Sam’s Tonga Journal

Sam Abeger has found himself in some incredible places in his short time as an IMAX camera assistant. One of which was 50 feet underwater, inside Aquarius Reef Base. The next is Tonga, from which he will be reporting over the next month, while shooting humpback whales. Here is the first installment in a series. -- Ed.


Part 2       Part 3

Amrit Khalsa sorting through 6,000 pounds of gear outside One World One Ocean headquarters on shipping day. Photos by Ted Reckas.

I am on a plane heading to Auckland from Los Angeles right now. Hopefully during the 13-hour flight I can get some sleep, because the next four weeks are going to be packed. I am twenty-three years old and heading out on my first IMAX shoot.


Last week we loaded 95 cases of IMAX camera equipment totaling over 6000 pounds into a truck. Next time we will see those cases is in the South Pacific Islands of Tonga where we will be for a whole month, hoping to capture some amazing footage of humpback whales. Scuba diving into the Aquarius Reef Base was amazing, but this is probably the most exciting trip I am preparing for to date!


The film we’re making, centered on humpback whales, is by giant screen filmmaking icon MacGillivray Freeman Films.  They started their tradition of high quality story telling on the highest quality film experience, the IMAX giant screen, over 35 years ago. I am becoming part of that tradition and doing my part to help raise awareness about the ocean.


Sam, packing and labelling the film. 85,000 feet of it.

My main job on this trip is topside support for the underwater camera, and second assistant camerman. I will load the film magazines, make sure the camera is working properly and loaded into the housing properly, and launch and receive the housing to download and reload the camera. I will also help out on all other aspects of the shoot, and make sure that everyone is happy and can do their job correctly.


My biggest fear is screwing up and not being brought on another trip. Loading and unloading film is really nerve-racking because it has to be done in a film tent where no light can get in, so you have to do it blind. If a roll gets “flashed” (meaning that light exposed the film roll) that’s basically like throwing $3000 out the window. What would be even worse is flashing a roll that has been shot, especially if it had a really cool behavior from a whale on it. You can’t go back and ask the whale to do it again; that shot is lost forever. There’s a saying in the business, it’s not a matter of if, but when an assistant cameraman will flash a roll. Rob has never flashed a roll in his 20 years, and I hope to keep that streak alive.


Worse than flashing a roll would be loading an already exposed roll back into a magazine and double exposing a roll. It is worse because you now have two locations that you think you have on film that are completely lost. Hey, no pressure.


What makes this shoot much different than most other film shoots is that we will be filming on 15 perf/70mm film, the largest film format in the world. The film is ten times the size of standard 35mm film. We are taking 85,000 feet of film, packed in 17 cases. Each roll of film is 1000 feet, amounting to three minutes of footage when shooting at 24 frames per second, and costs $1000 per minute.


It takes a ton of equipment to make IMAX films (actually, three tons on this location). For the last month or so I have been helping Brad Ohlund and Rob Walker prepare for this shoot. These two guys are veterans of giant screen filmmaking. Brad has been Camera Operator and Director of Photography for many MacGillivray Freeman films over the last 30 years. Rob has been with the company for almost 20 years and wears many hats in addition to Assistant Cameraman, including Production Manager and Editor. I just started here a year ago and have a lot to learn.


Director of Photography Brad Ohlund has been on a few shoots.


We have spent the last month preparing for this shoot. We have to make sure every piece of gear works is packed away safely and can be easily found. Our complete list of what is in which case, with corresponding serial numbers helps three tons of gear travel through customs without hold ups.


All this gear needs to be loaded and unloaded many times throughout the shoot, so it has been awesome practice and training for me these last two weeks loading up the cases and moving them around our camera department and finally loading it all onto the truck.


We are taking two IMAX film cameras on this shoot. The W-4 is our main topside and sync sound camera. It’s the heavier one – 126 ponds fully loaded – built to be more of a studio camera with thick walls to deaden the sound of the camera while it is running. IMAX cameras are loud because they have to move a lot of film really fast. The camera moves the film at a rate of 330 feet per minute, stopping the frame 24 times every second to expose the image. The other camera is the Mark II, which is lighter (75 pounds fully loaded) and smaller, but also much louder. The Mark II is the camera that will be in the underwater housing, weighing a total of about 260 pounds.


The lenses we have for the IMAX cameras come from large format cameras like Hasselblad, and had to be tested and shot at different light levels to make sure they are sharp. We are bringing a 30mm Fisheye, 40 mm, 50 mm, 80 mm, 150-250 mm, 350-500 mm, and an 800mm lens with us for topside shots, and a 30mm Fisheye, 50 mm and 100mm for underwater shots. The lenses fit both cameras, but the underwater lenses differ in that they have special gearing attached to allow the cameraman to focus using the focus knobs on the outside of the housing.


We are also taking two RED Epic cameras, the highest-resolution digital cameras in the world.  We have an underwater housing for one of those cameras as well. The digital cameras are completely silent, so they won’t scare whales away when we start rolling. The RED Epics can record longer periods of time with no film magazine to reload, and they have a lot more latitude for color correction than IMAX film. However, the resolution, while four times that of HD, is nowhere near IMAX, which is almost twenty times HD. Both formats will likely be integrated into the movie we’re making.

Sam, Brad, and a lot of film and equipment.

The rest of the gear is all support equipment; grip equipment for rigging mounts and lights, electrical equipment, expendables like tape and batteries, power supplies for the cameras, tripods, tripod heads, replacement parts, accessories and the list goes on and on. There is a lot of gear that goes with the camera; it is not like taking your home video camera and going out to shoot a little league game.


I am really excited to land in Tonga and meet up with all the gear that was shipped out last week. I can’t wait to see it all there and start capturing some amazing images. My biggest hope for this trip is to do an amazing job, learn a lot and have a great time. I hope to have a memorable experience and make a great impression on the film crew so that I can keep on going on these trips with the team.



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