In the Arctic — arguably the most remote and inhospitable place on Earth — polar bears are facing extinction because of climate change and its impact on their habitat. "To the Arctic 3D" -- a new IMAX 3-D movie from Warner Bros. Pictures, MacGillivray Freeman Films and IMAX Corporation, due in theaters in spring 2012 -- focuses on a mother polar bear and her cubs to tell a larger story about the dangers threatening their environment. Sneak preview footage from the film can be seen in Coca-Cola’s “Arctic Home” campaign advertising, which is raising awareness and funds about the need to protect the polar bear’s Arctic home.
"We've made 35 IMAX films over the last 35 years, most about conservation and inspiring people to protect the planet," producer Shaun MacGillivray says. "We always wanted to make a film on the Arctic because of the larger-than-life landscape and the iconic wildlife like the polar bears. We noticed how rapidly the Arctic was changing, and we felt that if we didn't do something now it could be drastically different 10 to 15 years from now."
They made six trips there between 2007 and 2010, twice each to the Arctic Refuge and Hudson Bay, once to Baffin Island and to Svalbard, Norway, which is 9 degrees south of the North Pole, where they encountered the female bear and her two cubs. Over five days, they filmed the trio as the mother showed her offspring how to survive, protecting them from aggressive male bears. "If the male polar bear ever got close, she would stand up to them as if to say, 'you're going to have to get through me first.' By the end of it, we had such an emotional connection with this family. It became the backbone of our story, and I think people are going to fall in love with them just like we did," says producer MacGillivray.
Capturing the story on film, however, was no easy feat. "We chartered a 140-foot icebreaker to be able to go around the archipelago to film the incredible landscape and the wildlife there," says MacGillivray, who also focused on the Arctic Ocean and caribou migration in the film. He figures they shot nearly 100 hours and 500,000 feet of IMAX film, which costs $1,000 a minute, using specialized equipment that weighed up to 350 pounds — a lot to lug around, especially underwater.
Because of the cost and that each film load is just three minutes long — and it takes 10 minutes to reload the camera — "you want to make sure you're getting the shot," MacGillivray explains, noting that shooting underwater in temperatures just over the 29-degree salt water freezing point was hazardous. "The cinematographers' hands would freeze and their regulators would freeze up, so they'd have to come up for air." But he says it was all worth it for the chance "to transport people to a place that they would never normally get to see, and emotionally connect them to that place through this experience."
That connection is especially vital now, when the Arctic ecosystem is threatened by climate change. "This is the toughest place to survive to begin with, and it's becoming more difficult when it comes to the polar bear. They're so specialized for this environment that the more it changes, the more it affects them," says MacGillivray. "From satellite photos over the last 40 years, you can see that the ice is receding. We did great aerial shots there where you could see very easily where wide expanses of ice are gray and thinner. In Svalbard, because of the wind and current, much of the ice had been concentrated in one area which meant many more polar bears up there and that makes it a little more difficult for them to feed because they use the ice as a platform to hunt. Receding ice makes it easier for shipping and oil drilling so there could be more future threats to the Arctic habitat," he adds.
In an effort to inspire people to want to protect and preserve that fragile ecosystem and the rest of Earth's waters, MacGillivray Freeman Films recently created the nonprofit One World, One Ocean, through which people can donate and learn more. "We're going to give them the outlet to be able to make a difference in a way that's simple to do, so they'll get more and more engaged and then become advocates," says MacGillivray, whose next film, slated for 2014, is, aptly, "One World, One Ocean," with "Humpback Whales" to follow in 2015.
"Over the next four years, we'll be going to 40 locations all over the world, all five oceans, to find those emotional and photographically amazing wildlife stories that connect humans to the ocean environment," he notes, adding that the company is also producing short-form content for museums, aquariums and online. "We're crafting them in a way that they're funny, fun, dramatic and entertaining so people will share them, want to learn more and want to take action to protect our oceans," says MacGillivray.
The filmmakers have also teamed up with like-minded nature photographer Florian Schulz, who accompanied them on the Svalbard expedition, on a companion book titled "To the Arctic," which features 160 breathtaking images, plus essays and interviews with the author and the MacGillivrays about their experiences. "Florian is one of the best, if not the best, wildlife photographers in the world, and he was out there in the field for six years getting photos no one has ever gotten before," says MacGillivray. Although the film won't be in theaters for a few months, the book is available now.
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- Photos: 13 animals that call the Arctic home
- Polar bears stalk research vessel as Artic ice breaks up