As seen in the new IMAX® 3D film To The Arctic – a story of this mother's love and struggle for survival. Copyright© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Photo: Shaun MacGillivray.
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To The Arctic 3D (2012)
Opened: 04/20/2012 Limited
Trailer: Click for trailer
An extraordinary journey to the top of the world, the documentary adventure "To The Arctic 3D" tells the ultimate tale of survival. Narrated by Oscar® winner Meryl Streep, the film takes audiences on a never-before-experienced journey into the lives of a mother polar bear and her twin seven-month-old cubs as they navigate the changing Arctic wilderness they call home.
Captivating, adventurous and intimate footage brings moviegoers up close and personal with this family's struggle to survive in a frigid environment of melting ice, immense glaciers, spectacular waterfalls, and majestic snow-bound peaks.
Warner Bros. Pictures and IMAX® Filmed Entertainment present a MacGillivray Freeman Film, "To The Arctic," a One World One Ocean presentation, directed by two-time Academy Award®- nominated filmmaker Greg MacGillivray ("The Living Sea," "Dolphins"). Filmed in 15/70mm IMAX ®3D, "To The Arctic" is written and edited by Stephen Judson ("Everest"), and produced by Shaun MacGillivray ("Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk").
The musical score is by Steve Wood, with songs by Paul McCartney.
MacGillivray Freeman Films is the world's foremost independent producer and distributor of giant-screen 70mm films with 35 IMAX® films to its credit. Throughout the company's 40-year history, its films have won numerous international awards including two Academy Award® nominations and three films inducted into the IMAX Hall of Fame. "To The Arctic 3D" follows in the company's long tradition of films known for their artistry and celebration of science, and for calling attention to the natural world.
About the Production
Destination: Arctic, the Top of the World
Director Greg MacGillivray has lifted audiences to the world's highest peaks with "Everest" and plunged them into the deep with "The Living Sea." His latest great adventure takes them to the mammoth glaciers and ice fields that lie at the planet's northernmost latitudes: the Arctic Circle. Colder than cold. It's a place of extreme conditions and pure, breathtaking vistas that few people will ever experience firsthand. Remarkably, it's also home to a variety of animals that have adapted to thrive in this forbidding climate, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth.
It's a place where IMAX® cameras have never gone. Until now.
"I've wanted to make a film about the Arctic for a long time," says MacGillivray, a twotime Academy Award® nominee and a master at capturing the natural world on the giant canvas of an IMAX® screen. "In 45 years of producing films, many of which have been about oceans or remote areas, I was still unprepared for what I found in the far North. Everything exists on a grand scale and the sky seems to stretch into eternity. The beauty and sheer grandeur of it make it an irresistible subject, and shooting in IMAX® gave us the opportunity to bring home some spectacular shots in a way that has never been seen before."
"It's one of the last truly wild places in the world," adds producer Shaun MacGillivray. "When you're in the Arctic, you're confronted with nature in its rawest form. You see how difficult it is for wildlife to survive there and how everything is interconnected. It's our hope that audiences who see 'To The Arctic' will get the same sense of wonder and appreciation for this incredible environment that I was lucky enough to experience during the four years it took for us to make this film."
The region encircling the North Pole is a place of dynamic change: alternately freezing and melting, with great masses breaking apart and crashing together again. Hundred-foot waterfalls rain icy water and chunks of glacial melt into the sea. It's also teeming with life, from the walruses and seals that populate the frigid water and shoreline to the myriad birds that travel north to nest and breed; from herds of hearty musk oxen and migrating caribou to the majestic polar bears...the apex predators of the tundra.
One polar bear family, in particular, became the focal point of "To The Arctic" when the filmmakers unexpectedly encountered a young mother with a pair of cubs who, unlike all the others, appeared comfortably indifferent to the cameras and crew. Over the course of several days, she allowed them an unprecedented window into her life at close range--hunting, playing, nursing, and teaching her youngsters how to escape from danger, or stand their ground.
