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4-Time Oscar Nominee George Casey: Africa, Alaska and Beyond

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Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: Fall 2000

George Casey has specialized in directing, producing and writing large format motion pictures for more than 20 years. His directorial credits include Genesis, The Great Barrier Reef, The Eruption of Mount St. Helens, Planet Ocean, Probes in Space, Ring of Fire, Africa: The Serengeti, and most recently, the highly acclaimed, Alaska: Spirit of the Wild and Amazing Journeys.

  

Category: Interviews

We interviewed Mr. Casey by email in early September 2000.

BMZ: Where did you grow up?

George Casey: I grew up on a ranch in the Imperial Valley of Southern California.

BMZ: When did you know that you wanted to be a filmmaker? Was there any major experience you remember as a youth that led you in this direction?

GC: When very young, I wanted to be an artist/animator for Disney. Made lots of story boards, but without a motion picture camera ---and this was an age long before the invention of video cameras--- the productions didn't progress very far. I was also extremely interested in journalism, and during that period of the Second World War, I was powerfully impressed viewing a British combat documentary shown in our town's single theater. It was called 'Desert Victory' and captured in extraordinary footage the British victory over German forces in North Africa.. The footage was truly riveting. I had never witnessed such reality in a film. Seven British combat cameramen were killed in making the film. But from that point on, I wanted to make film documentaries.

BMZ: When did you start in the Large Format industry, or were you involved in other film formats or another industry altogether?

GC: Journalism had won out over film making in my early career. I graduated with an MA in Journalism from UCLA, and soon founded my own small company producing audio documentaries. Even found myself as a combat correspondent on three different recording tours to Vietnam during that war. But increasingly my interests turned toward film making and I took advantage of courses at UCLA and USC (not bad film schools) to study cinema. I bought camera gear and began filming documentaries on my own. And all this time I had been writing film scripts.

Around that time I met Les Novros, the founder of Graphic Films, and he invited me to become his partner. His company intrigued me; it had a history of excellence in documentaries and animation and had produced a number of outstanding special exhibit films. Four were produced for the New York World's Fair of 1964 & '65, including 'To The Moon & Beyond', a 70mm film designed for projection within a huge, domed screen.... a true ancestor of the Omnimax format. It also brought Stanley Kubrick to Graphic Films for early development work on '2001'.

BMZ: How and why did you get involved with Large Format films?

GC: With the advent of the IMAX® format in the early '70's, the Reuben H. Fleet Omnimax Theater in San Diego invented the tilted dome projection system for the format and sought out a film production company with experience in 70mm dome projection. This brought them to Graphic Films to produce the first Omnimax feature, a multi-media production: Journey To The Outer Planets. Ever since, we've specialized in producing IMAX/Omnimax® format films.

BMZ: Are there any particular people who have influenced you greatly, either personally or from afar?

Surely, Les Novros was a powerful influence; a mentor and extraordinary teacher (he taught cinema at USC for many years) as well as a practical businessman who had kept a film company going since 1941. There were many other influences, too numerous to mention, but including Eisenstein (thanks to Les), Robert Flaherty, the Kubrick of 'Paths of Glory' and '2001', Francis Thompson and 'To Be Alive', etc .

BMZ: I understand you've been a producer and/or director of four Academy Award- nominated films, more than any other large-format filmmaker, including the first-ever large format film nominated for an Academy Award. What was the first film? The next three?

GC: Yes, I've been fortunate in being nominated on four occasions. On the first three ('Planet Ocean' a 35mm wide screen anamorphic film, 'Probes In Space', a 70mm 5 perf. production, and The Eruption of Mount St. Helens, the first Imax format film ever nominated) I wrote, directed and produced each film with a lot of help from Les, cinematographer Jay Connors, composer Paul Novros and others. The most recent, Alaska; Spirit of the Wild, I directed and co-produced with my present partner, Paul Novros. But this was a truly collaborative film, written by Mose Richards and edited by Tim Huntley, with Rodney Taylor as director of photography, Charlton Heston as narrator, Ammiel Najar as Associate Producer etc.

BMZ: Is there one of these four films that's your favorite and why? How do you maintain this level of excellence every time out?

GC: It's difficult to pick a favorite. I was proud to achieve the first three on really limited budgets. Alaska is technically the best of the lot, and represents a collaborative effort from a really talented bunch of people. Perhaps my most favorite films are two IMAX format films I directed and co-produced and which were not nominated for Academy Awards, RING of FIRE and AFRICA: THE SERENGETI. Two very challenging films to make. As to maintaining excellence, start with a great bunch of collaborators, crew and staff. Be passionate about the subject matter.Care greatly that the film succeeds. Regard the privilege of making these films as something like a sacred trust. Let others who can do things better than you do them. Trust your judgement and your instincts.

BMZ: What are some of the greatest challenges in making Large Format movies? What about them keeps you getting out of bed every day?

GC: Each film has its special challenges. Recently, as we've been doing more wildlife and natural history films, the challenges are weather, difficult locations, unpredictable animals and climatic conditions, and the magnified logistical challenges of this "largest film format in the world". What keeps us motivated is the same thing: this largest, most powerful film format in the world. There is a great satisfaction in knowing that what we succeed in filming will be so powerfully and realistically shared by all the people who experience the film.

