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American Cinematographer
May 1998

Scaling Everest in Imax

by Kathleen Fairweather

The only thing more difficult than climbing Everest is making a film on Everest, especially an IMAX film that requires one of the heaviest cameras and a cinematography style unlike any other format.

Led by Emmy Award -winning film maker David Breashears in May of 1996, Everest Film Expedition, a MacGillivray Freeman production in association with Arcturus Motion Pictures set out to do the impossible: make the world's first IMAX film at the top of Mt. Everest 29,028 feet above sea level-- a dizzying and deadly altitude.

Logistically, Breashear's faced a cinematographers nightmare. Besides filming in sub-freezing temperatures with limited oxygen, the Everest team had to overcome the challenges of dangerous terrain, unpredictable and extreme weather, avalanches, hypothermia, frostbite, deadly oxygen related afflictions, and the sobering knowledge that over 150 people have died on this most difficult ascent.

Technical challenges added to the danger as well. In addition to adapting to the extreme physical climate, the large format camera had to be modified as well. The standard IMAX camera weighed 80 pounds, not to mention the weight of the film: 5 pounds for a single, 500 foot role. The spring '96 shoot used 113 roles, in addition to the 27 roles shot in 1995. Although Breashears had filmed on Everest before, it semed to be a super-human impossibility to pack a huge camera all the way to the top of the oxygen starved summit known as the "death zone".

Reducing the equipment weight was crucial to the outcome and success of this expedition. Breashears and MacGillivray Freeman Films worked closely with a team of engineers headed by Kevin Kowalchchuk to create a custom IMAX camera. They ended up with an 11"x11"x10" camera which utilized lighter-weight magnesium parts , and a 12 ounce motor which spins at 1440 revolutions per minute and moves the 65mm IMAX film at an incredible 5.6 feet per second. Known as the Mark II, this re configured camera weighed in at 42 pounds fully loaded, and was now specially designed to resist Everest's harsh conditions.

Greg Macgillivray explains his selection and modification of this camera, "There is a reason that the IMAX Corporation sends the Mark II up on the space shuttle, and why we selected it to mount on the Blue Angels jets during supersonic flights. That is the same reason that I selected this camera to be modified for use on Mt. Everest: it is a very simple , yet reliable piece of equipment--especially with the newly designed electronics."

In addition to the redesigned camera box: the heavy flywheel was eliminated and the old system was retrofitted with special cold weather polyurethane drive belts that replaced the less flexible polyethylene. A bearings lubricant that remains viscous in temperatures below minus100 degrees was formulated and an important 3 second ramp-up time was added to keep frozen motor gears and film in motion, with the aid of an attachable hand crank. Powered by a special 6 pound, 32 volt lithium cell battery, the lighter weight camera was now designed to withstand temperatures well below freezing.

Film stock was another challenge. The extreme freezing temperatures affected the choice of film: the film had to be pliable enough to withstand the cold, and durable enough not to tear during filming.

Breashears ultimately selected and used Kodak's Estar film, which is a mylar based film designed for use in high speed cameras. Breashears explained his choice this way, "We conducted a number of tests with the camera and film in a cold chamber set at temperatures of minus40 and 50 degrees. Because the film goes through the camera so fast, at 5.6 feet per second the perforations in 65mm film are prone to tearing. In our 24 hour cold chamber test, the film remained pliable. This is a two-edged sword. Because the film is durable and tough, if anything goes wrong, it can damage the camera. With acetate film that is less durable, if the film breaks and loses tension, then the camera just stops. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. We never had a problem with the film breaking or snapping."

Other cinematography innovations included the use of a Gyro stabilized camera system know as the Spacecam. According to Ron Goodman, designer of the Spacecam system and cameraman for one of the sequences; Everest was the first full-length IMAX film to be shot with the Spacecam. Macgillivray Freeman Films mounted the Spacecam aerial system on an A-star helicopter to film difficult high altitude shot sequences that would have otherwise been unobtainable in the IMAX format.

Goodman describes the benefits of this system, "Up until now the IMAX film maker has not been afforded the same quality of aerial equipment that people who produce feature films and television commercials take for granted. The main reason is that the size and weight of IMAX equipment is much greater than 35mm equipment. The reason the Spacecam works so well, is that the gyros and servo systems involved have so much more strength than other gyro stabilized systems ands are able to cope with the extra mass of IMAX."

