The Travesties of “The Last Glaciers”

by James Hyder

During the last decade of publishing LF Examiner, I had occasion to criticize filmmakers, usually coming from television production, who released films to giant-screen theaters without learning about the special characteristics that make giant-screen cinema different from all other media. See my 2014 editorial, Still Killing the Giant Screen.

My point was (and still is) that the giant screen is not merely a bigger screen. It is essentially a completely different experience from any other cinema format, one that has the power to immerse, transport, and transform audiences in ways that no other medium can. But to create that magical experience, filmmakers must understand and apply the techniques, honed over 50 years, that create and sustain the “you are there” illusion.

Among many other factors, the images must be bright, clear, and sharp; they must be framed with the unique configurations of flat-screen and dome GS theaters in mind; camera moves and editing must be much more slowly paced than in conventional cinema or television.

At the Giant Screen Cinema Association’s Film Expo in Los Angeles in March, I saw a film that disregarded virtually all of the lessons GS filmmakers have learned since North of Superior in 1971: The Last Glaciers, directed by Craig Leeson. It is truly one of the worst GS films I have seen in nearly four decades in the business, and it has forced me to emerge from retirement to comment on it.

Before I go further, let me reiterate a point I made in the 2014 editorial: except for a few issues I’ll mention below, I have no problem with the content of the film. Indeed, the overall topic of global climate change is unquestionably one of the most important issues facing humanity today, and is one that the GS community needs to address directly and effectively. Leeson, who also produced an award-winning 2016 documentary about plastic in the oceans, is to be commended for his efforts to raise awareness of these crucial topics.

Unfortunately, by releasing The Last Glaciers to GS theaters, he is undercutting his own message, and more importantly, doing serious damage to the entire GS industry. This is because the film shows virtually no awareness of the unique requirements of the giant screen I touched on above.

I suspect that at the root of The Last Glaciers’ faults is a statement Leeson makes early in the film: “I’ve spent years filming dying glaciers.” Assuming that he wasn’t planning to make a GS film when he started out, the decision to do so must have been made after he already had a great deal of conventional footage in hand. Reshooting for a GS release would have been complicated and expensive. But that’s no excuse for making a giant-screen film in which virtually none of the footage is suitable for giant screens.

Decades ago, Oscar-winning GS filmmaker Ben Shedd pointed out in his essay, Exploding the Frame, that “any camera movement [dolly, pan, crane, etc.] is actually perceived in a giant-screen theater as magical audience movement.” In other words, panning the camera left will make the audience feel that the whole theater is rotating to the right. Shedd also notes that rapid camera moves or objects moving quickly across the screen create disturbing strobing and judder, because of the 24 fps frame rate.

The vast majority of The Last Glaciers was shot handheld, or with cameras mounted on helmets or skis. The effect of all of these shaky shots is not the calm sensation of turning the theater that a properly paced pan would create. Instead, for much of the film the viewer feels like a marble in a tin can being shaken by an overactive child. Whip pans, violent camera moves, extreme closeups, and incessant shakiness make watching The Last Glaciers an extremely unpleasant experience. Even when the camera is on a tripod, the pans are much too fast, creating the judder Shedd warned about.

The widespread use of handheld cameras in the film necessarily also means that most shots are too low-res for a GS film. As I said in 2014, “the shots that define the GS medium — the WOW shots — must be sharp if viewers are to feel they are really there. Dull, fuzzy aerials and wide shots simply kill the realism of the experience, and instead of transporting you to another world, they remind you that you’re sitting in a theater.”

Experienced GS filmmakers have known for decades to put lower-res footage (if it must be used) in a small window. Leeson blows up every single handheld iPhone shot (interviews with young activists, for instance) to full frame, with dismal results.

There may be some truly good shots in The Last Glaciers, but if so, I don’t recall them, probably because I was so horrified by all of the truly terrible shots that any good ones didn’t register. (Also, I was unable to review the film after the Film Expo, because it was the only New Film not made available on the Filmocracy platform.)

The 2022 Film Expo featured presentations by several undergraduate students from the University of Southern California’s IMAX Filmmaking course, including two complete short films. Both of them were better giant-screen films than The Last Glaciers.

Finally, with respect to the actual content of The Last Glaciers, I must comment on the first-person aspect of the storytelling. Leeson is the main character of the film, and his stated goal is to film shrinking glaciers while paragliding, despite the fact that he is not himself a paraglider, but must strap into a tandem rig flown by an expert.

First-person GS films are rare, probably for good reason. Unlike television, or even conventional cinema, the giant screen is not a personal medium. Its scale is better suited to wide vistas than things on the human scale. So making a personal film for GS theaters will always be a challenge. That said, first-person films have occasionally been successful on giant screens, including another title shown at the Film Expo: The Arctic: Our Last Great Wilderness, directed by and featuring NatGeo photographer Florian Schulz, and distributed by Cosmic Picture. Unlike Leeson, Schulz understood and applied the techniques of GS filmmaking.

 Although there is much about The Last Glaciers that makes it feel like a vanity project, I will only focus on an aspect of the film’s first-person storytelling that I found particularly egregious. Toward the end of the film, as Leeson and his expert paragliders are preparing to shoot while paragliding from a particularly tall peak, his lead expert is injured and can’t make the climb. Instead, Leeson and a less-experienced paraglider start out on the flight, but soon run into trouble and have to make an emergency landing far from their intended target, narrowly escaping serious injury or death. They do not get the footage they were hoping for, and their relief at surviving the incident provides the emotional climax of the film.

In other words, acting without the benefit of their top expert, they made an extremely ill-advised and risky decision and were lucky enough not to kill themselves. All to obtain footage that a more experienced GS filmmaker would have captured – in higher quality – from a helicopter or drone. This is an escapade more suitable to the Jackass franchise than a film that will be shown in museums to impressionable school children.

Finally, one of the most discouraging aspects of The Last Glaciers is that it is being distributed by Imax Corporation. Ten years ago, when the first batch of television producers started trying to break into the GS world, their lack of experience with the unique aspects of GS production was understandable, and many of them learned from their mistakes and did better later on. Others failed and left the business.

But for the company whose founders created the medium to release this film, which shreds all of the most basic rules of good GS filmmaking, is simply unconscionable. It is simply appalling that no one at Imax saw to it that Leeson learned and applied those rules, or failing that, insisted that the film not be released under the company’s imprimatur. That neither of these things happened is a sad sign of how far from the ideals of Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr, and Bill Shaw this once-great company has fallen.

As I wrote in 2014, films like The Last Glaciers “damage the reputation of all giant screens, if viewers come away dissatisfied with an experience that does not live up to the medium’s potential for immersiveness, realism, and transformation. Experienced GS moviegoers who know what good films look like may be disappointed and think less of the theater and the medium in general; newcomers may not realize how good the GS experience can be, and may not be inspired to return.”

To my chagrin, The Last Glaciers has been booked into a number of institutional theaters, and I can only hope that its run is brief and that it soon disappears from giant screens, so that its damage to the reputation of all GS theaters everywhere is minimized.

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