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IMAX®'s ANDY GELLIS: Panda Adventures and the Future of Big Movies


Written by: Ryan and Mark Kresser
Date: October 2000

Ryan and Mark Kresser visited with IMAX® Head of Production Andy Gellis at IMAX's gleaming new postmodern production offices in the hip, movie studio-saturated Santa Monica area that's been booming of late.


Category: Interviews

First, Mr. Gellis (bio) showed us some cool footage from one of IMAX®'s upcoming films, CHINA: THE PANDA ADVENTURE, due for release in June 2001. Then, we broke out the tape recorder and asked some questions …

BMZ: So tell us about the premise of CHINA: THE PANDA ADVENTURE.

Andy Gellis: It's a woman's quest to follow in the footsteps of a husband who went to China to bring out the first live Panda. When she receives information that he has passed away, she goes to China to collect his belongings and then decides to make good on his quest. She successfully brings out the first live Panda to North America.

BMZ: And how will this film be different from the traditional IMAX documentaries people are used to seeing?

AG: Well it's a story-driven film. It's cast with actors. It has a dramatic through-line to it, and will look like the best of feature film, and the best of IMAX at the same time. It's got all the elements that make for successful IMAX films, the Panda being a revered creature around the world. China is an exotic location that people will see in a way they've never imagined it before. It's an absolutely beautiful country, and the film will be stunning. So it has those vistas, and it has those kinds of dynamic dramatic moments in it that will look great.

BMZ: Does this reflect the direction that IMAX is going with all the films they're producing, nowadays?

AG: Well, I think it's one direction. It's not every direction but I think it's an important direction for both 2-D and 3-D filmmaking, and demonstrating that you can actually do significant live-action stories that are appropriate for the medium that also take you places that you don't normally get to. Or show you things that you're not necessarily going to see in your every-day life. Which is the strength of the format. Combine it with storytelling, a great musical score, good acting, and you know, it's one piece of the puzzle.

BMZ: How did you get the idea for this film in particular?

AG: Well it was brought to us by a gentleman named John Wilcox, who serves as Executive Producer on the project. He had shot Panda films before -- he'd done a couple of Panda documentaries. He'd also done the feature film "The Great Panda Adventure" for Warner Brothers. And he had some of the contacts in China, for the Pandas. He'd owned the rights to this project for more than ten years. We thought it was well-suited for the format. So Wendy Mirabella, who is Director of Development here read the project and recommended that we develop it.

BMZ: Do you have other similar projects in the works? It seems like I've read that you guys have been acquiring the rights to a lot of more mainstream, entertainment-type of properties?

AG: Well, we're always looking for, you know, interesting projects that seem well-suited for the format. We're developing a Steven King short story called "the Sun Dog," which is a purely commercial venture. We're developing films that will be backdropped in Australia, India, you know, the kinds of exotic locations that are interesting to an IMAX audience worldwide.

As well as entertainment films, we're also still doing straight documentary films. We're in business with Michael Caulfield in Australia, who's filming a documentary on horses presently called "Equus." We're going to distribute for Gaylord Entertainment their country music project, which is a number of vignettes strung together with a through-line, starring the best country-western people around. So we're looking in a lot of different areas for rights and stories, and things that we think that an IMAX audience worldwide might be interested in. And also we're very interested in animation.

BMZ: A lot of IMAX films in the past have had big-name Hollywood actors as narrators. But this film has Maria Bello, who has been a lead on ER, as the star. How has it been working with her, and do you see bigger-name actors starring in these films more and more in the future?

AG: Well, we're hoping that Maria Bello will become a big-name actor. She presently owns the bar in Coyote Ugly. She also had a recurring role for a couple years on ER. And she's a very, very talented gal who is sort of on the cusp of breaking out, we hope into bigger and better things. So those are the actors who are, you know, more readily available to us at this point in time. It's very hard to pay Mel Gibson twenty million dollars when you're not even making a film that costs twenty million dollars. The medium doesn't support that kind of pay scale yet. But we're hoping to get there. BMZ: Who are some of the other key people involved?

AG: The producers were Antoine Compin, and Charis Horten, who are also the producers of "T-Rex" and "Cirque du Soleil," and "Wings of Courage." Reed Smoot is Director of Photography, and Tom Cowan was Second Unit DP. John Wilcox and myself are the Co-Executive Producers. And the script was written by Jeanne Rosenberg.

Bob Young is the director, and Bob Young's background is one of the more fascinating in the history of film. Bob was the pre-eminent documentary filmmaker in the sixties. He then moved into feature films and has done a fair number of fairly interesting and worthwhile films over the years. Including things like "Dominick and Eugene" and "Extremities". The Ballad of Georgio Cortez. And-- he also was the Co-writer of "To Fly." (Editor's note: To Fly was the first 40-minute IMAX-format film, still playing every day at the Smithsonian after more than twenty years.)

BMZ: That's certainly an interesting connection. Full circle, I guess. So what are some of the challenges that you have to overcome with making a dramatic film in this medium, both on the production side and then on the distribution side?