"Moreover, since a lot of the IMAX material uses very wide angle lenses, especially the 180 degree 30mm lens used in Omnimax shots, it is very difficult to provide an unobstructed field of view. With the Spacecam, the entire front of the closure is open so you can use a 30mm lens without seeing the enclosure. The Spacecam is a totally open system because the gyros and servo systems are strong enough to withstand wind loading and the weight of the camera. Additionally, this design allows air pressure to act as a barrier to turbulent air coming in front of the enclosure -- it catches a bubble of air and protects the camera from disturbance."

In the spring of 1995, Breashears organized a test run in Nepal to test the modified IMAX camera. They discovered that the camera couldn't be loaded while wearing gloves-- a challenge and hardship in sub-freezing temperatures. "I was the one loading the film. At 27,000 feet, your thinking is affected due to the lack of oxygen. I had this freezing metal box to put my hand into, and it's a very elaborate mechanism that the film had to be threaded through. I had a deep, overriding concern that a piece of lint or anything in a camera that will ultimately be projected on an 80 foot screen could be ruinous to the image. It just doesn't look like a little hair on the screen, it looks like a boa constrictor. I didn't want to have some of the most hard won footage in the history of film making, anywhere on this planet end up unusable because of dirt or hair in the gate."

Breashears explains the challenges, "You just don't pick up this camera and start shooting. It takes many people to move the camera and equipment, and it takes time to set up every shot. Also, you have to be very careful when shooting because a 500 foot roll lasts only 90 seconds. Filming on Everest is much harder than climbing Everest. In general there's a risk involved, but we didn't put ourselves in dangerous positions. What looks risky to some observers doesn't necessarily mean that it's dangerous."

According to Breashears, the most difficult shots up on the mountain were the camera moves utilizing a long lens. A 250mm or a 500mm lens is a very long lens with extremely long focal lengths for large format. Any mistakes or operator error in the camera moves is very noticeable in the IMAX format because the image is so big. The challenges in filming remained throughout the shoot. Adds Breashears, "Just trying to tilt and pan the camera while you are tired and breathing hard at 27,000 plus feet, and ensuring that everything was in the right place and working was difficult enough."

In addition, our job was never done: we were up in the evenings talking about shots, downloading film, cleaning the camera, repairing the camera, writing shot lists, recording dialogue and preparing. During the day, we were constantly looking for good shots, trying to make the proper decisions: Is it safe to stop here? Is this good light? Do I demoralize the team by stopping too many times? By stopping to get this shot, do we lose good light up higher, or risk not reaching camp? From the beginning it was clear that if we succeeded, it would be one of the epic achievements in Himalayan film making."

Although the camera load was lighter, other obstacles awaited. Moving the equipment up and down the mountain was an enormous logistical task--nothing like this had been done on Mt. Everest before. The production required that every piece of equipment including food and shelter be transported by helicopter from Khatmandu to Lukla, and then carried by more than 50 Sherpas and 100 yaks on a two week ascent to base camp which was at an altitude of 18,000 feet. This was just the beginning.

The expedition team was comprised of leading mountaineers Ed Viesturs and veteran climber and cinematographer Robert Schauer of Austria, Araceli Segarra of Spain- who became the first Spanish woman to summit, Sumiyo Tsuzuki of Japan, and Nepalian guide Jamling Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, one of the the first men to climb Mt. Everest.

Geophysicist Roger Bilham joined the team at base camp with a goal to place Global Position Satellite receivers that measured earthquake movement high up on the slope: a goal that was ultimately accomplished.

High up on the mountain; the team first had to acclimatize to the lack of oxygen, the unpredictable weather, and each other. Breashears reflects back on how he managed a team of climbers who are used to making their own decisions with the goals of the film. Says Breashears, "On some days I would have to make the decision to just let the climbers climb, and not interrupt their rhythm."

The flexible shooting schedule made it extra-challenging as there was no script supervisor to ensure continuity. If the scenes were shot on one day, and continued later on another day, the team would have to recapture the same light and try to recall and re-create exactly where the climbers were in the previous days shoot. They also had to remember petty details such as what clothes they wore on the last shoot, who was wearing sunglasses, hats, or bandannas, and which climber was in the front of the line. As there were no dailies to watch and check for consistency; the team would have wait 10 days after the footage was shot and viewed by the company to hear if the film was usable.

