Greg MacGillivray: The King of IMAX

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By Norm Baur | NB Indy

Greg MacGillivray’s story goes back to 1959 when he began production on his first surf movie, “A Cool Wave of Color.” The 80-minute film was released in 1964 and turned a profit. With his parent’s best wishes and support, MacGillivray, who grew up in Corona del Mar, dropped out of college after his first year to pursue his boyhood hobby full time.

His parents advised him that he could always return to college, but that first film stood out.

A cameraman on location shooting for “Journey to the South Pacific”
A cameraman on location shooting for “Journey to the South Pacific”

“People recognized the boundaries that were being pushed,” said MacGillivray. And he never stopped pushing.

MacGillivray joined a stream of surf filmmakers that included Bruce Brown, who made “Endless Summer,” John Severson, Bud Brown and future partner Jim Freeman.

From their 1967 surf film “Free and Easy” sprang MacGillivray Freeman Films, now based in Laguna Beach. The duo worked together on numerous productions, including the iconic 1972 surf film “Five Summer Stories,” which became a cult film classic.

But in 1970, large format 70 mm film and cameras were developed by IMAX for the World’s Fair, allowing for unparalleled visual beauty and imagery and a perfect fit for imaginative filmmakers like MacGillivray and Freeman. They were hired by The Smithsonian Museum to make the IMAX film “To Fly,” whose release in 1976 started the company’s ascent.

Over 40 million people have watched “To Fly,” still showing at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, making it the longest running paid admission movie in history.

Freeman, though, died in an accident the same year, and MacGillivray, who has gone on to makes scores of films since, has kept the company name intact in an act of devotion to his friend.

MacGillivray will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Newport Beach Film Festival on Wednesday, April 30, and show two MacGillivray Freeman films, part of the weeklong festival that kicked off Thursday.

The first takes place on Tuesday, April 29, at 5 p.m. at South Coast Village Theater with a screening of “Five Summer Stories,” the culmination of Freeman and MacGillivray’s first decade of making surf films together. A panel discussion will follow with MacGillivray and surfing luminaries Laird Hamilton, Gerry Lopez, Herbie Fletcher, Pete Townend and Steve Pezman. They will discuss the film’s impact on surf culture.

“Five Summer Stories” has not been shown in a theater for more than two decades.

“Journey to the South Pacific,” screens the following night on Wednesday, April 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Regency Lido Theatre, the local premiere of a film about a young boy’s adventures amid the islands of West Papua.

MacGillivray ranks as the large-format film industry’s most prolific IMAX film creator. His signature images include aerial and underwater shots and panoramic views that create a sensory submersion.

MacGillivray focuses on making people “pay attention” to the damage humans are inflicting on ocean waters and the long-term effects.

“We are killing the ocean, which many do not realize produces 50 to 70 percent of the oxygen on this planet,” he said. “The rain forest devastation is more publicized, but truthfully if the ocean dies, eventually we do, too.”

Though he is nearing 70, his legacy remains intact and his banner is being carried by his son, Shaun, who decided to abandon his economics degree for a career in filmmaking. His daughter is also involved as a production manager as well as his wife. MacGillivray Freeman films has grossed in excess of $1 billion and earned two Academy Award nominations.

With a staff of 25 to 30 (depending on production schedules), the team does about one large project per year. They’ve been based in Laguna Beach for decades, where MacGillivray continues to live and surf.

 

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