Adventures in the Arctic

TFK chats with Greg MacGillivray, director of the new IMAX 3-D film To the Arctic

Apr 09, 2012 | By Vickie An
SHAUN MACGILLIVRAY © 2012 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

To the Arctic, in IMAX 3-D theaters April 20, invites moviegoers on an unforgettable journey to the top of the world. The film, narrated by Oscar winner Meryl Streep, gives a sneak peek into the lives of a polar bear mother and her twin cubs. The bears’ icy Arctic home is changing. Each day brings a new challenge in the family’s struggle to survive.

TFK spoke to director Greg MacGillivray about making the documentary, which was filmed over a period of four years. He says the movie “is a tribute to mothers,” especially those that are raising their young in the Arctic. “They have the hardest job in the world,” he said. “With the melting of the ice, it’s getting harder.” Read on to learn more about what it was like for the crew to film in the harsh Arctic environment. (Scroll down to watch a trailer for the film.)

TFK:

What inspired you to film in the Arctic Circle?

GREG MACGILLIVRAY:

Very few people have visited there, so I thought it would be a terrific subject for an IMAX film. I’ve always been blown away by the beauty and the vastness of the Arctic. It’s a unique place.

TFK:

Did you go up there with a specific story in mind, or did you find the story along the way?

MACGILLIVRAY:

We went up with one story in mind and came back with another, which is often what happens in documentary filmmaking. You write a script so you can plan ahead and bring the right equipment. You do a tremendous amount of research. You interview all the scientists who work up there, and you interview the native people. Finally, you determine what your story should be and you go up and begin to film it.

TFK:

When in that four years of filming did you come across the polar bear family?

MACGILLIVRAY:

We ran into the polar bear mother and her two 7-month-old cubs on our fifth trip up to the Arctic. She certainly was the smartest bear of the 130 bears we encountered. And she was a perfect mom: attentive, loving, caring, sacrificing, intelligent and just completely dedicated. It’s beautiful the way in which the mothers treat their cubs. It’s just like a human mother treats her offspring.

TFK:

What made this polar bear mother smarter than the others?

The To The Arctic film crew sets up for its next shot, in Coldfoot, Alaska.
BARBARA MACGILLIVRAY © 2012 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.
The To The Arctic film crew sets up for its next shot, in Coldfoot, Alaska.

MACGILLIVRAY:

I think maybe it was her third or fourth litter of cubs. Maybe she was a little bit older than the other polar bear mothers we saw. Whatever it was, she knew she didn’t have to run away from us. She sensed that we weren’t dangerous, so she didn’t waste any energy getting away. She came right up to the boat and sniffed at us.

TFK:

These are really big bears. Was there ever a time when the crew was scared?

MACGILLIVRAY:

We weren’t scared on that particular shoot because we were on a boat that was high off the water. The polar bear mom only came over to us once. But we knew if we fell off the boat and she was near us, she was going to eat us. We’re food, as is everything else there. We tried to stay at least 20 to 40 feet away all the time. Most of the time, we were hundreds of feet away. One of the rules of wildlife filmmaking is not to interfere with the natural activities of their lives.

TFK:

When you follow these animals for a long time and then you see them in danger, is it hard to just watch and let nature take its course?

MACGILLIVRAY:

Absolutely. It was painful to see our favorite polar bear and her cubs being chased by a big male polar bear. He was twice as big, twice as heavy, faster and hungry. Thankfully, this polar bear mom stood her ground. She didn’t let him get close to her cubs. She put her life on the line. But while that was happening, we were all thinking, “Oh, no.” The family was chased four times when we were tracking them over that five-and-a-half-day period. We became so emotionally attached to them.

TFK:

Do you hope audiences will connect with the bears in the same way you connected with them?

MACGILLIVRAY:

I want people to fall in love with the animals in the Arctic, so they’ll want to help them. Part of our message is that the ice is melting up there, and we have to make changes and be conscious of the fact that the earth works as one big machine. In order to make it a healthy place for all animals, including us, we sometimes have to adapt how we live. If climate change continues at the same rate it’s going, the polar bear will not be able to adapt quickly enough to remain in the Arctic.

TFK:

What do you think audiences will enjoy most about the film?

MACGILLIVRAY:

When you see this film in 3-D on the gigantic screen, you’ll feel like you’re there in the Arctic. It’s almost like going to the moon because it’s so different. There aren’t many wild places left in the world that haven’t been swarmed over by people. The Arctic is one of the last places, and it is gorgeous.