Raja Ampat Expedition Shaun Howard

Meghan MacGillivray in West Papua

Meghan MacGillivray is part of the MacGillivray Freeman Films topside unit and serves as script researcher and set coordinator. As the 30-year-old daughter of two-time Oscar®-nominated filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, she is no stranger to faraway locations and adventuresome film sets. But this isolated cluster of 1,500 islands may just be the most exotic location she’s visited yet. Here are her impressions of Raja Ampat, its people and wildlife, and the making of an IMAX Entertainment and MacGillivray Freeman Films presentation of the new IMAX® 3D film “Journey to the South Pacific.”.

From LAX to Sawinggrai in 54 hours

Today was our first day in Raja Ampat.  After 54 hours of intense travel we have finally arrived!  Our journey took us from Los Angeles to Taipei (a 14-hour flight), then to Jakarta, where we mercifully caught up on sleep during a 12-hour layover, then on to the bustling coastal city of Sorong, gateway to the 1,500 islands that make up the Raja Ampat archipelago.  After spending the night there—and enjoying a plate of the local rice and a dinner-serenade by karaoke—we were off at first light on a speedboat to the island of Mansuar.  Our headquarters here will be the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, a comfortable resort despite its isolation.

We will be in this area of Raja Ampat for the next two weeks, each day traveling by boat to nearby islands to capture the beauty of the surroundings.  We’re also here to document the human stories of the islanders who are leading a conservation movement to protect their marine environment.  I’m part of the topside unit, which includes my father, director Greg MacGillivray, my mother Barbara, who is our script consultant and still photographer, my brother and the film’s producer, Shaun, director of photography Brad Ohlund, producers Mark Krenzien and Neal Allen, and writer/editor Stephen Judson.  We also have two underwater crews here in Raja Ampat led by Howard Hall and DJ Roller and an aerial team led by Spacecam operator Michael  Kalem. 

After settling in to the lodge, we travel to the island of Sawinggrai to scout locations for filming.  Scouting is the critical first step of every documentary we make.  Although we start off each film shoot with a “shooting script” and a target shot list, we don’t really know until we arrive in a location exactly what scenes we’ll film or how our story will unfold.  

 In Sawinggrai, we meet up with Jawi, a charismatic 12-year-old boy who is one of our characters in the film. He and his uncle, Menas, take us on a tour of the island so we can decide where best to stage our shots. Children follow us everywhere, and men and women smile as we walk through their village, taking copious amounts of pictures.  The entire village is extremely friendly, and as we pass a group of school children walking home from school, each one greets us with a friendly “Selamat Siang” (good afternoon). I wonder what they think of this large herd of outsiders that has descended upon their village.    


Everyone on our crew is trying to pick up a few words of Bahasa, the main dialect in Indonesia, in order to communicate with our island hosts. Brad remembers quite a bit of Bahasa from his time shooting some of our earlier films here in the 1980s and 90s, and he loves talking to the locals. Every day, he teaches us a new “word of the day.”  

After leaving Sawinggrai, we visit a natural rock arch rising up out of the water.  It is surrounded by overgrown, mushroom-shaped islands. This archway can only be entered at extreme low tide, as is evident by the saltwater dripping from the ceiling. The bats flying around inside the tunnel don’t ease our feeling of claustrophobia, which makes the whole experience somewhat disconcerting. 

The day is capped off with a sighting of a green sea turtle swimming close to shore, and a whale, which surfaced just off the island, underscoring the incredible abundance of sealife here.  Raja Ampat is considered the most bio-diverse marine ecosystem in the world, and it truly is a magical place.  So even though it is 100 degrees Fahrenheit with almost 100% humidity, and my hair has frizzed and I’m already covered with mosquito bites, I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring.

Village Life and People

Today, we got an early start after another plate of rice and noodles and headed out to scout the island of Arborek, which is about fifteen minutes away by speedboat. Arriving at the pier on this small island, we immediately began searching out specific sites for shots.

Arborek was immaculate. The dirt streets are swept daily and lined with flowers, and the brightly painted houses are well-maintained. As we walked through the town, we witnessed a montage of daily village life. We passed a woman weaving baskets and hats with palm fronds dyed bright colors. Behind a nearby church we saw a kitchen where women prepare feasts for their sasi celebrations. Sasi is the islanders’ local tradition of regularly closing certain reefs to fishing in order to give certain species time to replenish.  It’s their way of living in balance with their natural surroundings. A little further on, a group of uniformed school children passed by our group, shouting “hello!” and posing for pictures.

