TROPICAL RAINFOREST Behind the Scenes Notes by Ben Shedd 12/31/91 Copyright 1991-2012 – 20th Anniversary Update 2/23/12 Edit 21/9/2017
TROPICAL RAINFOREST was filmed in new world and old world tropics, including the oldest rainforests in the world, in Queensland, Australia.
Location filming was done for 8 weeks on three different trips. Five hours of 65MM film was shot for the 38-minute final film.
When I learned from my biologist advisors that fern trees have been on our planet for over 400,000,000 years – with some whole forests of these giant fern trees on our planet today – I realized we could take our cameras and point them way back through time and sweep the audience through time – and the story all came together and we were off to film.
One of the major challenges for the location crew was that the sky is always clouding up in the tropics, not surprisingly and thus the high annual rainfall around the equator. The film crew utilized natural light for many of the shots, and these had to be planned with the ever-changing sunny/cloudy available light. Most of the rainstorms were predictable with the assistance of our field researchers and local assistants, but we did get thoroughly rained out twice, although we ended up filming one of the rainstorms.
The production team carried large collapsible reflector sheets everywhere – 2 were 20‘ x 20’/6M x 6M when assembled – to fill and spread the natural sunlight in the dense shadowy forests to create the best photographic results when the rainforest images would be projected on huge IMAX flat and dome screens.
The film crew built a portable camera crane, which used a bicycle wheel, climbing rope, and tropical trees as support posts. A mountain climber used rope-rigging equipment to install the crane equipment in the rainforest canopy. The equipment was specifically designed to be light weight, highly portable, and non-damaging to the environment, especially in the primary rainforest where we filmed, while being able to steadily and smoothly lift the 85 lb. IMAX/OMNIMAX 70mm film camera.
The sounds were all recorded in stereo in the field, with much of the recording done in digital recording for highest reproduction of the actual sound dynamics in the forest. Recordings were done at many different times of the day and night, as the sounds change dramatically. The stereo recordings were later spatialized during the mix to the six channel surround speakers to surround and immerse the audience, as do the original sounds in the rainforest.
The film crew waited 4 hours twice with the IMAX/OMNIMAX camera all setup to film the shot of the butterfly emerging from its pupae. We were assisted by a butterfly breeder; however, there was no way to actually know when the butterfly would emerge. And then when the butterfly began emerging, we turned on the camera and were able to capture the entire event in real-time non-stop for almost 2 minutes for the IMAX screen as this blue-winged butterfly climbed out of it’s chrysalis and unfolded its wings.
The leaf cutting ant colony, which we filmed in Costa Rica, was first spotted and photographed by our science advisors several years before filming. The ant activity was basically in the same place when we returned for research and then one and a half years later for filming. The long ant trail was working day and night, every time we passed the spot while doing other filming. We set up our camera and waited for the sun shining down through a hole in the canopy to light up the shaded trail. As soon as the sun hit the trail, all the ants dropped their leaves and fled the sunny heat. Ten minutes later, as shade returned, the ants also returned and we filmed in partial sun. Those ten minutes were the only time during the day or night when the ants stopped on that many years old trail.
A second leaf cutter ant film story: We were trying to locate the leaves which these ants were cutting and could not spot them on any of the trees for a 1/2 mile around the ant colony. Meanwhile, our camera crane rope rigger was 90 feet up in the rainforest canopy rigging and yelled down that some leaf cutters were cutting the leaves up there. Our science advisors asked him to drop down a canopy branch with leaves. We laid that branch across the leaf cutter ant trail and immediately the ants started cutting these particular leaves. We put this branch with ants busily at work in a camera stand and filmed the cutting close-ups.
The many translations of the words TROPICAL RAINFOREST were found by calling every multi-language speaker we knew, university foreign language departments, and finally, the United Nations. We were questioned by several people who came from tropical countries about whether we meant the trees nearby, as the phrase TROPICAL RAINFOREST did not actually have a direct translation in certain languages: of course, the forest was in the tropics and, of course, it rains there all the time, but it was just the forest to them. Our office fax machine was very busy receiving typed and multi-alphabet hand written versions of the film’s title in numerous languages. The main title was hand-lettered because of the many alphabets and the final title copy was double-checked with assistance from the United Nations Environmental Programme. We also collected voices saying the title in all the languages on the screen, and with the huge IMAX screen, we see and hear the film’s title TROPICAL RAINFOREST all at once in 32 languages from around the world.
Since the TROPICAL RAINFOREST film premiered in February 1992, it ran on one IMAX screen and then another and another somewhere in the world continuously for 9 1/2 years. It has since been remastered to HD video and broadcast on HDNet and Hulu.com. It still runs occasionally in IMAX and is now available as a Blu-Ray DVD in it’s 20th year of distribution.