The Beacon

Q&A with 'To The Arctic' Filmmakers

To the Arctic showcases unique Arctic species like polar bears. ©IMAX

Oceana had a chance to talk to Greg and Shaun MacGillivray, the producers of To the Arctic, an IMAX 3D film that explores the changing landscape of the Arctic and the animals that call it home. Here's what they had to say about survivng the cold and falling in love with a family of polar bears.

Q: Without revealing any spoilers, what is To the Arctic going to show us that we’ve never seen before?

To The Arctic is the first 3D IMAX film ever shot in the Arctic, and because of the immersive, experiential quality of 3D IMAX footage shown on screens 80 feet tall, audiences will feel like they have been transported to this incredibly wild and pristine place without even having to put a parka on. We were extremely lucky while shooting in Norway to find a mother polar bear and her two cubs willing to let us follow and film them at close range for five days straight, which is unprecedented. Polar bears are usually skittish around humans and will avoid them. But this mother was completely comfortable with us and even seemed to like having us nearby. The result is that we were able to capture extremely rare, close-up footage showing the daily lives of a polar bear family in a changing Arctic, and the incredible lengths to which this mother went to protect and nurture her cubs. We saw her fend off four different attacks by hungry male polar bears in five days, and we have it all on film. 

Q: What were some of the challenges filming in Arctic conditions?

In the Arctic we were primarily filming wildlife, which is hard enough in normal conditions. But the extreme cold and wind and remoteness of our locations made it even more difficult than usual. When you’re filming wildlife, there is a lot of waiting and searching for the animals, and then you want to try to capture a variety of animal behaviors, so you have to give yourself lots of time. We were in the field much longer for To The Arctic  than for any of our other films—about 8 months over four years—and we were never really comfortable. On one trip, during our three-week stay aboard an icebreaker in Norway, the showers weren’t working, so we didn’t bathe for 21 days straight! For the underwater crew filming under the ice cap, the conditions were even more challenging. They were filming in water that was 29 degrees Fahrenheit, literally “liquid ice.” Only the salt content in the water kept it from freezing. It was so cold that their longest dive was only 45 minutes. Any longer and their hands would have become completely frozen.

Q: How different was diving in the Arctic compared to California? 

Well, for one thing, we were filming polar bears underwater, which you don’t find too often in California. To get the shots, we relied on Bob Cranston, a brave underwater cinematographer who has photographed alligators, great white sharks, venomous snakes, and now, the fiercest predator of all--polar bears. They are eating machines, so we sent in Bob. He invented a way to film them by diving down below them, then waiting for the bear’s natural curiosity to cause them to investigate our cameras. If the bears got too close for comfort, Bob would sink down out of range. Polar bears don’t like to dive too deep—the deepest we saw them dive was about 20 feet—so as long as Bob picked spots where the water was deeper than that, he felt relatively safe.   

Q: Can you describe life in the Arctic – the ecosystem – compared to other places. How is it different? Does it seem more robust, fragile?

When you’re there in the Arctic, you get this incredible sense of being connected to nature and to a truly wild, expansive place. You also see how difficult survival is for the wildlife there, and how everything is interconnected. If you alter one thing in that web of life, it has a rippling effect across the entire eco-system.  Without the sea ice, which is melting at alarming rates, polar bears can no longer hunt for their favorite meal, the ringed seal. We saw at close range the effects these kinds of changes are having on the Arctic’s wildlife.  Our hope is that our film To The Arctic will bring new attention to this great wilderness and to efforts to keep it pristine and wild.  

Q: What was your favorite Arctic animal you encountered?

The polar bear, by far. After following the polar bear mom and her cubs for nearly a week, we felt very bonded with them, to the point where it became agonizing to watch them get chased by several hungry male bears who were after the cubs. As documentary filmmakers, we never interfere with nature, but it was tempting at certain times to try to warn the mama bear that a male was approaching in the distance—not that we could have done much to help. Instead, we watched the scene play out right before our eyes, several times. Fortunately, this mother was very intelligent, and on four different occasions we saw her either outwit or stand up to the male bears.  

Q: Did you ever feel “connected’ to the Arctic ecosystem?  At what moment did this happen? 

We felt very connected during our time filming the polar bear family who let us into their daily lives for five days. It was an honor felt by all twenty-one members of our team. Because we observed this family so closely for so long, we felt very connected to them. Their struggles and successes felt like our struggles and successes. At the same time, we realized how urgent their plight really is, and what a mammoth effort it will take to preserve their home from the effects of climate change . The Arctic is changing twice as fast as anywhere else because of warming temperatures, and in that regard, it’s like the canary in the coal mine, warning us of more changes to come.  I hope the Arctic will be able to survive these changes, but it means we’ll have to act fast to reverse the warming trends caused by climate change, which won’t be easy. 

Q: What was your favorite moment while shooting the film?

Falling in love with the polar bear family who became the stars of our film.

Q: Now that you’ve spent considerable time in the Arctic, what can you say about the people who live and work there?

They are hard-working, resilient people who have a special connection to their environment and who are watching their way of life change before their very eyes because of warming temperatures.  It’s not just the Arctic wildlife being affected by climate change; the people who live there are being affected, too.

Q: Can you picture an oil spill in the Arctic?  Why is conservation and responsible development so important here?

An oil spill would be devastatingOne reason we made the film was to help audiences fall in love with the Arctic and experience the same sense of wonder and appreciation for this incredible environment that we felt while filming it. We hope the film inspires audiences to support conservation measures. We want to empower people to take small, easy actions that will help protect the Arctic.

Q: What do you hope people take away from this film?

We have a very special planet. It is our duty to ourselves, to our children, and to our children’s children to leave it as we found it. But as our friend and advisor, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, often says, we are the lucky generation because through our recent scientific research, we now know enough to be able to preserve it. We can all make a difference with small simple decisions and actions in our daily lives.

To The Arctic can be seen at IMAX and IMAX 3D theatres across North America.

More information about To The Arctic can be found on the MacGillivary Freeman Films website.

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