August 2, 2017—Included below is a tribute to George Casey written by LF Examiner Editor James Hyder, who has generously allowed us to reprint it from the Summer 2017 issue. Following the LF Examiner article is a piece by Mike Day, Executive Vice President at the Science Museum of Minnesota, who shares memories of working with George on the film Ring of Fire.
In Memoriam: George Casey
Published in the Summer 2017 issue of LF Examiner © 2017 by Cinergetics, LLC.
Veteran giant-screen filmmaker George Casey died on June 3 at the age of 84. His career in GS films spanned four decades, during which he produced nine films, directed eight, and wrote six. The Eruption of Mount St. Helens! (1980) was the first GS film to be nominated for an Academy Award. He also gleaned Oscar nominations for Alaska: Spirit of the Wild (1998) and two earlier specialty films.
Casey was born in Brawley, CA, in 1933, and after earning a master’s degree in journalism from UCLA, served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the 1950s. According to an obituary written by family, “after being, or wanting to be, a farmer, newspaper reporter, artist, editorial cartoonist, newspaper publisher, record company owner, writer, public official, television producer, TV newsman, cattleman, and government bureaucrat, he settled on becoming a film director and producer.”
In the mid-1960s Casey joined Graphic Films, founded in 1941 by filmmaker and USC film teacher Lester Novros. His credits there as producer/director include Ring of Fire (1991), Africa: The Serengeti (1994), Amazing Journeys (1999), and Forces of Nature (2004).
Casey is survived by his wife of 50 years, Ellen; daughter Erin; sons Ryan and Sean; two granddaughters; and brother Harry. All three of Casey’s children worked with their father on his giant-screen films, and Sean has gone on to become a GS filmmaker in his own right, producing and directing Tornado Alley (2011) and Extreme Weather (2016.)
George Casey (right), seen here with producer Paul Novros (left) and son Sean Casey (center), received the Large Format Cinema Association's Best Feature award in 2004 for Forces of Nature.
Les Novros’ son Paul Novros also worked at Graphic Films, co-producing many of the company’s GS films with Casey. He recalls that Casey’s first GS film, Genesis (1979), had a budget of only $380,000, so Casey did everything himself: directed, produced, wrote, co-edited, scouted, production managed, designed the main title, and laid out the end credits. It was eventually distributed in 10/70, 8/ 70, 8/35, 4/35mm for dome, home video, DVD, and TV.
Novros says that Casey wanted to film Mount St. Helens as soon as he heard it had erupted, arriving there the day after and filming subsequent eruptions and aftermath scenes. The Eruption of Mount St. Helens! had a budget of only $100,000, but cleared more than 20 times that amount. “Not bad for 22-minute IMAX documentary,” Novros notes.
From 1992 to 2007 it ran as the signature film at the Mount St. Helens Cinedome Theater, a 160-seat 8/70 dome theater that Casey built in Castle Rock, WA, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the volcano.
On a personal level, Novros says, “He wasn’t into self-promotion, just liked making films — loved making films — and he was extraordinarily good at it. I loved and admired him. He was an extraordinarily important contributor to the establishment and growth of the industry.”
Other members of the giant-screen community shared the following thoughts about Casey and his contribution to the medium.
Imax co-founder and filmmaker Graeme Ferguson: “When Sandy Fleet and his colleagues conceived of the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theatre [in San Diego in the early 1970s], it was a radical idea: a tilted dome that would be both planetarium and movie theatre.
“To introduce their concept they commissioned two presentations. One, the Omnimax film Garden Planet, was made by Roger Tilton. The other, Voyage to the Outer Planets, was unique in that the Spitz starball and the OMNIMAX film projector were both utilized. That film was the brainchild of Les Novros and George Casey.
“The dome theatre proved to be such a success that many more like it have been built, and they have been particularly useful in fulfilling the mission of science centers.
“The choice of George Casey was particularly fortuitous. George’s interests and skills, not only as an artist, but as an educator, were uniquely suited to the new medium.
“George’s choice of subjects arose out of his own curiosity. If he was interested in unraveling a mystery, he assumed that the audience would be interested too, and he was right. We have all been the beneficiaries of his passion for exploration, and his films have opened the eyes of tens of millions of young people to the wonders of the world.
