Earlier this year a friend of mine asked me why I insist on working in large format. Why spend four years or more to make a 40-minute documentary? What’s the attraction? I was forced to truly consider the question. Do I love the process? Do I build ships because I love the act of building them, or are they a means to explore unknown shores? I love telling stories, true, but I can do this in other formats with much less hassle. So why do it? What is it about the giant screen that keeps me coming back?
Next year will mark my 20th year of involvement with the giant screen community. When I started, industry conferences in Barcelona, Sydney, and New York boasted over 1000 delegates and box office revenues reported in Daily Variety had Hollywood execs salivating. Since then, we’ve lost some 70 major institutional theaters. Lease values have plummeted. Financing is harder than ever, forcing many talented industry colleagues to opt for fresher, more promising pastures. And yet here I am, embarking on two new films for the giant screen.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from someone I had never met before. It read: “Dear Mr. Ferguson. You don’t know me, but I felt the urge to write you. As a secular Jew living in America all my life, I felt no connection to Jerusalem…until I saw your film. Today I live in Jerusalem thanks largely to your film and what it inspired in me. For that I thank you.” I was stunned. We often talk about impact, but here was perhaps the most concrete kind of impact. Someone made a profound life change because of something I was involved with. Many people have told me that seeing Jerusalem on a giant screen fulfilled a lifelong dream of theirs, as they felt they had actually visited the place. Others claim the film changed their perspective, made them reconsider their assumptions. All this in 40 minutes. The question is whether such impact could have been possible by simply streaming the film or watching it on DVD. Does context matter?
Try to remember the very first time you walked into an IMAX/Omnimax theater (or Iwerks, Megasystems, Goto). If you don’t remember, I urge you to sneak into a public screening early and watch the audience enter. I have heard audible gasps when people round that first curve and their eyes rise…and rise. This is no ordinary cinema. It is a rocket, a submersible, a racecar, a cathedral. It is as vast as the human imagination, and one hopes museum staff continue to treat it as such, far from the ordinary or the banal.
I am brought back to my first memories of walking into Ontario Place, Ontario Science Centre, or the Perth Omnimax where I grew up. To me those towering screens held such promise. I try not to forget this. At industry conferences it’s easy to become jaded. There are too few middle schoolers in the audience. I recall watching Mysteries of Egypt at World Golf Village with a packed house of 7-year-olds who squealed with delight from the opening to the closing credits. Who knows what impact that experience had on them? I would like to imagine some of them picked up a book on mummies or ancient history at their next library outing.
Sure, 40 minutes does not allow for three-act stories, serpentine character arcs, and unexpected twists, but I’m not sure that’s where our strength lies. What we do best is immerse people in other worlds, allow them to be another species, make them feel infinitely small or enormous. Cosmic Voyage did this for me, so much so that when I emerged into the daylight afterwards, I cast my gaze to the macro- and microworlds above and beneath me, the universe at once a much richer place than before. Mysteries of the Unseen World did this for me as well, by revealing time and the familiar anew.
On a giant screen, every shot is subjective whether we intend it or not. The audience is a participant. They are floating on the I.S.S, hovering over the wreck of the Titanic, swaying from the Burj Tower. That visceral sensation is what people recall most, why they keep coming back. That is why we push for the best resolution, the highest production values, the time to do it right. If we succeed, we trick the brain, causing neurons to fire as they would during a firsthand experience.
There’s something truly unique going on during a giant screen experience, one that is best encapsulated by the single, spontaneous utterance: “Wow!” If we do our jobs right as storytellers, we can get audiences to say it over and over again. If we design the sound and picture with the giant screen geometry in mind, if we strive for unconventional camera angles, if we write just enough words to get out of the way and let the audience’s eyes wander freely across that sunrise or night sky, we can increase their sense of wonder.
If cinema is, as the late Roger Ebert suggested, “an empathy box,” perhaps the giant screen is a box of wonder. It reminds us just how staggeringly beautiful our universe is and how utterly fortunate we are to call this planet home. We can hear about the importance of the rainforest or coral reefs every day on the news, but a single image of the Amazon burning or the oceans in peril on a giant screen can be enough to change the course of our lives. Who could turn their back on that?
Daniel Ferguson is a writer, director and producer with Cosmic Picture. His film credits include Jerusalem, Journey to Mecca, Wired to Win and Lost Worlds. He is currently in production on Superpower Dogs and Einstein’s Incredible Universe.