IMAX Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray on Five Summer Stories

There would likely be an entire alternate history of cinema if Greg MacGillivray didn’t film some surfers in ’72. That may seem like a rather grandiose suggestion, but it’s true in some integral ways. MacGillivray and Jim Freeman grew up making low-budget surf films in the late ’60s, a trend which peaked (and arguably ended) with Five Summer Stories, a movie in which the filmmaker developed a new way of photographing nature and motion, and conjoining image with audiophile sound quality. This small but important surfing movie would lead MacGillivray and Freeman to work on one of the very first IMAX movies, To Fly! in 1976.


MacGillivray continued his technical experimentation from Five Summer Stories, designing and modifying innovative new camera equipment to fit the massive IMAX screen. The cinematography, editing, direction, and technical inventions that MacGillivray worked on (before and after the passing of his brilliant friend and co-creator, Freeman) would continue for nearly five decades of IMAX masterpieces so far, with MacGillivray garnering two Oscar nominations and his company (MacGillivray Freeman Films) earning more than $1 billion through its existence. MacGillivray spoke to us about his IMAX films, the 50th anniversary of Five Summer Stories (which has been back in theatres), and his upcoming autobiography Five Hundred Summer Stories: A Lifetime of Adventures of a Surfer and Filmmaker.

Five Summer Stories and the Surfing Environment

Five Summer Stories is a playful, borderline experimental documentary about surfing, chronicling the past and present men and women who rode the waves like royalty. The film followed a decade or so of now-classic surf movies (from Beach Blanket Bingo roof The Endless Summer), but the genre really reached its zenith, and perhaps the end of its era, with Five Summer Stories. “Because Jim Freeman and I were venturing into other kinds of filmmaking challenges,” MacGillivray says, “we decided to make this our final film about surfing, in a kind of magazine format. We could work on one story, get it finished, and then go to another job and then finish that, and then come back to Five Summer Stories.”

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As such, it’s a fractured film, with intertitles marking chapters like 1¾ or 2½, reflecting the rapidly changing times of the early ’70s. The environment was on many people’s minds, with Richard Nixon recently creating the Environmental Protection Agency (yes, Nixon made the EPA, because the environment used to be apolitical), and surf movies were a wonderful way to combine MacGillivray’s passion for environmental concerns and surfing with his love of technical cinematographic innovation. He continues:

We ended up with a film that I think really gave you a sense of that fragmentary time in surfing and in the world, where everything was shifting. Earth Day had happened, and 10% of the United States population went to an Earth Day event, which is unheard of. Every little city had an Earth Day event. It was so well organized, because people were concerned about the environment. So you end up with all of these things happening, plus surfing was undergoing huge changes […] surfing was coming from a kind of ‘dark ages’ time, with design and materials and moving into a new age and a new experimentation. And so Five Summer Storieswith its multiplicity of storytelling, ends up as a nice reflection of that time.

The Beach Boys, Honk, and the Sounds of Summer Stories

Five Summer Stories complements its contemporary imagery with relevant sounds, featuring a luxurious soundscape courtesy of The Beach Boys and Honk, who are integral in shaping the continuity and emotional feel of the film with their relentlessly great needle drops. “The music was the element that really held it together,” MacGillivray says. “By using Honk and The Beach Boys as the source, the music tells more of the story than actually the visuals, probably. And because we showed the film in stereo sound, which was unheard of back then in movie theaters except in 70mm.” The very presentation of Five Summer Stories was an audiovisual experience that people lined down the block for, thanks to the meticulous technical skill involved:

With our film, we ran a magnetic tape recorder synchronous with the projector. It had tape that was half an inch wide, and the two channels were on that magnetic tape running fast across the head. And so you had frequency response and levels of frequency that you never heard before from a film. It was like going to a rock concert, and we’d bring in our own speakers and our big amplifiers, and we just overpower the places, it was unbelievably fun. Kids would come back just to hear the music. It was so exciting. You couldn’t hear that kind of music unless you were an audiophile and had a great system at home. You would never hear that associated with a film, though. And so it was a different kind of treat for surfer kids.

The Technical Skill of IMAX Genius Greg MacGillivray

It’s clear that MacGillivray’s technical abilities and interest in innovation really began to flourish with Five Summer Storiessomething which sparked his career as an ingenious IMAX filmmaker forced to develop increasingly complicated and brilliant new technology to film the world like it’s never been filmed before, in immersive IMAX movies like The Living Sea, Everest, Dolphins, Coral Reef Adventure, and To the Arctic. It really kicked off with Five Summer Stories and its groundbreaking cinematography and camera operators.