“It is a delight to have known George. He was above all a gentleman. Whenever I asked his assistance or advice, my request was received cordially, and fulfilled with endless generosity.
“When Roman Kroitor and I first conceived of IMAX, it was our hope that by expanding the cinema screen we would provide a useful canvas for filmmakers. Our dream has been amply fulfilled by many talented artists and educators, but none more rewardingly than George Casey.”
Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray: “Besides endeavoring and succeeding in making some of the most amazing early IMAX films, George was a soft-spoken, erudite, gifted student of film. (His early space films influenced Kubrick’s 2001!) When Jim Freeman and I wanted to include a ‘space travel’ sequence in To Fly!, he helped us immensely—renting us his models of Earth and Jupiter, as well as his shooting stage in Hollywood. Then he took the time to show us how to use his equipment, how to light the models to make them look full scale, and how to add stars to the backgrounds. He was a lifesaver—and so generous with his time! After that, he went on to make one of the best IMAX films ever: Africa—The Serengeti. It was mesmerizing! We always enjoyed each other’s company, including the last time we saw each other at Niagara Falls after the Giant Screen Cinema Association conference in Toronto. We were both enjoying the awe-inspiring power of nature with our families. What a joy!
“I will miss him greatly. He taught us all so much, making our lives, our films, and each and every one of our industry’s conferences far, far more thought provoking. He was our star, and certainly one of the key pioneers in our artistic community.”
Charlotte Brohi, Houston Museum of Natural Science: “George was one of the nicest and most talented filmmakers in our industry and his spirit of collaboration made distributing his films a joy. He was always open to welcoming me on location and I still hear him shout into the walkie-talkie, during the migrations film shoot on Christmas Island in 1998, that ‘the crabs are on the move, the crabs are on the move.’ Rest in peace George. I was so lucky to have known you.”
Diane Carlson, formerly with the Pacific Science Center: “I am so fortunate to have shared time with George in our theater at Pacific Science Center and in wonderful places around the world at industry meetings. At those meetings it seemed for years on end he would show footage of erupting volcanoes — in fact, it did not seem like the meeting was complete without George’s footage. I had a challenge reconciling the daredevil volcano shooting IMAX filmmaker with the dapper, impeccably dressed, classy gentleman who would be in our theater for openings.
“One of my fondest memories was at the opening of Forces of Nature when his son Sean accompanied him. Sean fit in totally with the Seattle scene and dress code: young, in a flannel shirt, jeans and a knit stocking cap that he wore pulled nearly over his eyes, and slouching during a dinner with our donors. George was not too comfortable with Sean’s attire. But I know that George would have been very proud years later to see Sean at another dinner event at Pacific Science Center — this time honoring Sean’s film Tornado Alley. And Sean did some pretty risky driving just to get to the event through the snow in the Tornado Intercept Vehicle (TIV). Those daredevil Casey genes got passed on to Sean.
“George was a class act and helped our industry grow with his films. And his Academy Award-nominated The Eruption of Mount St. Helens played again on our screen in 2015 — on the 35th anniversary of the film.”
Filmmaker Steve Judson: “As a man of rock solid integrity, George Casey pioneered the role and mission of a giant-screen producer. He always treated everyone with respect, and helped set the tone for our industry, highlighting the need to make thoughtful films, worthy of the giant screen — even when constrained by tight budgets.
“These days there are quite a few independent companies turning out a reliable stream of giant-screen films. But in the early days, it was just Graphic Films and MacGillivray Freeman Films, the only companies to invest heavily in purchasing 15/70 cameras. Most other producers came and went quickly. George Casey’s leadership at that time was inspiring. He showed that producing and distributing giant-screen films could become a viable long-term business. He gave others the confidence to hang in there. He lit the way.”
Truett Latimer, former president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science: “George Casey was a pioneer independent producer of IMAX movies, accelerated by the fact he owned his camera. Early on, George filmed the eruption of Mount St. Helens and from that experience became almost an addict of filming eruptions. Whenever one would occur, you could be almost certain that George had loaded up his camera and was headed to the eruption, wherever in the world it was.
“We had a great relationship with George as he produced three movies for us, one of which was the Academy Award-nominated Alaska – Spirit of the Wild. What a pleasure it was to attend the ceremonies with George: black limo, red carpet, and all that went with the evening.