BMZ: What's your latest project or projects, and what inspired their (its) inception?

GC: We've been hard at work for some time on an IMAX/Omnimax production with the working titles of Natural Disasters / Forces of nature. This film portrays the power of earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes, the dangers they pose to humanity, and what science is doing to mitigate these dangers. As far as inspiration goes, if you've experienced first-hand any of these Forces of Nature, you will know how spectacular and experientially powerful they are, and how powerfully they can be reproduced in these giant screen formats. It's 'a natural'. Every topic survey we've taken verifies this. Filming these subjects is also very exciting film making. We've been on this project for years and are currently producing this film in cooperation with National Geographic Films. We have some other film ideas in development, but we've learned not to talk about them after having several newborn ideas 'kidnapped' over the years.

We also feel we must remain constantly vigilant as to what subject matter works best in our chosen medium, for we are competing with increasingly sophisticated motion picture theaters exhibiting films of immensely greater budgets than our own. One thing we continue to do best is to represent the most spectacular --- and REAL ---events of nature, whether a major eruption, flood, tornado, or thousands of wildebeest in a massed crossing of a crocodile-filled African river. Real events reproduced in unsurpassed scale and realism.

BMZ: The LF industry has been undergoing quite a bit of growth in the last decade, but with that has come a lot of change, including an increase in commercial venues and an attempt by some industry players to cater to them. Any thoughts on this trend, and on the future of the industry?

GC: The LF industry is a constantly shifting landscape....Commercial venues, 3D Imax, changing formulas of film financing, shorter film leases, increasing competition from upscaled commercial theaters, as many as five IMAX format theaters in a single city, too many films being made in our formats and not enough good ones..... It's a daunting field to anyone who bothers to look before leaping into this enticing world of the giant screen.

There are some crucial conditions which need to be improved or resolved: The percentages of the box office returned to the film distributors and owners in our formats are quite low compared to Hollywood feature standards: perhaps 15% to 20% as opposed to feature films opening at 60% or 70%. As a consequence, few films in large screen formats even make their costs back. But this seems not to discourage the constant stream of film makers and producers eager to enter the formats. I have long been of the opinion that the LF industry will remain a 'buyers market', and that the reality remains that a theater in the institutional market needs only two, three or four strong films a year.

At Graphic Films, we have simply resolved to produce the finest films we can, of the strongest general appeal possible, and to trust that our efforts will be rewarded in the continuing survival of our company, now 59 successful years old.

BMZ: In your line of work, you must travel a lot to faraway, exotic places, which I imagine is both taxing and deeply enriching. Do you feel like there's any special bit of insight you've gained from living all over the world for long stretches of time?

GC: I don't think I've travelled quite that relentlessly, frankly. And I've been fortunate in several important regards. I've been deeply interested in the subjects of the films I've worked on. I've had the privilege of taking members of my family on many of our shoots, often as crew members, so that has lessened the pains of separation and being away from home. And I've been very fortunate in the film crews I've worked with. The 'chemistry' and comraderie have almost always been positive and strong. Yes, such travel can be 'deeply enriching', and I have many such memories. But above all is that constant, consuming priority: The film. The film. The film.

BMZ: Are there any key things which stand out in your mind that humans could learn from observing nature, and wild animals in particular, more closely?

GC: Predation was disturbing to witness. Most of our crew felt the same. But we had to accept these terms, both as a law of nature, and as the law of the national wildlife parks in which we filmed in Africa. To intervene to save an animal was to risk being ejected from the park and risk cancellation of our filming permits. To observe species in the wild and their struggles to survive heightened my sensitivities and my recognition of their specialness. More than anything, it has made more repulsive to me the human 'sport' of hunting. What blindness to the miracle of life can lead one to seek satisfaction in the wanton destruction of living creatures?

BMZ: Your son has become quite a cinematographer himself, is that right? Have you worked together, and what's that been like? Do you plan to work together in the future?

GC: Our eldest son, Sean, has indeed become a cinematographer with some special strengths. He has very keen instincts about animal behavior and nature, in general. He is very patient, yet very aggressive in his pursuit of the shots and footage he's after. In that sense, he's a very keen and capable hunter. Early on, I learned to use and trust him as a 'second unit' and gave him the freedom to capture those special shots in high speed 35mm coverage which the cumbersomeness of the IMAX equipment often prevented. Recently, in the filming of tornadoes and erupting volcanoes, I've used him as my Director of Photography. He seems to thrive on that edge of danger and resourcefulness intrinsic in this kind of filming. I know it's tough for a son to work with a father. I well remember being the son. And Sean's a very independent young man. But, yes, I hope we'll be able to work together in the future. It's one of the things that, for me, keeps this business interesting and meaningful.

Related Films:
Africa: The Serengeti
Alaska: Spirit of the Wild
Journey to the Outer Planets
Natural Disasters: Forces of Nature
Ring of Fire
The Eruption of Mount St. Helens
Other Related Links:
George Casey Director Page

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