “We wanted to give audiences an intimate ’being there’ experience of steam power and this magic place that even train engineers don’t get to experience.”
Documented below are key stages of production, including aerial filming and camera mounts.
Format & Fidelity
The production was filmed with full 15/65mm negative—world’s largest film format, guaranteeing spectacular image fidelity on the giant screen. As the film unfolds, the kinetic train journey is punctuated with richly animated 3D maps and lovingly restored archival images that give audiences deep insights into the dramatic story of shaping a transcontinental railway through some of the most beautiful but forbidding terrain on Earth.
Aerial shooting played a key role in capturing the train journey and the spectacular landscapes in Rocky Mountain Express. Key to success where a uniquely qualified helicopter pilot, a chopper capable of the lift necessary for work in the mountains and the capable gyrostabilized Spacecam system for filming large-format 65mm negative (70mm film) together with a specialized operator.
Director, pilot and Spacecam operator.
70mm camera in gyro-stabilized Spacecam mount for helicopter shooting.
The Chopper used on Rocky Mountain Express is an Aerostar Squirrel. With a single engine it has tremendous power to weight capabilities essential in mountain photography.
Filmmaker Stephen Low (left) with pilot and Spacecam camera operator.
Deep in the Fraser Canyon, Locomotive 2816 and its trainset snake through tunnels and along steep river embankments, in a scene from Rocky Mountain Express.
Pilot Steve Flynn (on the right in red jacket) is one of the best cinema pilots in the world and a key to amazing photography and the film crew’s survival both. With a gyro-stabilized camera system controlled from inside the helicopter by the superb operator-DOP Ralph Mendoza (Shown on the left in cowboy hat) the possibilities are almost limitless.
The production helicopter equipped with an IMAX camera in gyro-stabiliized housing by Spacecam. The extraordinary system uses a large format, full negative, 15perf /70 mm camera that can be remotely-operated from inside the cockpit. Being gyro-stabilized it is almost completely vibration free.
The Spacecam unit is mounted to the underbelly of the chopper.
The Spacecam operator sits next to the pilot.
Remote controls enable a wide range of camera motion from inside the cockpit.
Standard 1000′ foot loads of 65mm negative run through the camera in 3 minutes, meaning frequent landings for re-loading.
A helicopter shot from Rocky Mountain Express.
To achieve a truly kinetic “being-there” experience for the giant screen, the camera was mounted on various locations on the locomotive itself: from the cowcatcher on the front of the engine to the driving wheels, to the boiler, cab and tender. Every mounting position on the rugged, smoke-belching beast poses its own unique challenges.
Mounting the camera on different points of the locomotive, means building and installing unique mounts for each placement, often in situ and under pressure. The crew is always aware that the train, operating on mainline track, is subject to the critical scheduling requirements of the railway and the big freight trains that must pass on the same rails. Add to this: changing weather conditions and sunlight and the need to stop the train and re-load the camera every 3-minutes of shooting and the challenges are appreciable.
The further out from the locomotive that the camera is mounted, the greater the moment and the more violently the camera is thrown about.
The IMAX® camera mounted on 2816 (above). The locomotive mounts designed and built by Montreal master grip Claude Fortin are extraordinarily rigid and particularly this one—so far out in front of the rough riding locomotive.
In spite of the superb mounts, filming from out front of the locomotive was restricted to modest acceleration on flat ground. While climbing steep grades under hard acceleration the camera would be nearly torn off and certainly the shots would be unusable.
A scene from Rocky Mountain Express.
Atop the Locomotive
The camera is prepared for a shot forward over the boiler. Grease and water will soon cover the camera and lens and it must be cleaned between shots. Photo: Todd McConnell.
Photo: Todd McConnell.
Director Stephen Low prepares a shot on the cab roof of the locomotive. Photo: Todd McConnell.
Although the height of the camera was measured carefully to conform with what is called the loading gauge of the railway or the maximum dimensions allowed, the train was stopped in front of the first obstruction encountered just to double check. It fit very tightly. One of the issues with tunnels is that steam locomotives produce powerful exhaust blasts that can loosen decades of built up diesel soot and throw it back on the train and the camera. Photo: Todd McConnell.
Frame from Rocky Mountain Express
A frame from Rocky Mountain Express.
A frame from Rocky Mountain Express.
Behind the Wheels
The camera is prepared for a shot looking forward past the locomotive’s giant driving wheels.
