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‘To the Limit’ Tested Limits of Film Group

In December, 1987, Dr. Roger Nichols, the president of the fledgling Museum Film Network, died of a heart attack.

“That became the moment of truth” for “To the Limit,” the network’s first attempt at developing an IMAX-OMNIMAX film, said Dr. Jeffrey W. Kirsch, executive director of the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater, a founding member of the Museum Film Network.

Each of the original six members of the 2-year-old film network, consisting of museum and science centers from around the world, was risking hundreds of thousands of dollars on “To the Limit,” which makes its world debut March 11 at the Fleet Space Theater.

Nichols, the director of the Museum of Science in Boston, had been instrumental in bringing the group together--and keeping it together. They were trying to do something that had never been done before--to work as one unit to produce an extremely expensive, science-oriented film in the big-screen IMAX-OMNIMAX format.

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“His leadership ability was something quite astonishing to watch,” Kirsch said.

Nichols sudden death left a pall on the project. The film is dedicated to him.

“It (Nichols death) was a stunning event for me,” said Kirsch, who replaced Nichols as president of the network. “I said I would do it because I wasn’t going to let Roger down. It energized me and made it clear the network was going to carry through on Roger’s promise” to produce the film.

Nichols death was the most serious of many “moments of truth” in the development of the $3-million “To the Limit,” a look at the potential of the human body, complete with inner body photography shot with a microscopic camera developed especially for the project.

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The Museum Film Network was brought together to specifically address the need for science-oriented IMAX and OMNIMAX films. “To the Limit” will be marketed complete with a package of educational materials on the human body.

“The (IMAX and OMNIMAX) films being produced were travelogues or films that exploited the medium with sensational scenes, lots of visual impact,” said Dr. Paul Knappenberger, director of the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond. “But there was very little in terms of scientific messages.”

Bringing together the museums and science centers was not an easy task. Some centers experienced in producing films, such as the Science Museum of Minnesota based in St. Paul, refused to participate.

The first incarnation of the network consisted of five members--Boston, Chicago, San Diego, Richmond and Detroit--then the National Museum of Natural Science of Taiwan came on board, giving the project an international flavor. Each was looking out for its own interests.

“This institution had (made films) before,” Kirsch said. “But for others it was something new.”

Deciding on a topic was the first major source of debate. A group was hired to research OMNIMAX audiences in different cities. The film had to be educational, but also entertaining enough to attract an audience. Antarctica and a look at the formation of weather were considered but eventually discarded, although Antarctica might be used in the future.

“We want to use the medium to the fullest,” MacGillivray said. “We don’t want to present something that can be presented equally as well on TV.”

Nichols brought in the public broadcasting group WGBH-NOVA to serve as co-executive producer’s of the first film. NOVA’s involvement gave the project basic respectability in the science industry, in addition to a voice experienced in the techniques and nuances of making entertaining and educational science films. NOVA’s background was especially important in developing the inner body sequences.

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It was the first venture into a non-television project for NOVA, the science program specialists based with WGBH, the public broadcasting entity in Boston.

“It seemed to be an exciting visual challenge,” NOVA Executive Producer Paula Apsell said. “We had never worked in anything outside an 18-inch television screen. When they were talking about a screen as big as a house we saw it was an interesting opportunity.”

WGBH-NOVA paid $50,000 to become an associate of the film network. In exchange, it will receive a small share of the profits from the film.

“IMAX films are really a good way to help people understand what science and technology is all about,” Apsell said.

Even though NOVA’s involvement gave the project instant credibility in the science community, it also carried a certain mental burden for some members of the network.

“It was a two-edged sword,” Kirsch said. “We knew with NOVA’s involvement it would be a quality film, but some were afraid it would be too much like a PBS film.”

In the fall of 1987, the five original members finally signed their names to contracts, agreeing to pay $225,000 each into the film project, with another $300,000 in escrow. Detroit was unable to raise the $300,000 and dropped out in October, eventually replaced by Omniversum from The Hague, Holland.

“Until that moment everybody was still hedging,” Kirsch said.

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Once the individual museums had approved the script, there were no more committee reviews. Extremely conscious of the old saying about “too many cooks . . . ,” the members of the network had to agree not to get involved in the day-to-day production activities.

“Another moment of truth,” Kirsch said.

A debate enused over the production structure. Kirsch wanted a member of the network to oversee production; Nichols thought it would be best to have someone in charge who had experience with developing science films, mainly NOVA.

Eventually a compromise was reached. Kirsch and Apsell would serve as co-executive producers with Kirsch serving as the lone link between the network and the producers.

“Kirsch was responsible for communicating with me,” said MacGillivray, whose company produced such OMNIMAX favorites as “To Fly” and “Speed.” “He was the filtering system.”

Another “moment of truth” arose when MacGillivray decided he had to go to Russia. He wanted to focus on a ballet dancer, and after a year of research he decided he had to have a ballet dancer from the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.

Dancers from throughout the world had been considered, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, but MacGillivray steadfastly insisted on a female ballet dancer, and that meant Russia. He also pointed out the marketing advantages of using Russian footage.

“Going to Russia became a necessity,” MacGillivray said.

Already, one member had dropped out of the network, the Detroit science center, pleading lack of funds. MacGillivray’s request to go to Russia, in addition to adding mountains of red tape, was going to push the project far over the strained budget established by the already jittery network.

“Greg’s dedication to going to Russia pulled it off,” Kirsch said. That and MacGillivray’s agreement to loan the project some of his company’s money.

“He was so intent on it,” Kirsch said. “And I think he was right. The dancer he recorded (Nina Ananiashvili) is unbelievable.”


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