"I don't know anyone who doesn't fall in love with polar bears," states Greg MacGillivray. "As cubs they're unbelievably cute and cuddly, and as adults they're thinking animals. They're very clever in their approach to finding food and protecting themselves. They really are the heart of the story."
Nowhere is that more evident than in the bond between mother and child, so plainly depicted in the daily routines of this family unit.
Meryl Streep, who narrates the film, calls it "an intimate look at a vast place. It centers on this polar bear mother and her cubs and the protective relationship she has with them, as do all polar bear mothers and their little ones. That's something we human mothers can empathize with very strongly, the desire to safeguard our children and make their future secure. You'll do anything, anything, to help them survive."
This is the third time Streep has served as narrator for a Greg MacGillivray film, following their collaborations on "Hurricane on the Bayou" and "The Living Sea." She says, "I have so much admiration for him and his team, how they capture these nearly impossible subjects and bring distant, often hostile environments to us in the most vivid ways and take us to places that we would never go. The photography is amazing. It's as if you can feel the ice."
To the casual observer, that ice seems endless and indestructible. But it's not. "Everyone knows the planet is changing but what they may not know is that the Arctic is changing two times faster," Greg MacGillivray notes. "With average temperatures rising faster here than anywhere else, the once-permanent summer ice pack is shrinking at an alarming rate and could ultimately become nonexistent. For the animals and the native people, these changes are already bringing hardship and may eventually threaten their very survival." This is one of the themes "To The Arctic" touches upon.
Throughout the winter, polar bears rely on the food their bodies store in summer months, primarily from seals, which they hunt from the ice platforms that have always extended for miles over the sea. "The earlier the ice melts, the more restricted their territory becomes, giving them limited access and less time to find seals, longer distances to swim without rest, and tougher competition. Local inhabitants are reporting more frequent sightings now around homes and campsites where bears were previously unseen," the director adds.
An iconic symbol for conservation efforts, the polar bear may be among the wellrecognized and arguably the hardest hit by the effects of climate change, but is not the only potential casualty in this scenario. The receding ice impacts all Arctic life, from seal colonies seeking a stable place to bear and raise their young, to caribou on their annual trek who find that rivers once manageable to cross are now rising torrents that can sweep away the youngest members of the herd.
Shaun MacGillivray likens the still-pristine Arctic environment to "the canary in a coal mine, alerting us that there's a major problem. The changes we're witnessing here are a sign of global changes to come."
Raising a Family Here isn't Easy
The MacGillivrays and their filmmaking team visited the Arctic seven times over a period of four years, logging a total of eight months on the ice and on the Arctic sea, including one month aboard the 130-foot icebreaker MS Havsel, to gather the information and images for the film. But it wasn't until nearly the conclusion of their northern odyssey that they discovered the stars of the show.
"We were extremely fortunate. In the final month of our seven-location shoot, we were privileged to be given our central characters," says Greg MacGillivray, citing the mother polar bear with the twin cubs whose uncharacteristic nonchalance about strangers on her turf resulted in the most captivating footage. "Sometimes this happens when you're on location for a documentary, and it's a real gift. Never before had filmmakers tracked a polar bear family at such close range, 24 hours a day, for nearly a week. We knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience." He and longtime creative collaborator Stephen Judson, the film's screenwriter and editor, adjusted the film's initial storyline to feature the mother and cubs.
Bears are notoriously camera-shy. Those spotted on earlier scouts had warily kept their distance. Perhaps this female was savvy enough to understand that the human presence might afford her some protection against more dangerous company--roaming male polar bears hungry enough to see her babies as an easy meal.
Even so, she was forced to repel four separate raids by much larger males in the five days the MacGillivrays and their team helplessly kept watch--rooting for her but knowing that, in any event, they could not interfere.
