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Museums and Special Venue Media: A Conversation with Steve Judson and Chris Palmer of MacGillivray Freeman Films, leader in Giant-Screen Cinema

MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF) is one of the most successful producers and distributors of giant-screen 70mm documentaries, typically shown in Imax theaters in museums and science centers. Some MFF titles, including “Everest” (1998) and “To Fly” (1976) are, in the US, among the highest grossing documentaries of all time – right up there with mainstream docs like “Fahrenheit 911” and “An Inconvenient Truth.”

On the heels of the recent Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) film expo in Los Angeles, Blooloop’s Judith Rubin and Charles Read connected with Steve Judson (Vice President of Film Production and Post Production, and a 25-year veteran of the company) and Chris Palmer, (President, MacGillivray Freeman Films Educational Foundation). The company has been honored with numerous filmmaking and conservation awards. At GSCA, MFF screened new releases “Grand Canyon Adventure, ” and “Van Gogh: Brush With Genius” and works in progress “Arabia, ” “Return to Everest, ” and “To the Arctic.”

Blooloop: MacGillivray Freeman Films has done some truly passionate work in the environmental film genre over the decades. Do you feel these films have made a difference, and if so, how?

Chris Palmer (below): I think they’ve made a difference, but it is difficult to prove that. So many other things are going on at the same time (op-ed articles, lobbying, etc.) that it is vechris palmer macgillivray freemanry difficult to prove a direct cause-and-effect linkage between a film and a change in people’s behavior or a change in public policy. Having said that, I’m sure films have made a big difference.

Blooloop: MFF works in the giant screen documentary format. What do you think giant screen films offer over and above standard cinema formats?

CP: They offer incredible surround sound, resolution, and size. This results in an immersive experience which is visceral and deeply involving.

Blooloop: In the case of wildlife filmmaking, to what extent should a filmmaker interact with the subject in order to get the shot? Doesn’t filming as a process alter animal behavior? 

CP: Habituating wild animals is a bad idea because it alters their natural behavior and changes their fight-and-flight response. Filmmakers need to behave very carefully in this area. They are under tremendous pressure to produce dramatic and exciting footage. But if in achieving that goal, they hurt the very animals they are trying to save, then something sad and highly regrettable has occurred. Using animals from game farms (instead of wild animals) is not a good solution either because game farms are not good places for wild animals to be held captive.

Blooloop: What steps do you take to ensure the filmmaking process itself doesn’t create any negative environmental impact?

CP: My colleagues Larry Engel and Andrew Buchanan have written a wonderful code on that topic, which we should all follow. It would be ironic if films designed to encourage conservation do the very reverse during their production. [For more information on this code, see environmentalfilm.org]

Blooloop: What is the right tone to strike in motivating an audience in environmental matters and informing them of environmental dangers & hazards, without a) making the experience a downer, or b) making them too complacent?

CP: This is difficult because you want to entertain them, while at the same time, you want to educate them and inspire them to be both outraged and motivated to change. If the film is too much of a downer, or at the other extreme too complacent, then the film will not achieve its goals.
steve judson macgillivray freeman
Steve Judson (right): We test the film a lot at the rough-cut stage. When we did it with “Coral Reef Adventure, ” at first audiences found the conservation message too subtle. They wanted us to inform them about what they could do, what steps they could take. We added specifics and then audiences told us it was too detailed…

We have found that the current economic downturn has made people less receptive to a strong message, which is why we softened the tone of “Grand Canyon Adventure” – we have just released the remix.

Blooloop: All MFF productions are released in 3D as well as 2D now, but up until the initial 2008 release of “Grand Canyon Adventure” they were all in 2D. Has 3D changed your approach to filmmaking?

SJ: Sometimes we shoot directly in 3D using a 3D camera rig, and sometimes we shoot in 2D and then extract the 3D after the fact. We’re doing the latter now on two films now in production, “Arabia” and “Arctic.” In the case of “Arctic, ” a 3D rig would be slow to set up for capturing wildlife, and also it has you more locked into how extreme the 3D is. Whereas with a 2D-to-3D conversion, you can control the amount of 3D, and that helps with transitions.

In either case, the camera is more fixed because 3D lends itself less to camera movement. You can’t be as spontaneous as in 2D and you have fewer setups. It makes you somewhat more conservative, less likely to try a couple of weird shots.

3D hasn’t affected our storytelling very much. There’s a theory that 3D has to be part and parcel of the storyline, but I don’t subscribe to that. I don’t think there has to be a 3D “reason” but once you make the decision to make a film in 3D you have to incorporate 3D moments, such as the opening bubble sequence in “Grand Canyon Adventure.”

MacGillivray Freeman Films was founded in the 1960s by producer-director-cinematographer Greg MacGillivray and his late partner, Jim Freeman, and is based in Laguna Beach, Calif. USA.  Visit www.macfreefilms.com.

See also:
GSCA Announces Winners of Annual Film awards
Giant Award for Toronto Business
GSCA Announces 2008 Marketing Awards
MacGillivray "Van Gogh: Brush With Genius" Wins Grand Prix Award At La Géode Film Festival
MacGillivray Freeman’s "Grand Canyon Adventure" Nominated for Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing
MacGillivray Freeman’s "Grand Canyon Adventure" Nominated for VES Award for Outstanding Visual Effects

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