Imagine standing on top of a six-story building-then jumping off and free-falling to the ground. Then imagine that the building and ground are made of fast-moving liquid, that you're jumping to your feet on a surfboard, and that the building is throwing itself outwards and crashing down behind you with several tons of force, threatening to crush you. This visualization may give you some small idea of what it feels like to charge the monster waves of Mavericks.
Production of ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA
began fittingly at this infamous stretch of surfing beach in Half Moon Bay, California where cold, hard seas rage in winter-time, producing some of California's biggest waves, some of them the size of small mountains. At Maverick's Beach, a rare breed of surfers dares to ascend these temporary summits of surf, taking the art of waveriding to new extremes.
This was territory close to filmmaker Greg MacGillivray's heart, since he himself is a highly respected surfer and surfing cinematographer. He oversaw the shoot - a profile of Jeff Clark, the bold wave-rider who discovered Maverick's Beach and now uses it as a testing ground for his ability to transcend panic and stay calm in the belly of the ocean's unpredictable fury.
It wasn't exactly a leisurely start because Mavericks' only "goes off" a few times each year, usually with less than 48 hours notice. Incoming winter storms produce the
six-story high walls of water that elite big-wave surfers crave. For the courageous and lucky, this means the ride of their life. For the unlucky, it means being dashed into the Boneyard, a rocky shore where surfers have been pinned for life-threatening minutes.
The surf here demands the utmost respect and caution. The production team and Clark watched the weather radar and consulted expert wave forecasters to pick the perfect conditions. They had a "firehouse" mentality the whole time - ever at the ready, the minute conditions seemed right, the alarms went off and the whole team piled their rig into cars, boats and helicopters and set off for the shore.
Because the towering waves at Maverick's Beach are generally a half-mile out in the ocean, the logistics were complicated. Using long telephoto lenses, portions of the surfing scenes were shot from boats (with special stabilizing mounts), from helicopters and from the shore. Up-close shots right from the water's surface were captured by cameraman Mike Peralta, a renowned surfing photographer who won't shoot on a boat because he gets sea-sick! The IMAX camera was placed in a specially-created waterproof box for Peralta but the waves were so violent that three times the invaluable camera was ripped from his hands and had to be rescued by helicopter.
In the end, all the technical obstacles were overcome and the IMAX camera captured the 30-foot waves and 35 MPH surfers in all their full scope and glory. As Jeff Clark notes: "If you can make peace with the power of Maverick's, it is like nowhere else on earth."
Almost nothing ignites the sense of adventure like flying: to climb to the highest point, to enter the realm of the heavens, to view our earth from above - all of these have long been among the most inspiring dreams of humankind. Flying has forever changed how we see our planet - if only because from above we can see how interconnected land and sea, countries of the world, human and animals really are.
Today, people criss-cross the skies of California on shuttle flights like it's nothing, but there are still California pilots, parachutists and freefall cameraman exploring new ways to play in the sky. Among them are Troy Hartman and Joe Jennings, world champion skysurfers.
Greg MacGillivray and his team flew to Mission Bay near San Diego to shoot unprecedented footage of Hartman and Jennings frolicking in the air just above where the land meets the sea. "It's an unexpected view - and not an easy one to get. We had to wrangle special FAA permission to shoot there," explains writer/producer Mark Krenzien.
The very concept was a risk: no one had ever filmed extensive freefall shots with an IMAX camera. IMAX and freefall seemed a contradiction in terms. Who would dare jump out of a plane with a bulky, 75-pound IMAX camera strapped to their chest? The answer turned out to be Joe Jennings, who is not only a skysurfer but also an innovative aerial cinematographer in his own right. Jennings designed a special harness to hold the camera, as well as a massive wing-suit - with fabric spanning from his knees to his wrists - to slow his rate of descent. He then took dozens of practice jumps to perfect the art of flying the IMAX camera. (The shots of Joe Jennings and Troy Hartman skysurfing as a team were shot by BJ Worth, who is best known for his extensive work on the James Bond series of motion pictures.)
The potential pitfalls were enormous. Explains Krenzien: "One of the major problems is how do you balance the fall-rate of the photographer with the fall-rate of the surfer. Obviously, they have to be at fairly close levels to one another in the sky. In this case, Joe's winged suit and extraordinary skill made the difference." The filmmakers also arranged for ex- Navy SEALS to wait in a Zodiac boat in the ocean . . . just in case of any need for a sea rescue.
"For me the challenge was to learn how to fly this 75-pound camera," says Jennings. "I've done a lot of innovative sky-shooting but this was totally new. To shoot skysurfing you have to be able to maneuver very quickly - it's a very dynamic, exciting process. So I had to figure out how to control my flight with the camera - literally using my body and suit to bank left and right like an airplane to get the most exciting shots."