Filmmaker Stephen Low makes adjustments to the camera in preparation for shooting a sequence from behind the driving wheels of the locomotive.
From the film.
On the Boiler
Mounting the camera on a variety of locations on the locomotive offers audiences a unique ‘being there’ experience of railroading that even engineers don’t get to experience—a sense of immediacy, immersion and participation that is the hallmark of a well-crafted big screen experience.
A frame from Rocky Mountain Express.
A frame from Rocky Mountain Express.
A frame from Rocky Mountain Express.
A frame from Rocky Mountain Express.
On the Ground
Several hundred pounds of counterweight balance the IMAX camera held aloft on a crane. Photo: Will Allen.
The crew has scrambled up a mountainside to grab a quick shot of the steam train crossing a bridge on the historic route. Photo: Todd McConnell.
A crane is used to film the arrival of the train at night.
The Imax camera sits on a crane in the foreground as the crew prepares to shoot a night sequence with the engine. Photo: Will Allen.
A scene from Rocky Mountain Express. “In the age of steam, entire communities lived to serve the appetites of these great machines, every hour of the day, every day of the year.”
Steam v.s. Diesel
80 years newer than the film’s hero steam locomotive 2816, the diesel locomotive’s horsepower is not much greater. While the diesel generates 4,400 horse power at slower speeds (for lifting heavy freight trains) the steam locomotive was built for speed and fast passenger trains. 2816 regularly traveled over a hundred miles an hour in passenger service. Beyond seventy miles an hour the diesel would be left behind.
First assistant camera Carla Clarke prepares the Imax camera on the front of a brand new GE diesel locomotive for a sequence in the film.
The Sonic Landscape
Sound is a vital part of the giant screen experience and the team has carefully and faithfully captured and rendered in six-channel sound the remarkable symphony of sonic moods produced by the locomotive.
Sound recordist Thierry Morlaas-Lurbe captures ambient live locomotive sound in the yards.
A special excursion was devoted just to capture the sound of the train. Recordist Thierry Morlass-Lurbe rigged the 2816 locomotive with microphones to capture all the rhythms and moods of the great machine and its mountain journey. The sounds of a steam journey were then matched with an original musical score by celebrated composer Michel Cusson and a soundscape designed by Peter Thillaye leading a sound mixing team.
The film was ultimately honoured with an award for Best Sound Editing, Special Venue at the MPSE Golden Reel Awards in 2012.
A music recording session (strings) for the giant screen.
Composer Michel Cusson at the console during orchestra recording.
The view from the mixing booth: a string recording session unfolds.
Collaborations & Outcomes
Creating a film on the scale of Rocky Mountain Express is an immense collaborative effort, involving ultimately hundreds of people and organizations. The Canadian Pacific Railway, together with the film crew, post-production personnel and exhibiting theaters all played a role in the success of the film. The outcome of the project is a film exhibited around the world, reaching all kinds of audiences—an experience that draws viewers into a shared kinetic journey that elucidates a vanishing piece of history and showcases a remarkable part of the planet.
CPR executive Mark Seland (right) discusses a shot with Director Stephen Low as the camera crew prepares the Imax camera on the running board of steam locomotive 2816. The extent of cooperation by the railroad in the making of this film was very likely unprecedented in the history of film.
The train crew, production crew and passengers of a production excursion gather around the locomotive. Among the passengers are members of the giant screen exhibition community, representatives of IMAX theater exhibition partners in the Rocky Mountain Express project. For many, it’s a unique opportunity to witness the giant screen filmmaking process first-hand.
From right to left: Carla Clarke, first assistant camera; Jon Morris Steam locomotive “Hogger” or Engineer; Dillon Reade, camera operator and; Stephen Low, Director.
The Imax crew poses with steam crew. It doesn’t take long before everyone is equally coated in soot and grease.
The hugely positive audience response to Rocky Mountain Express has seen the film exhibited around the world from Singapore to Switzerland, from Melbourne to Paris and The Hague. Uniquely, it’s a giant screen film that many audience members report seeing more than once.
Rocky Mountain Express at the Bullock Museum in Texas.
A Rocky Mountain Express billboard in Cincinnati, OH.
Official film site: www.rockymountainexpressfilm.com
Film page: www.stephenlow.com/films/rocky-mountain-express
Where to see it: www.rockymountainexpressfilm.com/updates/where-to-see-it