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Humpback Whales’ Cool Young Producer

Feb 20, 2015

By: Lynn Barker

Filmmaker Shaun MacGillivray had a great childhood travelling all over the world with his dad Greg while he made major big screen nature films like The Living Sea, Dolphins and Everest. All grown up now, Shaun knows his way around the giant IMAX cameras needed to bring nature up close and personal to people around the world. He is President of award-winning MacGillivray Freeman Films and Managing Director of the company’s One World One Ocean Campaign aimed at making us aware of the troubles and beauty associated with our oceans.

Shaun MacGillivray with the big IMAX cameraShaun MacGillivray with the big IMAX camera

For his latest big format, 3-D IMAX film Humpback Whales, Shaun got to travel to exotic Tonga, Alaska and Hawaii to capture footage of these cool giants, some of whom weigh 60 tons and, with flippers extended, have a span like a Lear Jet! It wasn’t always easy to have the big cameras in the right place at just the right time to capture whale song, birth, courting, food catching or mom and baby whales cavorting but the crew got amazing shots!  They also take us to Hawaii to see brave whale rescue crews chase down injured whales trapped in fishing gear to free them. Kidzworld asked Shaun about his whale experiences and other adventures.

Kidzworld: Which scene in the film is your favorite and why? 

  • Shaun: My favorite scene is seeing the mother whale and calf together in Tonga. It is so beautiful to see them playing together and the water was crystal clear with 200 feet visibility. I was able to see them very close up while filming next to them both. They were huge! Even the baby was huge -- like a small school bus.

Kidzworld:  Wow! You have been travelling to film locations with your director dad Greg since you were little. Was this when your interest in the environment and natures’ creatures started? Was there one moment that made you decide to be involved in presenting these wonders as films? 

  • Shaun: I got hooked early on being able to go to exotic locations like Palau or Indonesia and then seeing my dad work on the edits at home and giving “my comments” on the cuts. When I was in Palau as a teen, I got to dive with our film crew and I remember vividly being two feet away and staring at a huge 4-foot grouper that was staring back at me. I had never seen a big fish like that up close. It was pretty incredible.

A humpback whale close-upA humpback whale close-up

Kidzworld: Were there any close calls with whales while filming? Any injuries to crew?

  • Shaun: Nope, no close calls. The whales are very gentle and docile. We never felt worried or nervous even though we knew that if they wanted to hurt us, they could.

Kidzworld: Ewan McGregor does a very good narration of the film. How did you get him to narrate? Does he have an interest in wildlife?

  • Shaun: We just asked him and he said yes! He was fantastic to work with and we would love to work with him again.  He is definitely very environmentally conscious and does great work supporting charities like UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) among others.

Mom and baby whale flap their tailsMom and baby whale flap their tails

Kidzworld: What was the biggest challenge to filmmakers in making this film? Finding whales?

  • Shaun: Our biggest challenge was being in the right place at the right time with our huge IMAX cameras and equipment. You never know when the whales are going to breach or break the surface, so trying to anticipate that in time to turn on the camera and catch the action on film was one of the greatest challenges. 

A huge whale breachingA huge whale breaching

Kidzworld: What was the most surprising thing you and other filmmakers and scientists learned about humpback whales while filming the movie?

  • Shaun: I thought their cooperative feeding (bubble net feeding) was really impressive and cool!  This is where they herd small fish into a ball by blowing a net of bubbles that trap them, then lunge up for a mouthful of fish.  Ingenious!

Kidzworld: That’s very smart of them. We know dolphins are very smart. Have we ever learned how smart these whales are?

  • Shaun: Scientists are still trying to find out.

Kidzworld: Did you shoot some footage then have Stephen Judson write around that for was the script totally written first then you went out to try to capture that action? 

  • Shaun: Yes we had a script before we went out filming but then it evolved over time like all of our films as we incorporated what we were able to actually capture on film in the field.

Humpback whale mom and calfHumpback whale mom and calf

Kidzworld: Makes sense. Which scenes are 3-D CGI and which are live action? I assume the bubble net hunting scene underwater is CGI? 

  • Shaun: Everything in the film is live action (real) except the underwater bubble net feeding scene, which we always knew we would need to create in CGI. It would have been virtually impossible to capture that scene on IMAX film as the water in Alaska is not as clear as say in Tonga.

Kidzworld: Oh, well it looks so real and amazing. The music is great. How did you select it?

  • Shaun: Our composer (Steve Wood) spent about one year creating the score. (Note: Canadian-born folk guitarist Calum Graham plays in the film and the song “Best Day of My Life” by rock band American Authors plays a big part).   

Whales singingWhales singing

Kidzworld: Why should tweens and teens want to grow up to be marine biologists or maybe even whale rescuers? Why is it cool and fun? 

  • Shaun: There is still so much we have to learn about these animals, and kids who decide to become marine biologists and whale researchers can really make a difference.  It is really rewarding, fun and cool to be on the forefront of learning more about these incredible animals.

Kidzworld: Which creature or natural wonder are you hoping to someday do an IMAX film on?

  • Shaun: The natural wonders of China! 

Kidzworld: Awesome!

Humpback Whales is already open in select markets and is expanding through the spring and summer

Humpback Whales Movie PosterHumpback Whales Movie Poster

Humpback Whales Trailer