LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — Like most veteran filmmakers and directors, Greg MacGillivray’s imagination was lush with visions of how his new project might look. What he didn’t readily picture, when he set out to make the new IMAX documentary “To the Arctic,” opening Friday, was just how personal that project would get.

For one, every member of his family of four, wife Barbara, son Shaun and daughter Meghan, took part behind the scenes, whether it was on the production side or in projects related to the movie.

Barbara has been his one-woman support system throughout his giant-screen film career, frequently going on location with him and sharing the extreme outdoors adventures that came with the territory. Eight years ago, the couple co-founded the MacGillivray Freeman Films Educational Foundation, which aims to contribute to the conservation of natural and cultural resources through giant screen films and companion educational programming.

His children had grown up watching their dad make documentaries, and as adults, chose to take on roles related to their parents’ work — without prodding or nudging by their dad and mom. Meghan, a writer and chef, heads up the film company’s social media efforts and is penning a cookbook based on sustainable practices, including those that are seafood-related, said MacGillivray, who lives in Laguna Beach.

Meanwhile, “To the Arctic” is the second film that Shaun has produced for MacGillivray Freeman, having cut his teeth on “Grand Canyon Adventure,” a tougher and more complex film to produce, MacGillivray said.

Despite having been raised in the documentary film industry, Shaun didn’t jump into it — he took a serendipitous route. Nor did his dad encourage him to go into the profession, a premeditated decision, albeit a wise one in hindsight.

“Barbara and I never suspected that Shaun would go into film,” MacGillivray said. “But he grew up in it. We took him with us on location. He was in Europe when he was 2, Indonesia when he was 3, Singapore when he was 4, and so forth.”

As Shaun and Meghan grew up, MacGillivray did not drop any hints that he had hoped that his children would love filmmaking as much as he did, knowing that kids naturally tend to want to find their way in the world without being told by their parents where exactly to go.

“[Shaun] worked in our office from the time he was 10,” MacGillivray said. “During the summers, both our kids worked half-time at the office, doing different jobs such as working in distribution and post-production. They learned how to get along with people and all that. But he never showed to any great degree a love of making movies until he had gone into college for four years and was an economics major with a film minor. He graduated with honors.”

There was no sudden epiphany about wanting a career in film, Shaun MacGillivray said. “It was very gradual,” he said. “I loved being on location and seeing the filmmaking process. I was very observant and it was fantastic watching my dad making these films. From him, I learned how emotional a story can be. I loved to see how a rough cut turns into a fine cut, a fine cut into a really fine cut and then into a finished film. I knew I wanted to do [filmmaking] back in high school … but I didn’t want to jump into it right away.”

But for Greg MacGillivray, there was a defining moment — the kind he had quietly and secretly hoped would happen one day. “We were at Emory in the quad, standing on the grass, and Shaun said to us, ‘I’m thinking, I don’t want to be behind the desk all the time and that’s what will happen to me if I’m an economics person.’

“I asked, ‘What are you going to do?’

“’I think that I would like be a filmmaker.’

“Inside me, butterflies were flying, fireworks were going off.’”

Shaun went on to study film for three years at University of Southern California and started as a production assistant at MacGillivray Freeman Films. “He learned in three years at USC what took me 15 years to learn on my own at work,” MacGillivray said.

Working on “To the Arctic” was an entirely different experience than “Grand Canyon Adventure” for the MacGillivrays. Four years in the making with a much smaller crew, a desolate location, the film provided them with ample opportunities to continue building a working relationship. During their seventh trip, they found the heart of the movie’s story in Svalbard, Norway — and they both knew it when they saw it. It was a story of a family — a mother polar bear which, in the face of a scarce food supply and predators, fought to protect and keep alive her twin cubs.

The mama bear story called for a narrator who was a mother, MacGilllivray said. He conducted a poll of actresses who are mothers to see who ranked highest on the “motherhood scale.” The list included famous actresses who were frequently in the spotlight, such as Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lopez. To MacGillivray’s surprise, people picked — by a landslide — someone who had already narrated two previous MacGillivray Freeman Films: Meryl Streep.

“Meryl won 10 to 1,” he said.

MacGilllivray found that the poll group was on the mark during one of the days that Streep was scheduled to narrate at a studio. It was the morning after Streep had won the Oscar for best actress. “I was in the studio and we called Meryl and we were leaving a message for her that we could move the session to the afternoon. Suddenly, I hear behind me, ‘I’m here!’ and there’s Meryl in studio.” Meryl said she did go to a post-Oscar party with her husband briefly, but decided it was too noisy and went home to celebrate with her family.”

From working with his son to having Meryl Streep narrate again to getting the rights to use the music of an idol from his youth, these are connections that have come together in an unprecedented way for this filmmaker. “It’s probably the most personal film I’ve done,” he said.

(“To the Arctic” opens April 20 in IMAX theaters.)

©2012 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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