Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Two Billion Years in Two Minutes - The New IMAX Film at Grand Canyon Premieres

Can you believe it's been 40 years since the first IMAX movie at Grand Canyon premiered? Yep, it was 1983, the year of high-water out of Glen Canyon Dam, when "Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets was filmed and released. The original river scenes in the movie captured some of the high-water drama and the organic debris left from the flood in riverside tamarisk trees. The production received only luke-warm accolades from the locals, who saw the plot, if plot it could be called, a bit simplistic and fanciful with quasi-true recreations of historical events. The general public however, must have liked it with 40 million viewers watching it in 40 years.

On March 30 this year, IMAX premiered a brand new movie for Grand Canyon at the theater in Tusayan. The new film is called, "Grand Canyon: Rivers of Time." This new version was the result of comments received from viewers of the original film, expressing a desire for more substantial information about the canyon. Happily, the new version contains more science and Voilá! a new film 

**Don't leave this post just yet - a short video clip of the new film is attached to the end of this posting and includes spectacular time-lapse sequences in the canyon and the full geology portion of the film!** And please note that all of the still images used in this posting were provided by Alan Markowitz, the visual effects producer, who shared his PowerPoint presentation with me about how the film was made. He presented his PowerPoint to the attending delegates at the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) Film Expo, held in March, 2023, at Universal Citywalk in Los Angeles.

Poster for "Grand Canyon: Rivers of Time"

In early 2020, just at the start of the pandemic, I was approached by Rick Gordon of RPG Productions in Los Angeles California. He asked a simple question: Could the 2 billion-year-long geologic story of Grand Canyon - get this - be told in two minutes! At first, I thought it was a joke. But Rick was quite serious as the owners of the film and the theater franchise were tasked with including geology in a new version of the film. I was brought on as the geologic consultant. Work on the project began in March, 2020 but, unfortunately, the pandemic stopped production work for two years. The project resumed in March, 2022.

Two billion years of earth history in two minutes! Looking at the bottom line here, it's clear
even Alan admitted to the daunting task.

One of the biggest challenges geologists face when asked to contribute to documentary or popular films is getting enough air-time to fully describe their subject matter. Other topics are also covered in these types of productions, and geologists must share the few precious seconds of air-time with charismatic wildlife, extreme sports action, or some other spine-tingling footage. Additionally, geology may seem too static or unchanging to those who crave action in their films, or do not know the joys and rewards of earth science. A tendency to minimize geology's underlying importance can take hold. This was not a concern for Rick since he was charged with including the geologic story.

I worked closely with Rick Gordon, Alan Markowitz, and Mario Kourasis on the geology portion
of the film, helping to conceive images and video and writing script.

Back to the question posed by Rick, "Can the 2 billion year-long geologic story of Grand Canyon be told in two minutes. I've had a bit of experience distilling complex geologic ideas into more digestible phrases and images. But this would be an especially daunting challenge. Nevertheless, I replied to his team, "Yeah, we can do that." Of course, I was concerned some parts of the story would have to be left out. So I gently suggested on getting an extra 30 seconds or maybe even a whole minute in the ultimately 40 minute-long film. "No way," was the answer as 70% of the original production is re-used in this 2nd edition of the film. 

A slide from Markowitz's PowerPoint showing some of the storyline and pre-production ideas. You
can seen the lower right that they utilized some of my lectures on YouTube for help. 

For my part, the first thing to decide was how much of the story should (or could) be told in only two minutes. Could we mention the Grand Canyon Supergroup, a complex and sometimes confusing deposit found in only some parts of the canyon? Would it be a good idea to include this or would it tend to minimize other parts of the story? What about the Mesozoic rocks that once covered the canyon landscape but are now mostly eroded and gone? Should they be mentioned? All of this had to be carefully considered so I sent Rick a short description of the full story.

These are some of the web based images the group found to help them better understand the various aspects of the story.
Note that they were coming into the production without a basic understanding of Grand Canyon geology
and so had to learn what to portray in images and say in words for the narrator.

There was some great collaborations between myself and the group and eventually a script was written and adopted. At this stage, Alan and Marios began developing a visual component of the story. One of the hardest aspects involved was explaining to the animators (untrained in geology) how a line of island arc volcanoes, over 1,750 million years old, were formed by a subduction event; then transported into an oceanic trench where the sedimentary and volcanic rocks became compressed, metamorphosed, and melted into Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite. This is a complex process involving a few different steps. But they hit on an idea to have inset boxes displaying concepts in cross-section, while the larger image of the surface remains visible. This technique was utilized in other sub-chapters of the story, I think with great effect (see the inset below in the next image and in the video at the end). 

Panel animations for two time slices. On the left is a depiction of an island arc approaching a continent (Precambrian time).
On the right is a depiction of a sandy desert and the deposition of eolian sand. Note the inset boxes
in each that show what was happening in the subsurface for each time slice.

In spite of the two-minute time limitation (hey, that's 1/20th of the entire film!), we were still able to include information about these many events in the final product:

1) the location and geographic dimensions of the canyon;
2) the volcanic arc sequence that ultimately gave rise to the Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite;
3) erosion of 13 miles of crust down to a low-lying plain;
4) deposition of the two-and-a-half-mile-thick Grand Canyon Supergroup layers;
5) deformation, faulting, and tilting of the Supergroup blocks;
6) erosion down to a near-sea-level, hilly terrain;
7) deposition of the Paleozoic layers of the canyon in seas, rivers and sandy deserts;
8) deposition of the Mesozoic layers (the dinosaur-age rocks);
9) near complete erosion of the Mesozoic layers; and finally,
10) the uplift and carving of the Grand Canyon.

Kudos to the production team as I would have never imagined at the start of production that all of these seminal events that formed the Grand Canyon landscape could be compressed into two minutes!
Not all of these concepts were used in the end but it gives an idea for the possibilities.

And now, please enjoy this four-minute clip of the introduction and the geologic story of the new IMAX film, "Grand Canyon: Rivers of Time." (Please excuse the low-resolution limitations for uploading). 

Four minute clip of "Grand Canyon: Rivers of Time"

The next time you are a the South Rim of Grand Canyon, be sure to view the new movie. If you cannot take the time, imagine watching this on a huge, six-story IMAX perforated screen, with sound coming to your ears in surround sound from all directions - including sound from behind the perforated screen! Many thanks to Rick, Alan, Marios, and everyone involved with IMAX for including the geologic story of Grand Canyon in this production. The canyon's geology will now be portrayed to millions of viewers, through many decades!