Making a National Parks Adventure: Behind the Scenes of the New IMAX Film

Conrad Anker climbing in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan; Photograph by Max Lowe
Conrad Anker climbing in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan; Photograph by Max Lowe

The wind was gusting at 40 miles an hour, carrying a fury of snow and ice crystals that felt like they were cutting into my face even through my wool mask.

Temperatures with wind chill dipped below minus 30ºF, and my fingers had started to lose feeling even in puff mittens intended for climbers scaling Mount Everest. It was, without a doubt, one of the coldest days I could remember spending out in the elements, with some of the harshest winter weather conditions I had ever seen—and we were in Michigan.

Standing in a tiny alcove amid the flank of a massive frozen waterfall that plunged 150 feet into the edge of frozen Lake Superior below, I squinted through the snow, searching for the pink jacket of my friend Rachel hanging somewhere below me, trying to keep her extremities warm.

Conrad Anker deals with the cold in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan; Photograph by Max Lowe
Conrad Anker deals with the cold in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan; Photograph by Max Lowe

We were waiting for a mini-blizzard to pass so that the film crew manning an IMAX 3-D camera, waiting below in the whiteout, could continue shooting our climb. To say I recognized the beauty in that moment may have been a stretch, as I struggled to hold onto the ice in the face of increasing wind and with fingers I couldn’t feel.

Much to the bewilderment of locals, who rarely see visitors during the arctic winter months, we had come to Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore to produce the final scene of National Parks Adventure, a new IMAX documentary by McGillivray Freeman Films, narrated by Robert Redford—and just in time to celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Parks Service.

Conrad Anker climbs at night during for an IMAX shoot in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan; Photograph by Max Lowe
Conrad Anker climbs at night during for an IMAX shoot in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan; Photograph by Max Lowe

Eight months before, I had received an email asking if I would be willing to participate in an IMAX film about national parks. I read the long, formal letter several times with an air of cynicism, scanning my mind as to why anyone would want me as a feature character—in an IMAX movie nonetheless. Before writing it off as an Internet scam to pilfer my social security number, I noticed that, among others, my dad was cc’ed, confirming that this was indeed a legitimate invitation, one that would again change my perspective on storytelling and the role of being an ambassador to our wild places, including parks both in the U.S. and abroad.

My stepfather, professional climber Conrad Anker, my high school friend Rachel Pohl, and I set off from our hometown of Bozeman, Montana, on a brisk morning in early September 2014 to meet the film crew for our first stint of production at Devils Tower National Monument, located on the rolling high plains of northern Wyoming.

Rachel Pohl in Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming; Photograph by Max Lowe
Rachel Pohl in Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming; Photograph by Max Lowe

Our first day of production is a blur of madness in my memory. Going from my background—producing small-form documentary films with a crew of two at most—to having a production staff of 30 people, a small convoy of vehicles to haul them around, some of the largest cameras I’d ever seen, and an expedient form to which the whole unit functioned, all for the intended purpose of capturing Conrad, Rachel, and me in “normal” interaction with the world was shocking. You don’t really know “movie magic” until you’ve seen a feature-film production set in full swing.

From the standing columns of rock on the sides of Devils Tower, which we scaled for the cameras, we drove south and into the Utah parks for our next long stint of shooting. Though I had traversed these landscapes countless times before, doing so with the might of a 70mm film 3-D IMAX camera crew capturing our every move in ultra HD was at first difficult to appreciate. Much of the value I’ve gained from the outdoors has been in more intimate settings, alone with the quiet and immaculate wild. Moving through the parks on such a mammoth scale, even shooting with helicopters for several scenes during our time in Utah, seemed to be the opposite experience of the one I look to chase when retreating into the sanctuary and soulful peace of nature. Did I really want to push thousands of people more into these wild places that I valued for their pristine emptiness?

This last week—after almost two years of working on a project sparked by Greg McGillivray, the director and mastermind behind the film and an IMAX veteran of the highest standing—the film screened in theaters from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. National Parks Adventure will continue opening across the country and world over the the next few months, bringing the parks in all their majesty to thousands of people young and old.

Sitting and watching a year of our lives and the story within unfold amid some of the most beautiful imagery ever captured of America’s wild leaves me with a changed perspective. Without a unified awareness and appreciation for pristine nature, we will not be able to preserve that which we now hold, and we will be even less able to continue developing protected wild places, as they become a rarity on this planet.

Rachel Pohl painting in Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming; Photograph by Max Lowe
Rachel Pohl painting in Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming; Photograph by Max Lowe

Through the meticulous work of Greg and the efforts of every person on his production crew, we were able to draw the magic and elegant beauty out of the punishingly cold climbs on Lake Superior in winter and to paint the amazing, pristine quiet of Zion, Arches, and Bryce Canyon in Utah.

Being behind the scenes and in front of the camera with National Parks Adventure opened my eyes to the work it takes to create a masterpiece in film, but seeing the final product sparked my belief for the message the film carries. Whether you’re going to Yellowstone, Yosemite, Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore in the middle of winter, or just spending an afternoon in your city park with friends and family, the value of nature is something we must yell from the mountaintops. For, as Edward Abbey said in his novel Desert Solitaire:

““Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”