AG: Well I don't think there's any real challenge on the distribution side, because certainly the commercial theaters would love to have things that are appropriate for their multiplexes or commercial venues. So dramatic features are very relevant for that kind of venue. Certainly, it's a little more challenging for the institutions, so you again try to cover that base by finding material that is relevant to the institutions, and will work for them. By that I mean something that has social value, that has role models, that has some elements that will make sense for them, which gives them the opportunity to play the film if they're so inclined.

On a production side, we're dealing with the standard things that one encounters in the format. The cameras are noisy, the cutting is different in terms of what you would get in a feature film, you can't cut as fast. You're dealing with an enormous frame. If you're shooting 3-D, you're dealing with the mechanics of shooting 3-D and trying to move actors through it. You have to replace the sound. All dialogue is replaced in post-production. The cameras are not particularly lightweight. The lens complement that you use is not as broad as it is in thirty-five millimeter. But, you know, the good news is, there's not a nicer picture in the world.

BMZ: This is kind of an aside, but do you foresee them fixing the problem with the noise in the camera any time soon? Are they working on that? Or is that just sort of the way it is, and always will be?

AG: If there is ever a time that this format is able to go fully digital, that's when the problem will get solved. The problem we have is that we're moving a very large negative through the gate in the camera. It's loud.

BMZ: There's no way to do that quietly.

AG:It's loud.

BMZ: Back to the types of films you're doing - I just wanted to ask one more follow up on that. It sounds like with a lot of your films you're aiming more at commercial theaters, and then hoping to get some institutions, is that right? Or are you aiming equally at both?

AG: I don't think we're necessarily distinguishing. I think IMAX takes the point of view that we by nature of being IMAX, have to be pioneering. If we're not pioneering the medium, then who is? The fact is there are a lot of filmmakers out there shooting documentaries. So to go into competition with people that we would like to encourage to continue to make 2-D documentaries, doesn't seem very appropriate.

So we're trying to fill in the gaps, in terms of where product development has to happen. That's basically the role that IMAX plays, or wants to play. Your company has to be benevolent in the industry. It is the industry, in many respects. We want to stimulate and encourage the best films to get made, and we want to participate in terms of our own film production and distribution, by filling in the blanks as best we can.

BMZ: So for a film like "The Panda Adventure" in particular, when you're going into that, do you think, "This is going to be a film equally aimed at commercial and educational venues?" Or, or do you think it's better that when you're making a film, you should decide which it is primarily and, and go in one direction or the other in order to make it a better film? You know the old saying, if you try to please everyone, you might please no one.

AG: Well I think that's particularly appropriate for this medium at this point in time, because I think they're still trying to sort that out. Nobody seems to think that we're all on the same boat together. Everybody wants to be in a different boat.

So you know, when you pick projects, you want to play two hundred theaters. So, you try to gear your project in a way that is true to the project. And then you let the chips fall as they may. You just hope that people are progressive enough in their thinking, and are willing to grow, that they broaden out what they're willing to play.

I don't think that anybody has ever said that Documentary is institution exclusively. A good documentary like "Everest," certainly did very well commercially. A good narrative story like "T-Rex," has had great success in the institutions that have played it. The institutions that choose not to play it, that's their business, that's what they do. But I don't understand how they deprive their audience of a film that's done fifty-two million dollars world wide in only eighty theaters. Somebody's coming to see the film, and somebody's interested and, and it's turning people on.

BMZ: Not to mention it takes place in a museum, and glorifies scientists, but go figure.

AG: Anyway, your point is a good one. Generally speaking, to really satisfy institutions you make a science documentary. But then you run the risk of making a science documentary like "Cosmic Voyage" or "Mission to Mir" or any number of, of films that certainly IMAX has been involved in that the institutions decided they don't want to play. So how do you get around that.

I mean, it's not like shooting with a video camera, where you can just sit there forever and shoot four hundred thousand feet of film, and fashion a film out of that. You get what you get in a time frame. And if you don't then you've got to use what you've got.

That sort of goes back to your production issue, in terms of how it works. You don't get to shoot unlimited film in this format. So you have to work with what you have in the editing room. And sometimes it's very, very hard.

BMZ: Will The Panda Adventure still be full of signature IMAX moments, or will the focus on drama inevitably take away from these moments?

AG: We don't go after them gratuitously. Basically it has to serve the story. But there were plenty of amazing IMAX locations, for example working in and around the Pandas in the Panda Preserve was quite an experience. We had a three-week second unit, just shooting Pandas. And the first unit ended up shooting the Pandas for probably four days, with the principles. You know, that's always remarkable working with wildlife. These panda cubs are just precious.

And we shot in a place like Jujaighon State Park, which is sort of a Chinese Yosemite. You see images, you see things that you haven't seen anywhere in the world. Beautiful views, beautiful scenery. Putting rafts across lakes and evoking mood with the wonderful images. It was truly a unique experience.