We walked through mangroves newly planted by local women to protect their island from erosion. Saplings and larger trees were lined up in a row in a sand bar just offshore, obviously planted with a purpose. I was tempted to go for a swim, but after noticing all of the mosquitoes skimming the water, I decided to pass.

 As we left the mangroves, we ran into a man who was nearly finished carving a dugout canoe. We watched him carve the fifteen-foot boat by hand, taking care in each movement. His four-year-old son mimicked his every move. Each time the father raised his hatchet, the son would take his knife, which looked extremely sharp, and carve out a small piece of wood. When the boy dropped his knife – almost nicking his foot - his mother simply handed it back to him.


Children here are raised to be resilient and self-sufficient at an early age. All throughout the village we saw kids younger than two, my nephew’s age, playing on their own right next to the water’s edge.  It’s something you would never see at home. The children are taught to take care of each other and interact across age groups. We frequently saw girls no older than five or six taking care of their infant siblings, carrying them around on their hips like their mothers.

 Not far away, a mother and her two daughters were grinding and shaving coconuts for coconut oil.  The mother would put the coconuts into the grinder while her two-year-old scraped the shavings into a bucket.  Her older daughter swept the floor with a broom made of several sticks.  Each child participated in the household duties, as if it were a sort of game they were accustomed to playing.

On our way back to the pier after a long day of scouting, I saw something that amazed me. A young boy was walking down the street, pushing a primitive toy while carrying two freshly caught squid. I was amazed at the ease with which this child had apparently made his own toy—a triangular, rolling contraption made out of sticks—and caught his own food. He seemed childish and experienced at the same time, showing the early life lessons these children learn.


While we loaded our gear back onto the boat, we were entertained by several children leaping off the end of the pier into the crystal blue water. We shouted “satu, dua, tiga!” and they leapt into the water, showering us with laughter and smiles. I’ve quickly learned that these children are not only friendly, but they love to pose and have their picture taken.

Once back on Mansuar, I enjoyed a quick snorkeling session off the dock with my mom and dad.  We saw plenty of angel fish, bright neon blue fish, thousands of anchovies, and one crocodile fish that blended perfectly into its surroundings. I also saw the three resident lionfish that swim and live beneath the pier. As it turns out, I am absolutely terrified of these fish. Lionfish are extremely poisonous and are known to be territorial, so although my mom tells me I will be just fine, I didn’t want to get too close!  I was so scared I couldn’t even take a picture, although this is now one of my goals for this trip.

 As soon as we got back on land, a huge storm rolled in which lasted for the next eight hours, isolating us to the lobby of the dive lodge where the production team hashed out the shooting schedule. As I sat there in the humid, open-air lobby, watching the rain pour down around us, it amazed me once again that I’m here in these incredible surroundings. This is an expedition to remember, one that I’m so fortunate to be able to experience with family. But the real work has yet to begin!

Pre-production, Pigpens and Sunsets

Today was another eye-opening reminder of what it takes to make an IMAX® film. From the moment we woke up at 5:30 in the morning, our crew was focused on planning out the shots, scenes, locations, cameras, art direction and everything else that would come into play once we start filming. This was one of our last days of scouting, and every moment was spent mapping out exactly how we were going to get the shots we need.

 As we trekked back over the island of Sawinggrai, each detail of every shot was meticulously worked out by the crew. Director Greg MacGillivray, director of photography Brad Ohlund, field producer Neal Allen and writer Steve Judson went over every angle, every possible scenario, until they agreed on the perfect shot. Neal has been working non-stop on the schedule, deciding each second of each film frame even before the camera comes into play. With equipment as massive, expensive and sensitive as these IMAX cameras, we need to make sure everything is as pre-planned as possible.


Plus, when you’re filming with IMAX cameras, each second costs money, literally.  Each roll of 15/70mm film costs around $1,500 and only last three minutes. And since we’re shooting with IMAX 3D cameras, we’re exposing twice as much film (one roll for the left eye, one for the right) so the costs are double—approximately $1,000 per minute.  Because of the costs, each shot truly matters – you can’t waste anything. I remember when I was on film shoots as a child, I never understood why we were always waiting around all the time, even when it seemed like no one was doing anything. I now know we were simply waiting for the perfect weather conditions in order to avoid wasting film.