“We shall miss George, but remember him as a good personal friend and a great believer in the large format known as IMAX.”
Ammiel Najar, producer at Graphic Films: “George embraced the giant-screen experience. But more than that, he was passionate about the immersive quality of the dome. When he lined up a shot, it was always, ‘How is it going to look on the dome?’ He always thought of that first as a filmmaker. His favorite lens? The Hasselblad 30mm fisheye.”
Planetarian Mark B. Peterson: “We owe a lot to George. He kept product flowing when there were few theaters and little money. A prospective client asked what sort of shooting ratio he’d like, and George said 20:1. Could you shoot it at 10:1? And George said yes. How about 5:1? George said OK. They finally settled on 3:1. Good job, George.
“I have an amusing story, recounted to me by George himself. George was traveling all over the place collecting volcano footage [for Forces of Nature]. I believe he was in the Philippines shooting an eruption and sort of got into an obsessive trance, moving closer and closer for maximum impact and drama. He was reloading the camera and happened to glance down and noticed that his shoes and tripod legs were on fire. Someone should have reminded him that telephoto and zoom lenses work, too. Back in those days, however, such gadgets were in short supply for large format. He got the shot, and it was a great film.
“I’ll miss you.”
Filmmaker Sean M. Phillips: “The first job I ever had in the film industry was working at Graphic Films for George and his partner, Les Novros. For me it was a dream job, just out of film school to be able to work in the 15/70 film format. George was a lot of fun to work for. He had a love and enthusiasm for the giant screen and was always pushing us to go beyond what had been done before. George brought a journalist’s sensibility to his work, and was a fearless visual innovator. He was also very kind and fair with his crews. I think he was genuinely fond of the Spartan, peripatetic life of documentary filmmaking. He loved to explore and discover the world, taking it as it came without regret. With that sensibility he created a body of work that has inspired generations of audiences and was universally respected by all of us that knew and worked with him.”
Writer Mose Richards: “I worked with George for about 20 years off and on, and as most people in the industry will tell you, he was devoted to his family, intellectually curious, trained in and passionate about journalism, crazy about volcanoes, old-school in many ways, and the consummate gentleman and gentle soul. But he was also a terrific writer, which may not have been so widely known. He was the best writer I ever wrote for.”
SFX expert Tim Sassoon: “I worked on at least six of George’s films doing titles and visual effects, often working late into the night at Graphic Films stage in North Hollywood.
“George Casey was certainly a giant of the golden age of giant-screen films. A mellifluous blend of scholar, adventurer, gentleman, and entrepreneur, he embodied all the best attributes of that era, particularly collegiality, and an insistence on quality in image-making and in storytelling. The screen somehow didn’t seem quite as big after he retired.”
Oscar-winning filmmaker Ben Shedd: “While I was working at Graphic Films in the mid-1980s, I remember three things in particular about George: I remember George had such an expressive way with writing narration, very visual, very textured, for the Graphic IMAX films.
“And I remember every time there was a volcano erupting somewhere on the planet, George and a small crew would all of a sudden be gone with the Graphic Films 15/65 camera, off to shoot more giant-screen footage like his film, The Eruption of Mount St. Helens. A week or two later, we would be seeing dome footage of the world’s most recent volcanic eruption. All of that footage collected over the years became the basis for Ring of Fire.
“George was one of the first promoters and innovators of large portable dome theaters aside from OMNIMAX [the original brand name for IMAX Dome]. I remember him showing me a scrapbook filled with photos of him and his family with a few others on the road with a good-size portable dome theater they would setup at fairs, taking their dome movies out to places where there were no IMAX Dome theaters (the primary dome screens of that period). The portable dome parts were still in storage in the back of Graphic Films when George showed me those photos. I think they used a 35mm projector for the road shows because Graphic Films had a small collection of huge fisheye lenses for projectors, one of which was used in the small dome theater at Graphic Films built for watching dailies.”
Filmmaker Soames Summerhays: “George will be remembered for many things, not least of which was his sense of adventure, his humor and his abundant charm. I have to report that there have been few moments more memorable than the sleepless days we spent together filming Kilauea and Mauna Loa’s fountaining volcanoes. And of George’s many talents his gift for infusing his scripts with poetry made his films all the more memorable.”
