'National Parks Adventure' director Greg MacGillivray talks filming, preservation, and the beauty of our nation's untouched land
We’re celebrating a very important birthday this year. On August 25, the National Park Service (NPS) turns 100, and nationwide, odes to our treasured untouched lands have already started—just check out the cover story of the March/April issue of AFAR (hitting newsstands February 16). This Friday, another ode to national parks is gracing the IMAX screens. National Parks Adventure tells parallel stories through 40 national parks and NPS sites—one of a modern-day road trip, and another of the historical journey that led to NPS’s formation in 1916. The film’s director Greg MacGillivray, known for his documentaries focusing on nature and preservation, started his love affair with Yosemite at age seven. Since then, both the outdoors (his first real movie was a surf film) and the national parks have inspired him like nowhere else.
National Parks Adventure is showing in IMAX theaters worldwide starting on February 12. To hold us over, we talked with MacGillivray about behind-the-scenes discoveries and snafus, and what makes the parks so special to him.
Why make this movie?
“I love National Parks, as most of us do, but the fact that we’re celebrating 100 years is worth a movie. It’s worth paying tribute to this wonderful thing that some people call America’s best idea ever. There’s never been an IMAX film about the whole park system and why it’s so unique in the world. Setting aside these places and protecting them for everyone to use—that was a new concept in the world. In Europe, all the great places were owned by kings or the privileged. So it was a big deal when Yellowstone was made the first national park in the world, and not everyone was happy about it.
“When I was about seven I first went to Yosemite with my parents. We didn’t go on a lot of trips, so this was a special moment. I remember standing at that point in the valley where you can see two waterfalls and beautiful granite faces.
“So the main mission of the film is to show the beauty of the parks so there’s a motivation to preserve them. You’ll respect what you love and you’ll fight for that protection because you love it. That’s the idea.
“We had five crews out there filming: one aerial team, two time lapse teams, and two ground filming units. I wanted the best fall colors, the best blue skis, the best snow scenes. Out of the 400 national parks and NPS sites, we picked 40 and tried to do our best job possible showing them off.”
“Conveying the parks in film of the highest quality is really important to me. Right now, film is being sacrificed to digital photography. But IMAX film is 150 megapixels per frame—it’s a far more detailed picture than any digital camera today can get.”
What did you discover in the process of making this movie?
“I rediscovered Bryce Canyon. I photographed that place 40 years ago for an IMAX film, To Fly!, for the Smithsonian. It was exceptional then; today, it’s even better. They’ve developed new trails so the park can handle more people. The hikes are three, four, five, up to eight hours. And you don’t have a problem getting lost because you have a map and there aren’t that many trails to begin with.
“I also loved Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan. It was a complete surprise to all of us. We’d never even heard of it. In the summer, the cliffs are all different colors from the dripping minerals in the soil. In the winter, the dripping cliffs become frozen waterfalls: magnificent, 80-foot-tall stalagmites. We never expected it to be so beautiful. Probably the most beautiful location I’ve ever shot was inside a cave there—that’s actually what ends our film.”
Which park should people be visiting more?
“In California we’ve got Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks that are kind of off the beaten path and rarely visited, but they’re exquisite. And of course we’ve got the Redwood National Park near Eureka, and it’s stunning too. You can walk in the woods for hours on end with such admiration for the tallest trees on the planet.”
What was the craziest on-set experience?
“The most dramatic one happened to the team that went to Alaska to film the grizzly bears eating salmon. One bear smelled our cameraman and got more interested in the cameraman than in the salmon so he started coming for our guy. And the guy had heard the concept that if you break a twig, the bear will think that another bear is coming and it will hesitate and might then go away. So he broke a twig and sure enough that worked. So he didn’t have to run around his tripod with a bear chasing him.”