The Making of Mysteries of the Great Lakes
If you could take everyone on this continent on an expedition from one end of the Great Lakes to the other, you would change the way that they look at these natural treasures. Of course that’s impossible to do, but we can take them on that journey through the power of IMAX®, which is often dubbed “the next best thing to being there”.
The giant screen film, Mysteries of the Great Lakes, is as much a celebration of Earth’s greatest freshwater ecosystem as it is a rallying cry for protection. The story will take audiences on an inspiring voyage through these amazing inland seas. In the film, a few stops along the way highlight the stories of three key species — one each from water, air and land. The film also turns the camera on us, as humans – by touching on the human interface with the Lakes including the role of shipping to commerce, the use of the Great Lakes’ water by the millions of people who rely on it for life, and the general sense of well-being that people receive from simply being near these massive bodies of water.
The scenery and wildlife footage captured through the IMAX lens for Mysteries of the Great Lakes is spectacular, with some shots being unlike anything ever captured for this medium before. Filming took the production crews from beneath the waves of the Wolf River in Wisconsin — where thousands of lake sturgeon, the world’s largest freshwater fish, thrashed in the shallow rapids en route to their spawning grounds — into the skies to shoot aerial footage of all of the Great Lakes.
One of the main “characters” of the film is the lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon only spawn in a few places for about 3 days once a year. In order to capture footage of fisheries biologists hauling 300-pound lake sturgeon onto shore for study, and underwater spawning shots, crew from Baltimore, Los Angeles, Utah, Montreal, Toronto, Sudbury, Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Chicago had to converge on the Wolf River in Wisconsin on the exact day along with all required hardware for both terrestrial and underwater shoots. In the end, this complex shoot worked out extremely well – the footage is remarkable!
The filmmakers acquired some amazing footage of woodland caribou while shooting in Lake Superior’s Slate Islands. Over the course of the first two days of filming, the crew saw almost 20 individual caribou of various ages. The Slate Islands are home to the largest remaining woodland caribou herd in the Great Lakes region, and over the course of their 100 plus years on the Islands, they have evolved some unusual biological adaptations. The caribou on the Slate Islands weren’t shy about settling their differences in the presence of humans either, and this unusual situation provided our filmmakers with a picturesque, once-in-a-lifetime shot of two male caribou battling for dominance, with a glorious Lake Superior sunset as a backdrop.
Filming breeding Bald Eagles in the wild is extremely challenging. The nests are high (often 80 feet up) in the trees. Wildlife photographer Neil Rettig captured extraordinary footage of wild Bald Eagles for Mysteries of the Great Lakes. Platforms with blinds had to be built the winter prior to filming – sometimes within a stone’s throw of existing nests. Which nests the Eagles would choose was a gamble, so four platforms with blinds were built in the hope that at least one would be active and successful in the spring. As luck would have it, three of the four selected nest sites were occupied by breeding pairs. To protect the birds from any disturbance, Rettig had to enter and leave the blind in total darkness. On a windless night, the crew used pullies and ropes to lift the gear into the trees and then left silently with Rettig behind the blind, and ready to shoot at first light. After four hours of photographer’s heaven, a serious storm arrived and forced him to abandon his blind.
The amazing Bald Eagle footage was almost lost. According to Director/Producer, David Lickley, the crew, camera, and raw footage, very nearly became a part of Lake Superior’s shipwreck lore when their boat began taking on water after picking up Rettig. Mercifully, by the time the crew was forced to abandon ship, they had reached water shallow enough to wade back to shore while balancing the camera and gear on their heads. In the end, everyone on that boat bonded in a way that only survivors can. It proves once again that there is sometimes a very fine line separating overwhelming success and total failure.
The Great Lakes in particular require an aerial perspective to give them scale and to appreciate the vast terrain. Shooting aerials can be somewhat nerve-wracking. For example, during a scene in which a biologist is circling treetops in a Cessna in search of Bald Eagle nests, the camera was attached to a helicopter that followed the Cessna in order to shoot footage of the plane in action. The Cessna was in a sharp turn the whole time, and at the edge of stall speed. Every few seconds the plane’s computer would say “ground contact imminent,” or “stall in progress.” Nerves aside, aerials provide a ‘wow’ factor to the film. There’s nothing like skimming over the surface of the water and banking up a tall cliff face. For Mysteries of the Great Lakes aerials were shot of all the Lakes.
Shipwrecks are another of the Great Lakes’ mysteries. There are 5,000 recorded wrecks and an estimated 5,000 or so that didn’t warrant recording – that’s one wreck for every mile of coastline. In Tobermory, Ontario, the last significant wreck happened close to a century ago, and it joined a long list of others that sank in these waters before it. This piece of coastline has had more than its share of casualties because of the jagged limestone rock formations and the prevalence of strong winds which drive ships towards the shoals - bad news for the poor sailors who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but good news for the divers who come here by the thousands to explore the remains. The waters near Tobermory have been designated a National Marine Conservation Area called Fathom Five National Marine Park, so these wrecks will be preserved for a long time to come.
Shooting underwater shipwrecks in the IMAX format is time consuming. The camera and the underwater housing together weigh nearly 300 pounds and are unwieldy, so a hoist and crane were necessary to lift it over the side of the boat and into the water, where it takes two divers to steer the housing into position. After three minutes of shooting, the underwater crew had to resurface, hoist the rig on deck, take it apart, reload fresh film, and then repeat the process.
As with all giant screen productions, creativity is key when attempting to capture the ideal shot. While shooting Niagara Falls for Mysteries of the Great Lakes, an IMAX camera was suspended out over the edge of the Falls on a remote-controlled crane. In Lake Superior, the crew used a flat rock that was a hundred feet off shore and submerged under four feet of water to anchor the tripod before carefully attaching the camera to it in order to get a shot that would do justice to the primitive native pictographs on a cliff face.
These are only a few of the behind-the-scenes events that went into the making of Mysteries of the Great Lakes. There are many more stories to be shared by the film’s director, and film footage that shows the majestic beauty of the Great Lakes region and the wildlife that inhabit it. More behind-the-scenes information is available to media upon request.
By the time the film’s final credits roll, audiences will have uncovered many of the mysteries of the Great Lakes in an unforgettable way. Studies indicate that people remember IMAX films for years due to the immersive nature of the medium. Mysteries of the Great Lakes is a film that will take all who see it on a voyage of discovery that will lead to a greater appreciation of this vitally important lake system, and foster a lasting commitment to preserving it.
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