We walked all over the island, starting at the pier, and then worked our way to the location where one of our shots would take place – a sea turtle nesting ground. One of our characters, Ferdiel Ballamu, works to protect sea turtles, and we want to recreate a scene of him as a boy when he first realizes how threatened sea turtles are.


Ferdiel is well known in Raja Ampat for convincing some of the villagers to substitute pigs for turtles in their feasting. This has helped reduce the number of turtles killed every year for food.  We want to include this story in the film to show how villagers are participating in the conservation of important sea turtle species.  This means that art director Libby Woolems and I will have to recreate a pigpen out of whatever means we can find. In these remote locations you have to be resourceful, and much of my job here will be foraging for items to build our sets, wherever I can find them. 


One highlight of the day was watching local villagers practice their canoe-paddling techniques while dressed in traditional Asmat costumes.  The Asmat are an ethnic group in Indonesia famous for their woodcarvings.   The paddlers practiced in typical Asmat style, standing up in their canoe in full dress. White markings on their sun-darkened skin rippled as they paddled toward shore. They seemed to emerge with their stark white headdresses and orange loincloths, out of another time. It will make an amazing visual for the film.


Because we start shooting tomorrow, a local Christian priest from Sawinggrai held a ceremony with several other villagers at the dive lodge tonight to bless the production.  In the middle of the dive lodge lobby, he went through prayers blessing our production and sang hymns, with all the Papuans joining in.  My dad, the director of the film, was offered a giant plate of saffron rice, and then everyone enjoyed a huge feast outside.  The food was delicious with fresh fish caught locally.  We couldn’t understand any part of the ceremony but words weren’t needed; they were wishing us luck in our filming and the sentiments were greatly appreciated.

Adventures in Sorong

My day didn’t exactly go as planned. Instead of dealing with pigs, wardrobe, makeup and kids – I went to Sorong and dealt with crowds, shopping, and taxi drivers.


While planning out the wardrobe for the first few days of filming, Art Director Libby Woolems and I quickly realized that the shirts we bought were going to be way too large for the tiny kids in our scenes. So I was sent to Sorong to purchase more kid shirts, shorts and an assortment of other items needed for the production that couldn’t be found in Raja Ampat.

Sorong is about two hours from the dive lodge on Mansuar, so I had 25 minutes to pack a bag and get on the boat that would take me there. I spent the next two hours with three local islanders, all great guys, trying my best to communicate through pantomime.


I met my interpreter in Sorong and we spent the next four hours scouring stores for the items we needed for the shoot. After arriving back at the hotel, I decided to get ready for bed at 7:30pm – my Orange County-self could barely believe this – when there was a knock on my door. I answered to find Howard Hall, our underwater cinematographer with his wife Michele! I had no idea they were at the hotel and or that they would be leaving that night on the Pindito, the live-aboard boat we had chartered as the home base for the underwater crew for the next few weeks.  They were planning to join the topside crew on Mansuar tomorrow morning, so it was decided I would hitch a ride back with them. 



Dinner with the Halls that night was wonderful—Howard and Michele have amazing stories from their many years diving and filming all over the world--but our meal was interrupted by an urgent text requesting an important lock for our camera crew. I headed back into the streets of Sorong where, after haggling with a taxi driver, I bought the lock at a local supermarket. I got back to the hotel just in time to board the Pindito.

Drifting off to sleep while moving across the ocean is wonderful.  I had a great night of sleep, and even though it was still dark when I awoke the next morning, the sunrise was well worth it.


Weather and the Kalabia

A note about the anti-malaria medication Malarone: oh my goodness does it pack a punch. Not only does it inspire absolutely insane dreams, it makes you feel like you are on a boat, even when you’re on dry land. But this region of Indonesia, West Papua, is known for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and I’ve been bitten eight times already. So I’m in a pickle: risk malaria (no thank you), or get used to my new dizzy state of being?

Today we had our earliest call time: breakfast at 4:45am. When people show up, no matter what time they went to sleep, each person is eager and ready to start the day. There is no grogginess or grumpiness here – there is simply no time for it. We headed out while it was still dark, and saw a truly extraordinary sunrise, with colors coming up over the islands. 

Our filming today is taking place on the Kalabia, a former fishing boat that was confiscated and turned into a floating classroom.  It takes over two years for the Kalabia to travel to all 120 of the island villages in Raja Ampat, where on-board educators teach kids about marine ecology and conservation.  We’re including the Kalabia in our film to show some of the unique and innovative methods being used in Raja Ampat to build awareness and support for coral reef conservation.

