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Shooting IMAX

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By Scott Essman
Australian director Simon Wincer is one of Hollywood’s more adventurous filmmakers. A common theme in his projects is animals. His feature credits include Free Willy, Phar Lap and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, and TV projects include the dramatic mini-series Lonesome Dove, about two former Texas rangers moving a herd of cattle from the south to Montana and the project that first brought Wincer to the U.S. in 1989.
Two years ago he embarked upon a new adventure: making the prequel to the popular children’s tale The Black Stallion in IMAX format. Disney’s The Young Black Stallion, which opened in large format theaters Dec 25, marked a turning point in Wincer’s career. He talks to Below the Line about the experience, and his future in IMAX.

Below the Line: Why did you take this assignment, considering you hadn’t done an IMAX project before?
Simon Wincer: I was a great fan of the original film. I think Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion is one of the great children’s stories, beautifully crafted and beautifully told. When you’ve got a child and an animal carrying a film, sometimes you get absolute magic.
BTL: The film is just 45 minutes long. How many shooting days was that?
Wincer: Thirty-five. We did 33 days in Namibia, and then we went to a place called Drachen’s Mountain in South Africa, where we did the scene where the lead character is reunited with the horse. I was told I’d do about seven set-ups a day in this format but I found I could achieve more than that. I think I did 35 or so set-ups in a day. So it can be done. And that’s just going bang-bang-bang.
BTL: Did the fact that you were working with children affect the schedule?
Wincer: Absolutely. A kid’s working hours are eight hours a day from door to door. Some days it was 45 minutes of traveling to the location—so that’s an hour and a half out of the eight. And then they have to do three hours of school, so there’s four and a half hours. You take that out and they’ve got three and a half hours on the set. We had to work fast.
BTL: During preproduction, did you look at other films in IMAX?
Wincer: Yes, I looked at about 60, not always on IMAX screens, unfortunately. I had a lot on DVD. The thing that I was concentrating on was composition and lighting, because most IMAX is documentary in nature; it’s got nothing to do with a straight narrative film. And the interesting thing, technically, about it is that the color timing is very different.
BTL: Cinematographer Reed Smoot had shot several films in large format, though it was a first for you. Tell us about your collaboration.
Wincer: Because I’ve been directing so long, I know what I want and I’m usually pretty specific about it. But occasionally he would make suggestions. He would say things like “Really tight for IMAX. If she’s going to be here, she’s got a 15-foot high head.” And that’s the way he was great, because the frightening thing about making an IMAX movie, if you’re a director, is you never get to see it in IMAX until you’re absolutely finished.
BTL: How many cameras did you use?
Wincer: Never more than two at any one time. Because the film is so expensive, you have to be really conservative.
BTL: How long were your camera loads?
Wincer: Three minutes. When you hear the film getting to the end of the magazine, and the camera pitch changes—rrrr to RRR—because it’s going to run out, you think, “Uh-oh, are we going to get this take? Oh, no! Sorry, guys.”
BTL: Were you able to watch dailies on location? How did the process differ?
Wincer: What you have is the world’s worst video playback system. It’s scenes direct from the shot, and so it’s got a lot of shadow flicker and a hot spot in the middle of the screen. It’s primitive. That’s why the playback system drives most directors to drink at a very early age. I’ve been directing for 30 years now, and you learn to know what you’re getting when you’re getting it. IMAX is only processed in two labs in the world: one is CFI in the States and the other is a lab in Paris, and they were both too far away from where we were shooting. So I just got to see rushes on VHS about a month later. It’s a 10-day turnaround for IMAX, because it’s processed, then you get the negatives, which is 35mm because it’s cheaper, and then that gets transferred to Beta, which is what the editor puts into an Avid. Only then do we get a VHS version of the Beta tape—which is so far away from what you shot, it’s depressing. But again, you rely on your cameraman and your own judgment.
BTL: With the 45-minute window in IMAX, does that make it easier or harder to tell your story?
Wincer: I don’t think it’s one or the other, really. I grew up directing one-hour television series, which basically are 48 minutes. This movie is, I think, 50 minutes with the end credits, so it’s about 46 minutes—more or less exactly the same as what I grew up with. Basically the story’s being told in less than an hour, which I think it is great. You never hear people complain about a film being too short. And it’s such an all-consuming process watching an IMAX movie that I think it’s about the right length. The frustrating thing is that there are only 220 theaters in the world that it could play in, and about 80 in the U.S.
BTL: How did you go about moving directly into your next IMAX project?
Wincer: I hadn’t been back from Namibia a week when the producer, Frank Marshall said, “We need to put together something from the movie to show at this conference next week. Try to put together a few shots and a bit of music.” So we did that, and out of that, people from IMAX and Warner Bros. saw it and they asked me to do NASCAR 3D: the IMAX Experience, which is just absolutely one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.
BTL: How was that different to what you did on The Young Black Stallion?
Wincer: We shot in 3D and there are only two IMAX 3D cameras in the world. We had both. The race day we had one camera in the infield and at random pits and one outside shooting across the grandstand. A big challenge, but very satisfying.
NASCAR 3D: the IMAX Experience is currently playing in IMAX theaters.

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