The most dramatic of these clashes, caught on film, began when the ever-vigilant mother picked up the scent of an approaching threat. Greg MacGillivray recounts, "With a warning bark, she sent her cubs scurrying into the water ahead and dove in behind them to block the male during what became a grueling four-mile pursuit. Snarling and snapping whenever he got close, she finally stopped and held her ground, growling as if to say, 'If you want to kill my cubs, you'll have to kill me first.' Finally, the male turned away, ending the longest and most thrilling chase I have ever captured.
"Polar bear mothers have the hardest job in the world, providing for and protecting their young, and that job is getting harder every year," he continues. "From July 19 to August 9, 2010 we visited the seas around Svalbard, Norway and spotted an amazing 132 bears. Normally we would have expected to see maybe 10 to 30. But the ice habitat has been greatly reduced; the ice field that would have been 50 miles wide was compressed into 10 square miles, creating an unusually tight concentration of bears."
Because the sun never sets on the Arctic summer, the filmmakers were able to use the light to work around the clock, always on alert. Lead director of photography Brad Ohlund, for whom "To The Arctic" marked his 90th time on location with MacGillivray, explains, "We took shifts, with someone always on the bridge of the ship, keeping an eye on the bears, and we would sleep with our clothes on. It was like being a firefighter. If something happened--maybe a male was on the prowl--we'd get a knock on the door and we'd throw on our boots and jackets and race up to the deck. The camera was all set up. We'd just put our eyes to the viewfinder and start shooting away."
Their dedication paid off, not only for the drama of evading predators but for shots of the mother and cubs in more relaxed moments. The twins--likely one male and one female--roughhoused, explored the ice floes and played in the snow while their mother watched, all the while testing the air for danger that could be smelled sooner than seen. Sometimes she romped with them, nursed, or gave them a lesson in seal-hunting. Ohlund recalls, "She'd be sitting on a chunk of ice and we'd be about 100 feet away with the engine turned off, and the wind would come up and push us towards her. We'd end up within 30 to 50 feet, and she would just look at us, take note and go about her business in a manner that surprised all of us, including our guides, who had never seen anything like it. It was quite astonishing."
Apart from the footage that Ohlund, Greg MacGillivray and producer Shaun MacGillivray recorded, the MacGillivrays also called upon the specialized talents of numerous noted cinematographers to cover the enormity of their subject from land, air and underwater. It was a stellar roster that included Emmy Award winner Bob Cranston; fellow IMAX® documentary filmmaker and Emmy Award winner Howard Hall; Ron Goodman, designer of the SpaceCam, a gyroscopically stabilized camera system for which he earned a technical Oscar®; and veteran documentary cinematographers Jack Tankard and Adam Ravetch.
Certified divers Hall and Cranston took the lead on the underwater photography with the specially equipped watertight IMAX® camera. Cranston, best known for his work with sharks, discovered that the best way to record bears swimming was to dive just a little deeper than they usually venture and focus upwards. Greg MacGillivray explains, "He waited for the animals' natural curiosity to cause them to investigate the cameras. Fortunately, bears don't like to dive too deep, so by staying just outside of their comfort zone he felt relatively safe."
Equally inquisitive were the walruses, especially the pups. "We got great shots of a walrus colony," says Shaun MacGillivray. "At one point a mother walrus and her baby swam straight for the camera and he seemed to kiss the lens before bouncing back up to the surface." It could have been a different story, though, if the mother had felt threatened. Undeniably gregarious and charming, walruses can be aggressive too, with males weighing as much as 1500 pounds and wielding three-foot-long tusks.
Says Greg, "To explore the diverse panoply of life under the sea ice, we dove into the subfreezing arctic brine with our 400-pound submersible IMAX® camera through a hole bored in the four-foot surface ice. As risky as cave diving, this experience has the added danger that beyond 45 minutes your hands will freeze stiff, your brain will numb to a crawl and you'd better be finding the exit soon."