Rafting down a tributary of the Yang-tze River is very IMAX friendly. Hiking through ten thousand foot mountains where there's really very little path to hike on. And having someone fall off the mountain, is a very natural set of circumstances, in terms of what can happen. Even the suspense hunting Pandas, which is one part of the story, has its own drama to it. So I think that it's a very natural, marriage of material with the format.

BMZ: So Panda is still going to follow the, the accepted format for Big Movies of being somewhere around forty minutes?

AG: It's running about fifty minutes at the moment.

BMZ: What do you say to those people who say the public isn't interested in a feature length dramatic film in IMAX. Do you agree with that, and will IMAX attempt to make feature-length films in the future? Fantasia was feature length, but do you hope to move the medium in that direction? Or do you think there can be a new kind of dramatic paradigm of forty- minutes that works?

AG: Mm, I don't know who says that IMAX shouldn't be doing feature length films. I mean, I haven't heard anybody ever say that, except museums. They want to turn on the hour. Which is really sort of where the forty-minute format comes from. It's not to say you can't turn every two hours.

But the fact is the school groups show up and it's an attention span issue. Then there's the cycling people through the theater issue which certainly works in tourist destinations, as well. But I think generally speaking, you know, there's no limit on the length of the format, except on the physical equipment. And how much film can you spool on a reel?

The other element of course, is economics. It costs money to do dramatic film. It's not going to be the same kind of dramatic film that you're going to get in features either. It's a different filmmaking language. But there's no reason why you can't do a ninety-minute feature length film in this format, with the right material. Certainly China, the Panda Project would have been great as a ninety-minute film. There was certainly enough material to work with.

BMZ: And you feel like if you'd produced it that way, the commercial theaters would have embraced it gladly?

AG: I don't think it would be an issue for them at all. Because generally speaking, the people who are showing up at multiplexes expect to see a ninety-minute film. And one of the things that I think is problematic for those theaters, is that they're selling forty-minute films.

There are a number of things that are happening. I mean, Shrek is on the boards for next November. It's an almost ninety-minute 3-D film. You've got Disney potentially coming back in with something else. These are going to be longer films, like Fantasia was a longer film. Like Rolling Stones was a longer film.

BMZ: Are they charging a higher ticket price for the longer films?

AG: Well they did on "Fantasia," and there didn't seem to be much resistance.

BMZ: What did they charge? Like twelve to fourteen, or something like that?

AG: Twelve.

BMZ: So obviously you filmed on location in China. Any interesting stories about the challenges of working in China? I guess probably not that many American films are made there.

AG: We don't have enough time. [LAUGHS]

BMZ: Maybe one gem?

AG: This is actually I think one of the first, if not the first American film to be shot entirely on location in China. And to actually make it through. It was a fascinating experience.

We used primarily a Chinese crew. A number of our Keys and our camera people were North American, our director and production people, but we had a Chinese Production Manager, and an eighty-person Chinese crew. You know, there's language issues, there's interpreter issues, there's things that don't get interpreted exactly the way they've been said. There's different skill levels. There's a different cultural mentality in terms of how you make a film and what you do.

You go into places where people have never seen money. There's just poverty, and you try and negotiate locations, and extras, and people, and the deal changes every five minutes. You show up to film and the deal changes again. So, you really have to be most tolerant, most understanding and patient, to go into this kind of location and make a film.

I take my hat off to the producers, Antoine Compin and Charis Horton, who pulled it off. They put up with a lot, and the results will bear out the effort.

This was a big production, for China. A big, big production in a short time frame. A lot of what happens in Chinese films is they'll go out and shoot two-weeks at a time. They'll stop, regroup, hang around. It's much more low-key. This was heavy duty. And we had great cooperation. We had very little interference. When we went to the back lot of the Shanghai Film Studios, we had four hundred and fifty extras in costume, for our Shanghai film street circa 1936.

BMZ: I noticed that shot looked great.

AG: Thank you. It's really wonderful in 15/70 (film format). And that stuff adds, I think, a new dimension to the format and people will begin to understand that, yeah, there's a lot of things that are possible. You know, if you use your imagination, and if you're encouraged. You know, people have to be encouraged to go out and try to do these things. It's not encouraging to go out and then have people take potshots at films, you know, for reasons that you can't even imagine.

BMZ: One more question, kind of getting away from the Panda Project specifically… Obviously, everyone in the industry is talking about IMAX being up for sale. And, I'm just wondering if you have any comment on how that might affect the future of IMAX itself, and the industry in general.

AG: Everyone is bullish on the prospects for the future. Anything that happens to the company that ends up bringing in money, allowing for more investment in film, allowing for more investment in the format itself, and the theaters to take it to the next level is positive. So, everybody around here thinks that it's all good news and is extremely optimistic.

BMZ: And you wouldn't happen to have any comment on who might be interested, would you?

AG: I wouldn't have a comment to make even if I did, and I don't have a clue.

BMZ: I guess we'll have to wait and see, then. Thanks for talking with us, Andy.

AG: My pleasure. Thanks for coming out.

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