On May 10, 23 people from four other expeditions awaiting ascent set out to conquer the top. High winds had kept the EVEREST team back at camp waiting to ascend on a different day. While at camp, the EVEREST team got word of an emergency at the top: One of Everest's dangerous storms had moved in on the summit trapping climbers from another team high up on the mountain.

The storm worsened and continued raging into the night with temperatures of minus100 degrees. The climbers were stranded, fatigued and running out of oxygen. The EVEREST team and other teams immediately coordinated a rescue, and members of the EVEREST team volunteered their expertise, oxygen and supplies to help the climbers descend.

A daring helicopter rescue by pilot Colonel Midan K.C. who had earlier piloted for the aerial shoot ultimately saved some of the climbers. This act of bravery was extremely dangerous as the air at those elevations can be too thin to adequately support the rotation of chopper blades. Despite their heroic actions, eight people died on this mountain of treacherous ice and ever shifting storms-- a tragic reminder of nature's awesome power.

The EVEREST team continued on their quest. Emotionally and physically drained, they pressed on replacing the 25 bottles of oxygen and supplies used in the rescue. On May 21, the winds had died and the group returned to camp III with renewed optimism.

Says Breashears, "There's always a way. For a while we didn't think there was a way after the tragedy and the loss of our friends. People probably don't realize that after the tragedy, everybody left, except for two teams and they were looking for us for leadership. Base camp was a ghost town and we did a lot of soul searching. What does this mean to us? Can we still climb this safely?"

Macgillivray concurred," If the team had felt spiritually, or for any other reason, that they did not want to go up, I would absolutely understood and supported them in their decision. We had the budget to return the next year if we had to. David and the team were upbeat about the favorable change in the weather. Despite the emotional heartache they all felt after losing several close friends, they drew strength from the support of their team and the good wishes from people who followed the events on the mountain from all over the world."

"It's very hard for people to imagine what our team accomplished in the face of adversity and tragedy," adds Breashears. "We had a credo that we would never admit to ourselves that what we were attempting to do was impossible. We brought cameras to a place where people would cut their toothbrushes in half to save weight"

On Wednesday, May 22, the Everest climbers launched their final assault on the summit, and over 10 hours later-- after battling, dangerous ice, fatigue and oxygen deprivation, the team made it to the top. Breashears recalls that summit day, " There were two shots that were the hardest to execute, and they are both in the film and occurred on the summit day. We'd been climbing through the night and we were very tired. We hardly slept for over 50 hours, and had just a little bit to eat & drink and were hypoxic. The sun came up and we were on the southeast ridge at 27,600'. It was minus 25 or 30 degrees and we had to stop and assemble the camera and then load the camera bare-handed . When you put a camera up that uses 5.6 ' of film per second, you have to do it just right.

Since we could not use the tripod, an Oconnor 2575 that weighs 75 lbs., we took a mono pod which at 3-4 lbs. weighed a lot less. Balancing a 42 lb. camera on a monopod in the wind at 29028 feet wasn't easy. Robert Schauer wedged up underneath the camera, and we checked the exposure, focus, and frame rate, and we checked it again. We had one roll of 500 feet which equaled 90 seconds of film at the top of Everest. It would have been heartbreaking to reach the top and have it malfunction or an operator error. We used every frame of it in the finished film."

"One of my favorite shots is of climbers Aracelli Segarra and John Ling staggering up the summit." Says Breashears, "They weren't walking on the ridge in the absolute most dramatic fashion, they were walking to get the best profile. I'm not talking about their body movement, I'm talking about their position. I wanted a low angle shot so we could see the snow in the foreground. So, after rolling 15 to 20 seconds of 65mm of film, I ripped off my oxygen mask and yelled, 'Go back!' and they did it again. We had the world's highest take two."

Breashears was asked to compare the challenges of filming a feature film like Titanic, below sea level: to the filming of an IMAX project five and a half miles above sea level. Breashears chuckled and recalled the stories of the Titanic film crew complaining about being submerged in a temperature and oxygen controlled environment. "I wish we had it so easy."

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