IMAX Takes Us Undersea in the Galápagos

Filmmakers shooting a new 3-D IMAX movie discover tragedy and technical challenges amid moments of breathtaking beauty

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"When filmmaking in a remote setting, even the routine isn't routine," reports John F. Ross, after spending four weeks on location with the film crew of the new three-dimensional IMAX film Galapagos, which opens this month in the National Museum of Natural History's Johnson IMAX Theater.

The production faces one problem after another. A week before the author arrives, two film-crew members lose their lives in a tragic ultralight plane accident. The quirky weather phenomenon known as El Niño kicks up waves that make it nearly impossible to launch the underwater camera. On land, the crew is harassed by thousands of biting flies, fed by iguanas killed by the severe weather changes.

In addition, working with the new 3-D format presents formidable technical challenges. The $1.3 million camera weighs 250 pounds, growing to more than half a ton when encased in its underwater housing. Even after a month of practice, underwater cameraman Al Giddings, whose credits include Titanic and The Abyss, finds the camera difficult to control. On land, six crew members must wrestle the camera into position.

The author's adventures include scuba diving with the camera crew; a voyage 2,500 feet to the bottom of the sea in the submersible Johnson-Sea-Link II, with Smithsonian marine biologist Dave Pawson; and a two-mile overland hike while carrying several sandbags and a 60-pound backpack filled with sound recording equipment for his fellow crew members.

The end product is a film that captures the raw power and beauty of the Galápagos for people who cannot get there themselves. "This film," writes Ross, "will let us all experience what Darwin saw in those fateful weeks long ago — not as we often imagine history, in black and white, but in living, insistent three dimensions."

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