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“Our partner Bud Browne was 30 years older than us, but he was the best water cameraman ever,” MacGillivray says, “he was a champion swimmer and would get right underneath the waves with these cameras and get great shots, shots that’d never been done before. Now you can get those so easily with a GoPro, but back then the cameras were giant, and it was a different kind of struggle.” The struggle to find (or create) the best equipment in order to capture the best shot is a passion that’s never left MacGillivray in the 50 years since Five Summer Stories. He continues:

The sound quality, the reproduction of the music, the way that we photographed the images with super high speed cameras to get slow motion that had never been seen before — these technological advancements are the same kind of things that we did in IMAX. Designing new helicopter mounts, new ways to move the camera, and new cameras themselves in 1570 IMAX, that’s all been kind of the format of my life, how to find the best way to amaze an audience with a certain subject, both storytelling-wise and technically. How to get there and give people something that’s well worth the price of admission.

Interestingly, technological advancements have both helped and hindered films, as more and more people watch movies on tablets, phones, and laptops, something certainly not conducive to the epic cinematography of MacGillivray’s work. This has only compelled the filmmaker to be more innovative in his pursuit of transcendentally awesome imagery about nature.

For him, films should be “something that really gives people the joy that they should get when they go all the way out to watch a movie in a theatre, and obviously, theaters are the best ways to watch films. But nowadays, it’s even more important to over-deliver, because streaming has become such an easy and habitual thing for people to do. And once you get the audience into a habit, it’s really hard to get them to go back to another habit, and so films today need to be better than ever before for the theater experience to survive.”

MacGillivray, IMAX, and Saving the Environment

MacGillivray undoubtedly delivers that theatrical experience with his work, from Five Summer Stories receiving a theatrical release for its 50th-anniversary edition to his epic IMAX landscapes. The experience has often been in service of MacGillivray’s passion for the environment, something obvious throughout his filmography, which has spanned the entire globe (and is documented to charming effect, with stunning pictures, in his upcoming book) and recruited a litany of brilliant actors for voiceover narration, including Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, Perce Brosnan, Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges, and numerous others.

“I think the main thing is that we’re educating people,” MacGillivray says, “and inspiring people with our movies on these giant screens with great sound quality and images, and those thoughts are very much memorable to the audience.” He elaborates:

We have a chance to inspire them to treat nature more carefully. If you can get someone to fall in love with nature, you’ll then get them to care about it, and then work hard to save it. And that’s been my motivation for the past 30 years, even starting with Five Summer Stories […] These things are important to our life, our happiness, and our health, and if I can show people why it’s so important to save these locations and save these elements of nature, then I’ve done a good thing. I think that it’s part of my duty, because I’m in a position with IMAX to have this wide audience, in 75 countries around the world, to basically deliver that messaging and to double down on getting people to think about nature as an important part of their life.

Greg MacGillivray’s Five Hundred Summer Stories

MacGillivray’s passion for the natural environment and many adventures throughout it can be wonderfully seen throughout his book Five Hundred Summer Stories, not just with words and pictures but with, unsurprisingly, advanced technology; even when writing a book, MacGillivray is technically innovative.

“It’s all the stories about filmmaking and about my life and working with nature and all the various subjects that I make films about, and we’re able to also show them images from those films,” MacGillivray explains. “So there are 40 different QR codes through the book that you can hop onto with your cell phone instantly, and you can then watch, and hear the music, and listen with the narration to some of the sequences that I’m writing about. “

There’s a quote in MacGillivray’s new book that’s simultaneously cheeky, sad, and beautiful; surfer Mickey Dora says, “Waves are the ultimate illusion. They come out of nowhere, instantly materialize, and just as quickly they break and vanish. Chasing after such fleeting mirages is a complete waste of time. That is what I chose to do with my life.”

The same could be said about filmmaking and MacGillivray, a man who continues to chase after fleeting images, capturing them with complicated equipment and displaying them on massive screens that flicker away like mirages themselves. MacGillivray has been surfing the waves of cinema for half a century, searching for high tide and taking his audience along for the ride. The theatrical re-release of Five Summer Stories and his upcoming book proves that it was no waste of time.

From MacGillivray Freeman Films, Five Summer Stories is back in theatres, and you can find screenings and more information here. Greg MacGillivray’s book, Five Hundred Summer Stories: A Lifetime of Adventures of a Surfer and Filmmaker, is available on Nov. 15th

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