A Conversation with “Humpback Whales” Director Greg MacGillivray

10-year-old Theodore is a student in the San Gabriel Valley. He was chosen as the winner of this year’s Kid Critics Challenge hosted by L.A. Parent, the California Science Center and  MacGillivray Freeman Films. As the winner, Theodore was given the opportunity to interview the director, Greg MacGillivray. 

By Theodore – Age 10

Kid Critic Theodore with DirectorLike an ocean-based Ansel Adams, veteran filmmaker Greg MacGillivray uses the latest in visual technology to offer viewers a glimpse into the lives of humpback whales while inspiring audiences to think about how their actions can impact the noble giants.

“When a whale first comes by, you are first of all frightened,” says MacGillivray, adding that from the window of his Laguna Beach office he occasionally can see humpback whales and their spouts.

“But they are very gentle and undangerous,” says the award-winning, large-format movie director. “And then you think: ‘Wow! We are living on this planet with these amazing, gigantic animals!’”

A lifelong surfer and diver, MacGillivray’s latest project is the 40-minute Humpback Whales 3-D, a theatrical event available in Imax format that opened at the start of the summer and is continuing its successful run at the California Science Center in Exposition Park.

MacGillivray and his crew of 20 spent about four years and $8 million to provide viewers with the rare experience of swimming with humpback whales and witnessing their mating and migrating habits. To do this, the film crew followed the humpbacks’ long-distance travels from the warm waters of Tonga and Hawaii to frigid Alaska.

A slow swimmer that for generations was hunted for meat and, to a lesser extent, oil, global humpback whale numbers at one point dropped to 10,000, MacGillivray says. Estimates today place those figures at 100,000, thanks to changing attitudes and conservation efforts. But life forms in our oceans still need protection, he says. Other species, such as blue whales — the world’s largest — are not as lucky.

“Pollution, such as plastics in the ocean, and the number of ships and noise from military vessels and [dangers of being caught up in] fisherman’s nets — these are all still issues,” says MacGillivray. “But the numbers are increasing so there is hope they will all recover.”

Although the Laguna Beach native openly professes a love for the ocean and its life forms, the prolific work of his 50-year-old film studio — MacGillivray Freeman Films — does not limit its scope to it.

As a world leader in utilizing the most advanced filmmaking technology, MacGillivray Freeman has produced and released 38 Imax movies, including To Fly, The Living Sea, and Everest, which MacGillivray named as his three favorite other films besides Humpback Whales. Next February, the studio will bring to the very big screens a documentary on the U.S. National Park Service.

The company, which also bears the name of his late partner Jim Freeman, has carved a creative niche in “edu-Kid Critic Theodore with Director 2tainment”— media that aspires to inform, educate and entertain audiences of all ages.

Besides documentaries, MacGillivray Freeman also produces nature-themed television shows and Internet videos and it partners with cable’s Discovery Channel to produce educational shorts for its annual Shark Week programming. On a more grassroots level, the company is involved in leading ocean clean-up campaigns.

Knowing that children are key to future conservation efforts, the father of two and grandfather of four is committed to high-quality programs and materials that inspire and engage. Each year, for example, MacGillivray Freeman Films holds a contest for teenager filmmakers to produce one-minute videos on ocean life.

I asked MacGillivray — who started off as a physics major at UC Santa Barbara but decided that movies were more of his calling— how kids can do their part to improve the lives of humpback whales. He told me we can study to be marine biologists, we can try to convince our family to use less plastic, and we can communicate to others about what conservation organizations do.

MacGillivray also says kids could learn more about the work of government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which had its efforts featured prominently in the film.

Humpback Whales deals with serious issues but is fun to watch and it features an upbeat soundtrack. Narration was provided by Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, whom young audiences will know from the Star Wars movies.

“I try to make movies for the entire family,” MacGillivray says. “To get people to appreciate the natural wonders of the world so they will want to save those wonders — that is my main goal.”

“We need to be careful about the planet.”

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