Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray winds up the large format 70mm roll of color film on a hand crank in his Laguna Beach offices. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / April 23, 2014)

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Greg MacGillivray doesn't mince words when it comes to the Newport Beach Film Festival.

"It's A+," he said.

The producer-director co-founded MacGillivray Freeman Films with Jim Freeman in the mid-1960s. Although the duo started out producing surfing documentaries and TV commercials and filming for Hollywood features, they quickly moved into the distribution of IMAX films.

Since 1972, the Laguna Beach-based studio has distributed more than 30 giant-screen movies and in excess of 7 million feet of 70-millimeter film and earned two Academy Awards. Meanwhile, MacGillivray, who took over the business after Freeman's death in a helicopter crash in 1976, became the first documentary filmmaker to surpass the $1-billion mark in gross box office earnings.

Next week, MacGillivray will participate in two festival events. The first, on Tuesday, features the surfing classic "Five Summer Stories" and a panel discussion including Laird Hamilton, Herbie Fletcher, Gerry Lopez, Steve Pezman and MacGillivray himself.

The studio's latest film, "Journey to the South Pacific," will screen on Wednesday, accompanied by a program titled "A Retrospective Evening with MacGillivray Freeman Films." The program includes a 40-minute multimedia question-and-answer session with MacGillivray and the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award to the 68-year-old.

The man of the hour discussed his illustrious 50-year career in an email interview with the Coastline Pilot. The following are excerpts from the conversation:


You are considered a pioneer when it comes to IMAX movies. How do you respond to this?

I love being a pioneer in a leading-edge artistic community. Still, even 40 years after its invention, IMAX 15/70 film projection is the best in the world — at least 40% better than the best currently used digital projection. Ask Christopher Nolan. He agrees.

When and where did you first meet Jim Freeman? What encouraged you to strike up a friendship and partnership with him?

When I was in college at UC Santa Barbara, he was showing a 3D film about surfing — the only 3D surfing film ever made! I met him after the screening, and we became good friends over the next year. He was a technical genius, and he helped me complete my second film, "The Performers," with music and sound mixing, and making beautiful prints at the best film laboratories — something I knew nothing about. He lived in Santa Ana and was in college pre-med at Loma Linda.

What inspired the two of you to go the giant-screen route 50 years ago?

We always tried new, interesting ways to amaze an audience, like Cinerama, 3D, super-stereo sound, and nothing came close to IMAX.

Could you tell me about "Journey to the South Pacific"?

We began filming in West Papua, Indonesia, early in February 2013 and finished six weeks later. The 42-minute film had its first release Nov. 27, 2013, in Boston at the New England Aquarium. We chose the island area of Raja Ampat in West Papua because it is renowned as the global epicenter of marine biodiversity and, as such, is under threat from over-fishing and destructive fishing practices, even more so than many other areas in the ocean.

Due to the passionate dedication of locals, assisted by scientists working with major ocean conservation NGOs, the area is now seeing a comeback in both diversity and numbers of fish due to the creation of Marine Protected Areas and no-take zones. We hope the stories of that work, all seen from the perspective of a 13-year-old Papuan boy, will empower others to protect their precious marine resources.

When did you first encounter Jawi Mayor? What prompted you to feature him in the film?

We had our Indonesian production manager send us video interviews with two dozen young Papuans, knowing that we wanted to have the film feature a young local child, since children make up such an important part of our IMAX audience. When we saw young Jawi on video, playing his ukulele, we knew immediately that he was the one to carry the film. We were not disappointed. His charisma, courage, stoicism and musical gifts were wonderful in person and on film.

What do you want people to take away from "Journey to the South Pacific"?