Another constant obstacle in shooting the freefall sequences was the notoriously short length of each IMAX film cartridge - a maximum of 45 seconds - which required constant re-loading, no easy feat when the camera is plummeting to the ground on the chest of a parachutist. Luckily, freefall itself takes only a minute, so Jennings was used to a time limit. He also designed a special hand switch so he could stop and start filming when he had the best shots lined up. Ultimately, it took some 30 freefall jumps for the filmmaking team to get their stunning skysurfing sequences.
But once the filming started, the results were too exciting to go back. "From the first shot we saw, we knew this was going to be a major sequence in the movie. We quickly realized this was going to take audiences into a skydiving adventure like nothing ever experienced before," says
For many involved with the production of
ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA one of the most soaring and surprising moments came when botanist Dr. Steve Sillett led the camera crew on an expedition inside a
254-foot giant sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park. Most people have looked up in awe at these living behemoths, the tallest living things on earth, but only a few scientists have ever entered their very core.
The giant sequoia, because it is a tree that reaches for the highest heights and can live some 2,000 years, has long fascinated Californians. We want to know why they grow so much, how they live so long, what they might have witnessed. The sequoias and redwoods have become a symbol of how large the ambitions and spirit of the state can be. Intriguingly, the trees can only grow in California, the one place in the world their complex requirements are met: moist yet sandy soil, moderate temperatures and generous precipitation.
Dr. Stephen Sillett is drawn to giant sequoias not only because of their grand poetry but also because of what they can teach us scientifically about biological processes and the environment. The sequoia is the zenith of a rich and diverse ecosystem that has developed in their shadow. Just prior to production, Dr. Sillett had heard an exciting rumor that high up in the world's second largest sequoia - a tree known as the Washington Tree - might be hidden a massive cavity forming a cave inside the living tree. No one knew for sure if was true, but Sillett was determined to find out. He invited the IMAX film crew on one of the most exciting arboreal investigations he'd ever attempted: mapping and exploring one of the largest trees ever examined in detail.
It was a true expedition from the start. Pack mules carried the heavy IMAX equipment - not their usual load -- deep into the Sequoia National Forest, where the Washington Tree is sheltered. There, using rock-climbing techniques, Sillett intended to climb the
77.3 meter-high tree, secure himself in the canopy, search for the cavity and if possible enter the tree.
The ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA team knew if they were going to accompany him, they would have to ascend with Dr. Sillett and bring the IMAX camera. Big wall climbers and Yosemite Search and Rescue veteran Werner Braun were brought in to help rig intricate lines to haul the camera to the top of the forest canopy. And because carrying minimal weight was of the essence, the team used the same special, lighter-weight IMAX camera designed by MacGillivray Freeman to go the top of Mt. Everest.
Once the camera made its way into the tree, additional creative rigging was required to secure it to various tripods, which sometimes were roped horizontally to the tree's trunk. The IMAX camera also made its first Tyrolean traverse - traveling horizontally along a fixed line right behind Dr. Sillett as he made his way from tree to tree.
But the biggest challenge came when Dr. Sillett made his shocking discovery: the tree did indeed have a cavity, one that seemed to tunnel into the tree for
115 feet. No camera had ever been that far inside a living tree - but Greg MacGillivray hoped to change all that. He immediately had special lights and equipment brought into the National Park, insisting that someone from the team sleep beside the tree to watch over the precious technology - and protect it from Sequoia's
Once the IMAX® camera disappeared into the "tree cave" no one knew what would happen. The cave grew more and more narrow towards the bottom, nearly squeezing out the camera and cameraman, but after seven incredible hours, they emerged victorious.
"This was really suspenseful filmmaking," says Mark
Krenzien, "because there were constant surprises and a real sense of discovery. No one knew what was going to be up there, and the camera team did an incredibly heroic job of bringing the audience right into that sense of mystery."
Part of that mystery is uncovering just what made such a large cavity in the tree - lightning, fungus, some other natural process, or possibly a combination - a question that remains unanswered. The research Dr. Sillett started on-camera continues, as he continues to discover new things about the Washington Tree, including rare fungus growing on its inside and some of the oldest living Sequoia cones - at 50 years -- ever encountered.
If the Sequoia tree is California's most prolific natural symbol, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is the state's most beloved architectural icon. This remarkable feat of human engineering spans the bay and reveals the ways in which human enterprise and nature can work in harmony in California.
When the bridge was first built in 1937, many said it couldn't be done: it was too dangerous, and too expensive. But California innovator Joseph Strauss felt differently. Though the work would be scary, dangerous, and physically brutal, the wages were excellent, especially considering the Depression, and construction workers flocked to sign up and help Strauss realize his vision.
