On the Road for ‘Dream Big,’ IMAX Director MacGillivray Excited About Movie

December 16, 2015
Greg MacGillivray has been instrumental in the history of IMAX films. Photo courtesy MacGillivray-Freeman.

The new year will bring a ramped-up production schedule for Dream Big: Engineering Wonders of the World, the first film for IMAX and giant-screen theaters about engineering. The MacGillivray-Freeman production, developed in partnership with ASCE and presented by Bechtel, already has filmed segments in Australia and Haiti, with an extensive itinerary planned for 2016 in preparation for the film’s release in early 2017.

ASCE members can join in the excitement by entering the Society’s Dream Big Contest. The top prize is a trip for two to a Dream Big film shoot.

The film’s director, Greg MacGillivray, is an Academy Award–nominated filmmaker who specializes in IMAX technology. His innovative use of helicopter camera mounts in the 1970s ushered in a new era of giant-screen films.

MacGillivray recently spoke with ASCE News about his career, what to expect from the Dream Big film, and – contest entrants note – where in the world that film shoot prize might wind up happening.

ASCE News: Broadly speaking, what about this project, the Dream Big movie, has you excited?

Greg MacGillivray: I think the story of inventing and creating is just such a good one that everyone loves. Building something better out of nothing is always fun. And showing it in IMAX is I think going to be even more fun. Nothing will give you a sense of scale as well as IMAX, and not only because the screen is so big but also because the detail is so sharp and clear. You feel like you’re standing right next to, you know, the Shanghai Tower or the Pyramids of Egypt. You feel like you’re there.

And that’s probably the biggest value of IMAX. You feel like you’re there, so you remember it better. That’s why it’s such a good educational tool. It’s really the next best thing to being there. That’s the way astronauts have described it, the way divers have described it when they see underwater movies. You feel like you’re there.

ASCE News: So you really got started doing really exciting aerial action shots with surfing…

MacGillivray: Yeah, with surfing and all kinds of other things later on.

Greg MacGillivray works on a scouting shoot for Dream Big in Haiti. Photo courtesy MacGillivray-Freeman.

Greg MacGillivray works on a scouting shoot for Dream Big in Haiti. Photo courtesy MacGillivray-Freeman.

ASCE News: How did that lead to IMAX technology?

MacGillivray: The first [IMAX] film that we did, called To Fly!, we were brought in to do that film by the Smithsonian, probably because they had seen the work that we had done on [the 1973 film] Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Half of that movie was photographed by my partner [the late Jim Freeman] and I – mostly by my partner – and the visual imagery of birds in flight and our ability to give the audience the sensation of flying by using different camera mounts that we designed and had built, it gave you a new visual sensation of flying, of seeing things from the air.

And this new IMAX system, there were only at that point three other theaters in the world that were IMAX. So when that theater went in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington in 1976, it was a new thing. People had never seen it before. They gasped when they saw the size of the screen, and then when they saw the movie and the clarity of the image and our giving them the sensation of flying, they gasped again. It was one of those things that they remembered. They talked about it.

That’s what got me excited about IMAX. It was a new way of making movies. In fact, we had to throw away the filmmaking rules that we learned from books and cinema school and create new rules, new ways of doing things.

That’s part of the joy of making films in IMAX. It’s harder than making films in other formats, but when you see it finished it’s so much more rewarding. There’s more emotion to it. You feel like you’re there.

And I feel like that’s what will make this engineering film so impactful and so memorable. Our goal is to engage more students in engineering. So I think IMAX can do that better than any other medium; even better than a teacher in a class.

ASCE News: So you’ve been to Haiti already. Where do you anticipate heading off to shoot in the new year?

MacGillivray: We’ll shoot in Venice, China, all throughout the United States. Those are our big locations. We also have a short stint in Australia and Norway and Scotland. We’re shooting around the world. There’s a short stint in Egypt.

ASCE News: Take Venice as an example. What kind of strategies are you going to employ to capture the infrastructure there and the engineering there? What kind of opportunities do you think a site like that will provide with the IMAX technology?

MacGillivray: Well, they have a problem in that Venice floods. Not only is the city sinking but the sea level is rising. They want to protect the city and all these wonderful treasures of humanity, these buildings and the entire city itself. And so they’re building these gates, these devices that’ll actually hold back the high tide. That’s basically our story there – how they do that, why they want to do it, and why it’s so important.

We follow an engineer and learn his goals and her goals – there’re two engineers – and try to get a sense of what they’re trying to accomplish within this beautiful setting.

ASCE News: Is there a particular piece, whether it’s in America or abroad, that you’re especially anxious to capture on film?

MacGillivray: There is a sequence about the Shanghai Tower, which is kind of an engineering marvel and a beautiful building to look at. We’re going to go into the way it was constructed and what’s unique about it, the way that it handles the wind loads. It’s one of the particularly interesting design solutions. Because so many big buildings and bridges are being built today in China as China expands, we’re featuring those and showing that part of that. But we’re also featuring lots of activity here in the United States.

ASCE News: How do you get those shots of a super structure like that?

MacGillivray: We hope to use helicopters. That’s the best way. The helicopter shots are just so captivating. You see so much. You see people walking on the ground and you’re a thousand feet up. The detail is just so stunning.

We’re trying to get students more energetic about engineering. … That’s our goal.

1 Comment
  • Dream Big is inspiring. Creativity and imagination lead to innovation. Humans have reached thus far using these out-side-the-box faculties in a dream state exploring our subconscious mind and evolution potential. An incredible human capability during a 6-million year journey on earth.

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