A Life in Motion

Southern California is home to scads of successful entrepreneurs who founded businesses aimed at protecting the environment. Greg and Barbara MacGillivray have blended a serious focus on the oceans with documentary film productions that carry a hopeful message about environmental conservation. Their Laguna Beach-based company has taken in one billion dollars at the box office. Two of their films—Dolphins and The Living Sea—have been nominated for Academy Awards, and their best-known IMAX film, To Fly!, was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

Greg MacGillivray, who founded MacGillivray Freeman Films in 1966 with his late partner, Jim Freeman, has made more than 50 films, including 40 IMAX productions. Barbara, a licensed clinical psychologist, directs the company’s research efforts and has worked in all aspects of production and post-production. The family ties run deep: son Shaun, 36, is president while Meghan, 33, serves as production manager and her father’s executive assistant. Four grandchildren complete the close-knit mix, with a fifth soon to make his or her debut.

Barbara and Greg MacGillivray

To chat with Greg and Barbara is to cast off pessimism and pretense and tune in to the joy of life.

What first inspired you to start a company aimed at informing the world about oceans and environmental protection?  

Greg: I started out doing surfing films. My dad was a Corona del Mar lifeguard. I grew up in the ocean and loved water sports. Then the ocean became polluted; we could see it go downhill starting in 1970. For 44 years, I swam and surfed in exactly the same spot. I used to observe four to six schools of 100 fish in 20 minutes. By 2010, that number had dropped to zero.
Now, with the marine-protected area in Laguna Beach, I’ll see three to four schools in that same 20 minutes. Fish can grow to maturity and give birth rather than get caught, and lost, in the middle of the cycle. Marine-protected areas work!

How did you get started in this business?

Greg: In high school, I mowed lawns and had a paper route to earn enough to make movies. My first movie came out when I was a freshman in college. It took four years, but it made money. My mom, my dad and my sister came to every screening. My grandmother would come and guard the exits so surfers wouldn’t sneak in. Although admission was only $1.25, I needed every penny; I was trying to pay the movie off so I could make another one.

Barbara: Being with Greg sparked my interest in photography. I took a photography class at Cornell, and it really stayed with me. I so enjoy doing all the behind-the-scenes photography for the film shoots.

What are your goals as filmmakers? Have they evolved over time?

Greg: We celebrated 50 years of filmmaking in 2013. Our goal has always been the same: Work as hard as you can to make the most beautiful and entertaining films possible. We don’t make films with a hard-hitting message like Michael Moore does. We entertain and trick you into understanding why conservation is important. As Jean-Michel Cousteau said, we will save the ocean via education, education, education.

Barbara: Storytelling is key. We engage the audience with stories filled with dynamic characters. It’s a balancing act; you have to identify a problem and pathos and then demonstrate that we can make a difference. IMAX is so visually immersive; the resolution is incredible and the acuity of the images helps people to absorb the message.

In Dolphins (2000), scientist Kathleen Dudzinski studies the communication behavior of bottlenose dolphins in the Bahamas.

Has Southern California been good for MacGillivray Freeman Films?

Greg: The things about Southern California that are important to us are water and air temperature, concern for the environment, clean air and clean water. Many of our local beaches receive an A to A-plus water quality rating week in and week out. Santa Monica ranks between a D and maybe a B-plus. In Laguna Beach the lowest grade is an A-minus. Measures like capturing storm runoff and sending it to the water treatment plant, keeping the beaches clean and not polluting the storm drains help the sea creatures and the humans who swim in the ocean. The whole key is being environmentally conscious.

Barbara: We walk the beach all the time and pick up trash. The smoking ban has been very effective. I used to collect 100 cigarette butts on a walk and now I might pick up six. Regulations are important; we can make a lot of progress when we have buy-in from the community.

How did you meet?

Greg:  At Newport Harbor High School, there were 20 nerdy guys and three nerdy girls who loved math. We had all known each other since third grade. Then, one day, in walks this athletic, beautiful, smart girl; she’s funny and she loves math! I didn’t know how to talk to her. I was so shy.

Barbara: My dad was an aeronautical engineer so I grew up in Washington D.C., Chicago and Encino, California. When I was in the ninth grade, we moved to Newport Beach…and it brought me here to Greg. I asked him out at the end of our junior year. We would walk home together. He had curly hair and wore these cardigan sweaters and my heart started beating fast when I saw him. Oh, he was just divine.

Kelp forests of California’s Channel Islands, The Living Sea.

You two have an entwined business and personal life. How do you keep your relationship on an even keel?

Barbara: I arrange all the social activities. Greg would work all the time if he could. Sports have always been a major pastime for us—skiing, volleyball, hiking, biking—although my knees are starting to go. And Greg’s back gives him trouble.

Greg: I’m a project person. I’m so happy with my self-contained, disciplined, organized life. I’d probably never see anyone if it weren’t for Barbara. Single-track biking trails remind Barbara of skiing so twice a week we mountain bike together. We used to play volleyball with a group of other couples. I observed that those who broke up were the ones who weren’t sharing their free time together. You have to have common hobbies. It takes work.

Of all the actors and musicians you’ve worked with, who did you most want to hang out with?  

Greg: Meryl Streep is very impressive. She’s creative and focused. The morning after she won an Academy Award, we had her scheduled to do a voiceover. I was leaving her a voicemail to say that we could do it later since she must have been out late celebrating when the door opened and I heard, “I’m here! I’m here!” She’s engaged in life and immensely talented.

What is your long-term plan? 

Greg: We want to keep the emphasis on ocean conservation and make an ocean conservation IMAX film at least every three years. Each of our films has a mission, a message about the importance of preserving nature and the environment. We also want to save our town’s trees and historic buildings and to retain the charm that my family found when we moved here 55 years ago. We also love to travel; everywhere we go, we go to learn and to scout. One place we would like to visit is Iran.

Barbara: If enough people realized that we live in a bluebelt and a greenbelt, they would do even more to protect it. One World One Ocean [the MacGillivrays’ nonprofit organization] uses film to advocate for oceans.

What are you working on now?    

Greg: We just returned from Seattle, where we showed our newest film, “Dream Big,” to an audience of engineers. They had tears in their eyes. The idea is to get young Americans, particularly women and minorities, to pursue careers in engineering. Currently, only two percent of engineering workers are minorities and 80 percent are male. The message is that virtually anyone can be an engineer. Math functions can be performed by computers, but a successful engineer—think Steve Jobs and the brilliant industrial designer Jony Ive—must possess ingenuity. Creativity is what’s going to keep America prosperous.

Barbara: Yes! And creative problem solvers are the ones who are going to come up with new ways to prevent climate change.

  • Greg with the IMAX 3D camera.

  • Greg and Barbara MacGillivray on location in Indonesia, 1982.

  • The MacGillivray Freeman production crew films ice-climbing scenes for National Park Adventure (2016).

  • World class climber Conrad Anker scales a frozen waterfall at Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for National Park Adventure.

  • Barbara in Raja Ampat during the filming of a local ceremony celebrating the coral reefs.

  • The children of Raja Ampat, Indonesia, a community committed to preserving their coral reefs, Journey to the South Pacific (2013).

  • An iron worker makes a routine inspection on the Golden Gate Bridge in Dream Big (2017).

  • The MacGillivray Family, 2015

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