We docked at Sawinggrai and the entire village came out to watch us from the dock.  I imagine how strange we must look with all our filmmaking gear.  The vibe on the ship is very relaxed and low-key, a theme here in Indonesia. There is none of the frantic pace that we have become so used to in the States.



We are greeted by Angela Beer, director of the Kalabia’s educational program. A Canadian expat who has lived in Raja Ampat for five years, Angela was formerly a high school science teacher.  The islanders call her “Mama Kalabia” because of her love and dedication to the Kalabia project.  The original idea for the Kalabia came from Mark Erdmann, Senior Advisor to the Indonesian Marine Program for Conservation International and our major science advisor for the film.  He had the idea for ten years, but it was only after he recruited Beer that the program took off. She is outgoing, lively, and with her ability to speak Bahasa like a local, she’s absolutely marvelous with the kids.  She developed the curriculum for the Kalabia, recruited and trained the local teachers for two years and then in 2008, the trawler finished its colorful transformation into a floating classroom.

Because it is overcast, we decide to shoot deck scenes with the children and teachers rather than the scenics we had originally planned. The teachers use a game to teach kids about the tiny coral animals that build reefs, and we filmed them playing it.


When filming on location, one of the main issues is always weather.  Here in Raja Ampat, the weather can fluctuate from hot and sunny to overcast with monsoon rains within minutes.  Every day, we wait for the perfect weather to create the perfect light for each shot.  It can be frustrating, but once the sun shines through, the payoff is huge. 

We finished the day back on the Sawinggrai pier at 5:00pm instead of the usual 8:00pm. No one complained about the idea of getting to bed a little early tonight.



Music and Mangroves

Today we started out at our usual 5:30am call time and were treated to one of the most incredible sunrises I’ve seen so far. As we took the boat from Mansuar to Sawinggrai, everyone was grabbing their cameras and phones to take pictures of this glorious event. It was a good omen for the day, weather-wise.


On our way to Sawinggrai, assistant cameraman Rob Walker and Dylan Reade, our head IMAX® 3D camera operator, compared war wounds on their ankles. Rob had scratched himself on the stairs of the Kalabia, whereas Dylan had been bitten by what we were later told was probably a Forest Spider.  They were each trying to one-up the other with whose wound was worse.


The second we hit the Sawinggrai pier, Greg announced that we needed to have the IMAX camera up in five minutes to get three of our young characters—Jawi, Gibson and Jacob—in front of the sunrise. The camera was quickly set up and the boys got ready to go. Greg wanted them playing ukuleles and singing on the end of the pier.  They sang a song that Steve Wood wrote in Bahasa. Steve is a brilliant composer we’ve worked with for as long as I can remember, and he was here with us on this adventure to pick up local musical sounds for use in the film’s music score.  Since he’s been on this trip he’s already written and composed at least three songs.  One is made up of birdcalls, rainfall, and guitar set to a beat he taps on a jar of toothpicks. Steve can make music out of anything.


All of the boys had memorized the song and it was pure pleasure to hear them singing and strumming on their ukuleles. Each of these children is so naturally musically inclined. They are always humming, playing guitar or ukulele, or even just tapping out a beat on whatever they have available. It was a beautiful way to start the day, listening to Jawi and his friends sing Steve Wood’s song on a pier while the sun was rising. 


We filmed on the Kalabia again today, working with nearly all the kids in the entire village. This requires a lot of direction, translation, and patience. These kids are absolutely amazing and they enthusiastically repeat the same shot again and again, never tiring. We’ve established a rallying cry that they absolutely love. One of our translators chants “Sawinggrai, Sawinggrai!” and they respond, “Go! Go! Go!” and then he yells “Go! Go! Go!” and they all scream back, “A-le, a-le, a-le, a-le.” I don’t know where they learned the soccer chant but it really gets them going! The best part is watching the littlest kids run as fast as they can to keep up with the bigger kids. They are most definitely great cast members to have.


We finished the day with a shot of the three boys on their canoe in the mangroves.  Every location here is beautiful, but if you get stuck out in the sun for too long, beware.  Before you know it, you have a nasty sunburn to go with your mosquito bites.  That’s what happened to me today.  We spent hours in the mangroves under a scorching sun. I’m sure the shots will be incredible but my ears and neck are sure paying the price.



