in the City...

in the City

‘There can’t be a cosmic city in there,’ the cab driver comments, pulling up to a large, white and not altogether unimpressive building that is Milton Studios.

Oh, but there is, my friend. There is.

It’s the second day into an eight-day shoot, which wrapped earlier this month, on the set of Toronto-based Imax Corporation’s 15-minute, live-action/computer-animated theatrical film for Tokyo’s 1996 Expo, Cosmic City.

The film, budgeted at just over $6 million, takes place in, appropriately enough, a cosmic city 100 years from now – far enough in time to be futuristic, but not too far enough for audiences not to relate to, says the film’s writer and coproducer Toni Myers.

Starring Colin Fox as the professor, Denis Akiyama as Mori and featuring Rachel Walker as his daughter Chieko, (with typical expo length, you can’t have too many characters, says Myers), the film is structured as a flashback, narrated by the grownup voice of Chieko.

Corresponding with the expo’s theme of urban life, Cosmic City relates life on board a space city of 10,000 inhabitants. In the year 2095, the city has reached a perfect balance with its environment, recyling everything, and is able to support and perpetuate a population of 10,000, without depleting any of its resources.

However, as the city’s population is increasing, it must find extra resources, most importantly water. The professor hatches a plan to capture a comet, which is just a big slushy snowball, says Myers. And, as in all happy stories (along with a little suspense and a whole lotta neat 3D space stuff), the comet is harnessed and the young girl grows up to be the city’s mayor.

On set, the cast and crew crowd around the monitor, analyzing the scene which takes place in the professor’s laboratory when he gets his first glimpse of the comet. The framing looks good, but the timing is off – the scene is too long. They try it a couple more times, and by the third attempt, Fox manages to shave off six seconds.

The shoot is progressing well, if not a little slowly. Understandable considering the challenges of working on an imax production. Consider the legendary size of the camera – deftly handled by stereographer/camera operator Noel Archambault and dop Andy Kitzanuk – about 228 pounds when fully loaded and shoots two sets of film negatives simultaneously, one for the right eye and another for the left. And, of course, the fact that the film canisters being used can only hold three to seven-and-a-half minutes of film at a time, after which it must be stopped and reloaded, which can take up to 10 minutes.

Of course, the technical aspects of filming are only one of the challenges when lensing in imax 3D, there are also the creative ones.

‘Everything you have normally been instructed to do with film is put to rest when you’re shooting an imax production,’ says first-time imax director Allan Kroeker, whose list of credits includes episodic television (Lonesome Dove: The Series, TekWar, Forever Knight), feature films (Kootenai Brown), mows (Heaven On Earth) and miniseries (Frontier).

‘You can’t have anything too large on the screen, like close-ups. It would just be too difficult to focus. It’s hard on the eyes. All of the traditional aspects of framing and composition are gone with imax, as well as with cutting. It can’t be too fast.’

The film, which is being associate produced by Judy Carroll, will produce a total of 37 shots – 22 of which will be shot in the Milton Studios, says Kroeker.

As well, details are important. Christian Rajaud and Pascal Roulin of Paris-based animation computer house Ex Machina must take exact measurements for the 3D image of the comet that will be generated over the professor’s examining table. Two other houses – nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Tokyo-based Fujitsu – will also be part of the project.

Laboratory set

The laboratory set, brainchild of production designer Stephen Roloff, is impressive. Not only is it interesting to look at, with all of its blue-and-silver-aerodynamic and ergonomic sleekness, it is interesting to touch. When there is a break from filming, guests, including members of the Tokyo Metro government which is sponsoring the film, wander up to the set and feel the examining/ holographic table and the winding staircase.

Despite the futuristic elements of Cosmic City, the film is not fantasy. The story and look of the film is grounded in research, space colony studies done in the 1970s, says Myers. And Myers, herself, is well-versed in these things.

She has worked with nasa and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, as well as with the advisory panels set up to ensure the scientific accuracy of films.

As well, Myers, Cosmic City coproducer Graeme Ferguson (who founded Imax in 1967 along with Robert Kerr and Roman Kroiter) and the Imax Space team have developed a series of aden films about space, including The Dream is Alive, Blue Planet and Destiny in Space.

Upon leaving the Milton Studios, a man who has stopped his car in the middle of the road asks, ‘What’s in there?’

If he only knew.