Strauss took precautions: indeed, this was the first construction project that required the use of hard hats. It was a good thing he set up safety nets, because the cables often iced over, and several people slipped and fell. Many of those who fell and were caught by nets were nonetheless so shaken, they could never return to work. As a result of all this, the weekends were wild in the nearby boomtown that sprung up to cater to the workers who'd just gotten paid. It was all emblematic of the macho but forward thinking California bravado-and when it was finished, Californians celebrated it as a symbol of hope that the hard times of the Depression were over.
The bridge remains a testament to human artistry and invention - the wild side of the California imagination. Millions upon millions of people from across the world have admired its mile-long, 746-fooot high steel expanse, replete with ribbons of bracing cable and sky-high twin towers. But few people realize the on-going human story behind the smooth operation of the Golden Gate Bridge. As cars and bicycles whiz under the bridge, high-wire iron workers are teetering above assuring the continued safety of one of the most immense human structures ever built.
The Golden Gate Bridge has never been seen via high-intensity IMAX cinematography before in any form. But
ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA's filmmakers wanted to reveal the wild extremes that maintenance of California's most famous bridge requires - so the IMAX camera journeyed up in the little-known, box-sized elevator, taking the 4 1/2 minute trip up to the very top of the bridge, along with the iron workers who scale its heights every day.
From here, the team was able to garner a truly unprecedented view of California - not only of the beautiful San Francisco cityscape in the distance but of the daring human spirit that keeps this landmark bridge in perfect shape.
Invention was the name of the game - a fitting way to explore one of America's most inventive works of engineering. To communicate the heart-pounding view and high-velocity inner experience of the ironworkers, Greg MacGillivray designed a special variant to the IMAX camera: a compact, 38-pound version that could be strapped around a Golden Gate Bridge ironworker's neck. Now the audience could truly know what is like to walk in their shoes 700 feet in the air with the wind howling right through them.
Of course, standing atop the Golden Gate Bridge in fifty mile-an-hour winds with 38 pound around your neck is no walk in the park - but it was proof of what a special breed of California these ironworkers are. "What was really wonderful is to see how much bridge workers Joe Van Bonn and Bill Owens got into the spirit of WILD CALIFORNIA," notes Mark Krenzien. "They really wanted people to have a chance to feel what they feel and see what they see up there, to be moved and thrilled by this. So they did everything they possibly could and beyond to help us accomplish our mission."
While some Wild Californians cross brutal physical boundaries such as steep slopes and massive waves, others cross mysterious biological boundaries, reaching into the animal world to communicate with the creatures with whom we share this earth. California is home to many of nature's most powerful, fascinating and tale-inspiring beasts including whales, dolphins, black bears and bald eagles. It is also home to one of the most whimsical creatures in the sea: the southern sea otter, the furry, brown, ocean-going members of the weasel family, whose playful ways have long delighted humans yet whose numbers have almost been wiped out by human trapping and fishing.
Greg MacGillivray long had a soft spot in his heart for the fur-bearing swimmers, whose antics amazed him during visits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He knew the Aquarium was working furiously to save and rehabilitate young otters who have been orphaned and would otherwise have no hope of survival. "The kind of dedication these aquarists show to celebrating and saving wild California is an inspiration to all of us," says
MacGillivray. "They have an incredible story to tell about what can happen when humans decide to enter the sea and communicate with animals on their own terms."
The story of California's sea otters was nearly a tragedy. Once there were 30,000 otters living in sea kelp beds along the coast. But by 1930, after decades of aggressive fur trapping (the otters were prized for their extremely thick, insulating fur, the densest of any mammals) only a single, tiny colony of 50 otters hung on. Today, the numbers are slightly more optimistic but the threats continue. A stream of pollutants from on-shore sources and offshore oil rigs is destroying kelp beds and reefs and causing reproductive and health problems for all of California's fish and marine life, including the otters. Today, two out of every three orphaned otters perishes without intervention. Only with extraordinary human efforts do these sea mammals have a chance.
Those efforts are poignantly demonstrated by Aquarist Sue Campbell who acts as a surrogate mother to orphaned otters, literally teaching them the skills they need in the ocean - just like their real, furrier mothers would! Everyday she takes orphan pups from the Aquarium out into the ocean for basic training. She teaches them how to dive and forage. She demonstrates how to eat their shellfish diet, rolling over onto her back to dine with a rock at the ready to smash open hard-shelled food. And she even helps them out with grooming their fur coats, which can contain over 800 million hairs on large adult.
None of this is easy, since humans don't have the ability to stay underwater for 4 minutes, stay warm in the cold ocean water or dive 60 feet instantaneously. The amazing part is that that thanks to their intrinsic need to bond with a maternal figure, the otters take to Campbell as if she were one of them - and she does her best to play the role of otter mama. Eventually, if Campbell's schooling is successful she can release the otters back into the sea, as graduates in the ways of wild living.