Standard equipment aboard the Havsel included so-called survival suits, heavy neoprene garments fitted snug as sausage casings, forming a watertight seal around the wearer's entire body and head and leaving only the face exposed. Unprotected, a person could expect to last only about three minutes in the 28-degree water before hypothermia literally stops the heart. The only reason the water here isn't frozen solid is because of its salt content.
Though well prepared for the cold and the unpredictable wildlife, the team still had its share of unforeseen problems. On one occasion, a group set out on snowmobiles and traditional Inuit--designed sleds called komatiks to film beluga and narwhal whales at a point where the ocean meets the ice. Although they noticed a relatively small crack--approximately 70 inches wide--between their site and the larger ice floe, they determined it would be safe enough because the wind was blowing inland. Ninety minutes later, as they were engrossed in their work, the wind shifted and the crack they dismissed earlier had widened to a 300-foot breach, pulling their piece of ice, now a "float off," away from land. Knowing that the local authorities would only rescue people, not equipment, they struggled to grasp and hoist the two sections together with grappling hooks until they could drag their valuable camera gear across.
No stranger to such hazards is internationally renowned nature photographer Florian Schulz, who has devoted his life to capturing images of wildlife, often in the most inaccessible places in the world, and has clocked thousands of miles on snowmobiles and dog sleds traversing the Arctic terrain in search of the perfect shot. He worked alongside the filmmakers for a portion of their multi-year expedition and collected thousands of stunning panoramic stills, 200 of which are reproduced in the film's companion book, To The Arctic, published by Braided River.
Schulz felt an immediate kinship with his fellow lensmen. In the book, he describes how he has often lain immobile on the ice for hours or crept forward on his stomach, inch by inch against the biting wind, to catch an elusive Arctic creature at just the right moment, and cites patience and commitment as the most important qualifications for this kind of work. "I spent over 72 hours in a blind to photograph the snowy owls for the book and it took years before I saw my first polar bear," he says. "The first trick to managing in this harsh environment is never press your nose to the metal part of the camera because it will freeze there," he adds with a laugh.
"There's a lot of waiting and searching for the animals," Greg MacGillivray agrees. "We were in the field much longer for 'To The Arctic' than for any of our other films, including 'Everest.' It's essential to be always prepared. One morning our crew awoke to a herd of caribou serenely sauntering past their tent flaps and, grabbing their cameras, shot some wonderful close-ups."
Each spring, 400,000 to 500,000 caribou travel as far as 800 miles from their winter home in the western Arctic, Alaska and the Yukon, up to their summer range to give birth and feed on the nutritious new growth. It's one of the largest land migrations of any animal.
Coinciding with the MacGillivrays' filming timetable, newlyweds Leanne Allison and Karsten Heuer--a filmmaker and biologist, respectively--chose the inhospitable Arctic as their unlikely honeymoon destination so they could follow and document the caribou migration. To understand what it's like from the animals' perspective, the pair committed to making the same grueling journey on foot. They share some of their observations in "To The Arctic," including this from Heuer, who explains how climate change has been slowing down the herds: "It's been an especially warm spring, so the rivers are flooding. This year, the migration is three weeks late and so some of them have to give birth along the way."
Newborn calves, weak and unable to keep the pace, are easy prey for bears and wolves and can be lost while trying to ford the swollen rivers.
Because the area the caribou cover is so wide, it's not easy to intercept the herd's progress at any given point so, eager as they were to catch these determined animals on the hoof, the MacGillivray camera crew wasn't sure they would ever get an optimal shot. Ohlund relates, "We were out there for a month, waiting. But sometimes, just when you think you'll never get it, the next thing you know, exactly what you wanted to happen is right in front of you. It's what we at MacGillivray Freeman Films call MacGilli-Luck, something that's been bestowed upon us by the filmmaking gods. We're always proud and happy to be the recipients of the MacGilli- Luck and our audiences have also been its beneficiaries."