Published in the Summer 2017 issue of LF Examiner © 2017 by Cinergetics, LLC. Visit www.lfexaminer.com.
Mike Day, Executive Vice President at the Science Museum of Minnesota, has traveled the world as an executive producer of 11 giant screen films for the museum's IMAX Dome theater. Here he shares memories of working with George on the film Ring of Fire.
George Casey, cinematographer Mehran Ty Salamati, and camera assistant Rodney Taylor in the crater of Mt. St. Helens
Following his Academy Award nomination for his film The Eruption of Mt. St. Helens, George Casey and I were invited to present at a conference in Tokyo. He called me in advance of the trip and invited me to go with him following the event. This to visit a volcanologist at his research station on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, an invitation I readily accepted.
As it turns out, the research station was on the side of one of the most active volcanoes on our planet, Sakurajima, which has been in a state of continuous eruption since 1955. Our first day drive around the volcano was interrupted by a tectonic rumble and an ash explosion that went more than a mile high. I watched another eruption in morning twilight a day later from my deck at the Sun Royal Hotel in Kagoshima across a Bay of the East China Sea from Sakurajima. The ongoing dynamics of this volcano are evidenced from an August 2013 ash eruption that went three miles high, the 500th eruption in that year.
I came to realize that George Casey's invitation was to seduce me to the idea of doing a volcano IMAX® film. Sakurajima was my first experience with an active volcano and the seduction worked. From that trip we began an almost decade-long venture that resulted in the film Ring of Fire, which had its world premiere in the Science Museum of Minnesota's IMAX® Dome Theater in 1991. It became one of the most successful of the more than a dozen giant screen films we have produced out of Minnesota, both in terms of exhibition and distribution. (It was the most popular film in our annual giant screen film festival, OMNIFEST, when we last brought it back just three years ago in 2014.)
The plan was to put together a SWOT squad out of Los Angeles, a skeleton crew ready to chase volcanic events at a moment's notice. I had told the Board of Trustees of the Science Museum of Minnesota that we would spend three years funding these film shoots in order to insure we would have good action footage from which to begin to build a larger partnership and a production plan to film at more reachable and predictable locations–like Sakurajima. We did things like sending the crew off to Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines when it became seismically active. Its eruptive history had been forgotten and people had resettled across the mountain, which had us filming aerials in advance of an anticipated explosion. As it turns out, there was no eruption, which was how our luck went for almost the entire three years. (Pinatubo didn't erupt until three months after we premiered Ring of Fire in 1991.)
Having invested significant time and money into this venture with no action footage to show, I expected I might be looking for a new job. Then, on Christmas Day, 1988, the Lonquimay volcano in the Andes mountains of Chile erupted for the first time in 100 years, and ours was the only film crew in the world to arrive to capture the highlights of this catastrophic event before the volcano quieted down. From that moment on our luck changed and the film crew went on to capture extraordinary events and places around the Pacific Rim, including arriving in San Francisco the morning after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake that happened a half hour before first pitch of a World Series baseball game at Candlestick Park.
Needless to say, if you spend a decade chasing volcanoes around the Ring of Fire with someone, you get to know them pretty well, not to mention you get to experience some pretty outstanding places and events. (The annual volcano evacuation drill held each January at Sakurajima being one such unique event.) The highlight of the venture was spending time with George and the film crew he had assembled for this escapade.
George Casey was mightily dedicated to his craft, a warrior capturing in the world's largest film format worldwide phenomena and events that audiences would never have the chance to otherwise experience in their lifetimes. He was enormously loyal to his crews, steadfast in his determination to get the shot, and as calm and witty a traveling companion as one would ever hope for. And, along with the images he labored to capture were the wonderful minimalist expressions he brought to a script. One of my favorites from the film Seasons, was the sequence of summer trees transitioning to fall colors with the line, "leaves–disposable gatherers of sunlight."
I have always said the best part of my career has been working with professionals, and George Casey was the personification of what I mean. Anyone who has had the privilege of spending the quality time and adventure I have had with George will understand my sadness that he is gone, but carry on knowing they are blessed to have shared his talent and time on this earth.
George Casey, cinematographer Mehran Ty Salamati, and camera assistant Rodney Taylor on location for the film Ring of Fire