Unlike other sequences for ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA, the otter-rescuing scenes required the IMAX camera and crew to be entirely inconspicuous. The Aquarists agreed to the filming under the conditions that the otters never be disturbed by the cameras - and never have their natural curiosity aroused by all the human activity. After all, part of keeping them wild is maintaining some suspicion of humans. They are only supposed to have contact with their one surrogate human mother, in this case Sue Campbell.
The solution was to shoot the otters from above rather than in the water - and to quickly dash away when the otter started to come near. "For this sequence, the otter was the director," jokes Greg
The otter, along with Sue Campbell, also became a major character in the story of
ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA, providing one of the adventure's most charming and moving moments: the sight of woman and otter communing in the sea. "The ways in which you see otters relating to humans in this story are very moving because they remind us of how much we share with the wild creatures of the state," notes Mark
The filmmakers of
ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA traveled not only to California's wildest eco-systems but to California's wildest cultural outposts: Disneyland and The Academy Awards, where art, invention and entertainment are the means of adventure. Here, they discovered that along with mountains, rivers, forests and oceans, California is also blessed with its share of pixie dust and ethereal whimsy.
At the Academy Awards®, Greg MacGillivray waltzed the IMAX camera down the world-renowned red carpet with the nominees so that audiences could step just for a moment into the wild territory of celebrity,
experiencing the flashbulb strobes, thrusting mics and sense of
dazzlement. "Perhaps no single event symbolizes California more to people around the world than the Oscars," notes Mark
Krenzien. "The movies and all the dreams they represent are as much as part of California's limit-seeking mindset as anything."
The Oscars, seen here at Los Angeles' downtown Music Center, began in 1929, just as the miracle of sound came to the movies for the first time. The first ceremony took place in Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel and was a relatively tame affair by today's standards, with only 15 awards presented and the winners pre-announced. The sealed envelope didn't arrive until 1941, turning the awards into one of the world's most exciting, suspense-filled annual events. No longer just an industry insider's banquet, the Oscars are a chance for everyone around the world to share in the boundless dreams of California's entertainers and filmmakers.
Among California's most inspiring Oscar winners was Walt Disney, who came to California with just 29 dollars in his pocket and a vision in his head to change the future. Disney did so on many levels - from pioneering motion picture animation, to dreaming up the iconic Mickey Mouse, to inventing the modern theme park in the 1950s, to exploring futuristic visions of tomorrow's technology and cities. Disney became not only the consummate California folk hero but the consummate American: a bold, self-made entrepreneur; a passionate artist; a joyful optimist and an endlessly fertile imagination.
Disney also added another wonderful resource to California - the state's premiere design and art college: The California Institute of the Arts (known as Cal Arts), which has trained hundreds of wild-thinking minds as filmmakers, design artists and inventors.
ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA's filmmakers conducted interviews with Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney, to get a sense of Walt's heady days of invention and creativity. Roy Disney believes his uncle falls into the pantheon of California risk-takers who chased the limits of a different terrain: that of the human imagination. As Roy Disney says: "Once Walt had an idea, he was never afraid of taking a risk. He could build what no one else could imagine . . . he had a lot of ideas but they all came from the sense of dreams and joy that bring you back to your own childhood."
Our large-format camera was the first movie camera of any kind ever allowed to capture this scene for a theatrical
One wild creature that has always captivated California and all of America is the country's proud national symbol: the bald eagle
(haliaeetus leucocephalus). The ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA team felt compelled to capture on film one of the most exciting bald eagle restoration attempts of the century: the re-introduction of the bald eagle to California's Catalina Island, just off the coast of Los Angeles.
The bald eagle is a predatory bird and has few predators of its own, save for humans. The species numbers have been dramatically reduced due to the destruction of its habitat by human hunting, urban
development and the toxic effects of DDT, which cause thinning and
destruction of many raptor eggs. On rustic Catalina Island, the once
prevalent bird-of-prey disappeared from the skies. Now protected by
the state of California, the eagles are starting to take flight in
their native habitat once again.
Because bald eagles prefer deciduous and coniferous forests along coastlines, Catalina Island was once a favorite
home ground. Now, thanks to the bold efforts of scientists like Dr. Peter
Sharpe, it may be once again.
ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA closes with an astonishing
sight. Witness a lone human figure dangling from a helicopter carefully placing
a bald eagle chick into a nest high above Catalina Island. As with every sequence of the film, safety experts and creative cinematographers joined forces to bring this moment of human and wild collusion to audiences in the most intimate manner possible.
"This may be our most dramatic image of preserving and protecting California wilderness," states Greg
For MacGillivray the image was everything the phrase
ADVENTURES IN WILD CALIFORNIA should represent: evocative, raw, a mixture of human and nature both soaring to new heights.