Shaun MacGillivray knows exactly what Ohlund means. "The crazy, amazing, rewarding thing about wildlife filmmaking is that moment when you get it right," he says. "All the variables line up at the same time--the perfect sunlight, the animals, the action, the right angles, the incredible beauty and the story attached to it. You hardly ever have that opportunity but when it happens, it's magnificent."
"Maybe I'm Amazed"
"Music is the most important element beyond the photography that we go out there and work so hard to get," Greg MacGillivray declares.
The score for "To The Arctic" is composed by longtime MacGillivray associate Steve Wood, whose body of work includes more than a dozen documentary adventure films.
"We spend more than a year doing a soundtrack for each one of these 40-minute films, working with Steve," the director continues. "He's done all of our films for the past 30 years, and he loves finding the right music for each sequence. We want to convey something specific to viewers; it's storytelling through the music."
"To The Arctic" also includes several songs from legend Paul McCartney, who has become as renowned for his commitment to the environment and animal issues worldwide as he is for his music. The selections from his extensive catalogue evoke a range of moods seemingly tailor-made for the images they accompany. Among them, the playfully upbeat "Mr. Bellamy" introduces a montage of walrus antics; the tenderness of "Little Willow," admonishing one to "hold on tight," underscores the poignancy of a caribou mother bonding with her newborn calf; and the love song "I'm Carrying" takes on a new interpretation as the female polar bear allows a break from her responsibilities to tussle with her youngsters.
"It's hard to express how much it means to me to have Paul McCartney's emotional voice be a part of our film," says Greg. "When we heard that he was inspired by the story and agreed to help our cause to bring awareness to the polar bears' needs, we really felt blessed. But it's not surprising, considering how much he truly loves animals."
One Threat the Polar Bear Cannot Overcome
A mother polar bear will do anything to protect her cubs, including taking the offensive against a predatory male bear twice her size, but she is powerless against the threat of a changing environment that could make their way of life a memory.
And, while the polar bear may be the animal most immediately endangered by current trends, Greg MacGillivray notes, "These magnificent creatures aren't the only ones climate change is pushing into a corner. The Arctic Ocean is much more than a mysterious realm of ice and snow. It serves as the thermometer of our world. With average temperatures rising two times faster there than anywhere else, its once-permanent summer ice pack is shrinking and may be nonexistent by 2050. With much of the krill and plankton feeding the oceanic food chain born beneath the ice, and with its cold water run-off supercharging the currents of the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt that moderates weather everywhere, and with the polar ice cap acting as a climate-balancing shield that reflects 80 percent of the sun's energy back into space, it's easy to grasp how changes accelerating here will affect not just the Arctic but the rest of the world."
For this reason, Greg and his wife, Barbara MacGillivray, established the One World One Ocean Foundation to foster awareness and mobilize support for the restoration and protection of the world's oceans. A major part of this effort is a planned 20-year multi-platform ocean media campaign, of which "To The Arctic" is the first release. "Just as Jacques Cousteau opened people's eyes to the beauty of the ocean, we are trying to open their hearts and minds through IMAX® films, features, TV specials and new media programming," says Greg MacGillivray.
Adds Barbara, "We hope people will fall in love with the ocean as we have."
"I'm very excited for audiences to see this film in the IMAX® format," says Meryl Streep. "There is greater impact in seeing something on such a grand scale, especially a subject matter that is so monumental. The Arctic is one of the most beautiful places on the face of the Earth. And changes that are being made there are going to have implications for all of us."
Shaun MacGillivray got a palpable sense of that global communion while on location. "Because we observed this family of polar bears so closely, we felt connected to them. Their struggles and their successes felt like our struggles and successes," he says. "We'd like to transport people to the Arctic with this film and let them fall in love with the wildlife the way that we did."
"I'm not a scientist; I'm a filmmaker," Greg concludes. "But I have tried to learn as much as I can about these fascinating Arctic dwellers and their home. After all of that, culminating in our own unique filming and research voyage, I have grown to love these wonderful animals and this beautiful place. It's my intention with 'To The Arctic' to inspire others as I've been inspired."