Today was one of the longer days and we were out on the island until dark.  We finally stumbled into the dive lodge well after our normal dinner time. These 14- to 16-hour work days take it out of you, but the announcement at dinner that our call time the next morning would be 6:30 instead of 5:00 was a welcome relief.

Misool Eco Resort: An Ecological, Sustainable Paradise

Traveling to West Papua, Indonesia is not easy. A quick breakdown is that it takes 60 hours, 3 flights, 2 hotel stays, 3 countries, and a boat ride. A more extensive breakdown is: a 14 hour flight from Los Angeles to Taiwan, then a 5 hour flight to Jakarta where you spend the night. Early the next morning you take the 4 hour flight to Sorong, THEN take a 5 hour boat to your destination. After traveling for over 60 hours, your sense of fatigue is so profound that you’re almost delerious. However, when arriving at the Misool Eco Resort, all feelings of tiredness seem to dissipate.

The beauty of MER is apparant upon arrival.

The Misool Eco Resort (MER) is located in Southern West Papua (a province of Indonesia), in an area called Raja Ampat. Owned by Andy and Marit Miners, the island of Batbitim is just south of the equator inside a No-Take Zone and the 46,000 sq. km Raja Ampat Shark and Manta Sanctuary which they helped establish with Shark Savers in 2010.

The resort was a labor of love for Andy and Marit, as they created this sustainable and ecological oasis in the middle of truly nowhere. With white sandy beaches, a thriving colorful reef, and luxurious huts directly located on the crystal clear water, the resort feels like paradise. The Miners pride themselves on using local employees and support many conservation initiatives, all without damaging or harming the ecosystem. Huts surround the small cove with turquoise water lapping right up to the doorstep. The feeling of luxury surrounds you, despite the fact the area is so incredibly remote. Andy and Marit’s hospitality and sense of pride in their resort is so apparent everywhere you go, and there is an air of familiarity and family that surrounds the place, heightened by the sight of their adorable toddler, Sahul.

Director Greg MacGillivray instructs Andy and Marit Miners for their scene.

The resort has its own registered Indonesian charity called Misool Baseftin, which has a myriad of programs ranging from reef restoration projects, building kindergartens in local villages, and supporting and steering the Raja Ampat Shark and Manta Sanctuary that they helped create in October 2010. You can see a full list of the conservation programs they support here.

It is apparent that the area around them is thriving and that their actions have created results, as visible by the overflowing amounts of fish, coral, and sea life in the bay surrounding the resort. Once completely overfished by the previous shark finning camp, baby blacktip reef sharks now flock to the resort, providing delight to the visitors. With a reef right off the cove, within easy swimming distance from the beach, there are countless oceanic creatures and sea life waiting to be seen. Raja Ampat boasts the highest level of marine biodiversity on the planet, and the areas surrounding Misool certainly lives up to the hype, with visibility ranging from 10 to 30 meters.

Our film crew visited MER in January of 2013 to take advantage of this abundant sea life, and returned with truly stunning images that we simply could not have gotten anywhere else. The resort is featured in our new IMAX film, Journey to the South Pacific, which is currently out in IMAX theatres. We were so delighted to be able to experience this amazing place, and to meet Andy and Marit and feature them in our new film. Their generosity and friendly spirit were welcoming as they embraced our film crew within their resort, providing us with absolutely delicious food, and even pitching in to carry equipment when they weren’t starring in the film themselves.

Andy Miners pitches in to help carry the IMAX camera, no easy task.

Narrated by Academy Award® winner Cate Blanchett, Journey to the South Pacific will take moviegoers on a breathtaking IMAX® 3D adventure to the lush tropical islands of remote West Papua, where life flourishes above and below the sea. Depart on a journey of discovery to this magical place where we encounter whale sharks, sea turtles, manta rays, and other iconic creatures of the sea.  Home to more than 2,000 species of sea life, this exotic locale features the most diverse marine ecosystem on earth.  An uplifting story of hope and celebration, Journey to the South Pacific highlights the importance of living in balance with the ocean planet we all call home. Andy and Marit Miners and their Misool Eco Resort are truly a perfect living example of living sustainably and ecologically within one’s environment.

Children from the local village were featured in the film.

Visit the MER website for more information on how to visit their resort and click HERE to learn more about our IMAX film.

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