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Filmmaker Shaun MacGillivray: “It’s important to show audiences that we can heal and learn from nature, and as the earth’s most incredible resource it is imperative we open our eyes to preserving and nurturing marine wildlife”

With water being one of the world’s most treasured and important resources, we have a huge passion around fresh water and the oceans … Like many of the themes of our films, it’s important to show audiences that we can heal and learn from nature, and as the earth’s most incredible resource it is imperative we […]


With water being one of the world’s most treasured and important resources, we have a huge passion around fresh water and the oceans … Like many of the themes of our films, it’s important to show audiences that we can heal and learn from nature, and as the earth’s most incredible resource it is imperative we open our eyes to preserving and nurturing marine wildlife.


I had the pleasure to interview Shaun MacGillivray, President and Producer of MacGillivray Freeman Films. MacGillivray has produced award-winning films, including National Parks Adventure, the highest-grossing documentary of 2016, America’s Musical Journey, Dream Big, We The Marines, To The Arctic, Humpback Whales, and many more. In addition to producing, Shaun also leads the business development and partnership team for MacGillivray Freeman, working with destination marketing organizations, Fortune 500 companies, and non-profit organizations, helping them tell their stories on everything from IMAX® to iPhone.


Thank you so much for joining us Shaun! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up on location (a cheap extra on many of these IMAX® films) where my dad was constantly filming for big screen IMAX® projects. We were traveling to places like Indonesia, Palau, the Bahamas, Singapore, and across the U.S. I loved being able to see the footage, how the shots translated into the storyline, and the development process, everything from the rough cuts to the final project. I caught the film-making bug early, then I went to USC film school which really helped hone my craft of emotional storytelling.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

The craziest experience I had was filming a mother polar bear and her two cubs for five straight days up in Svalbard, Norway. We watched as she hunted, fed, nursed, and protected her family from male polar bears. We filmed them as they leapt from ice flow to ice flow. It was really something special to witness. In fact, they became the main characters in To The Arctic, a film I produced and my dad directed. Not only was that film incredible to capture, but it also became one of the highest grossing documentaries of our company.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It wasn’t necessarily a mistake, but it was a risky position I found myself in early on in my career. On the first film that I produced, Grand Canyon Adventure, a big part of the film was a trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. We were filming with a big IMAX® 3D camera. We put 4 people in a raft and went down some crazy rapids including Lava Falls one of the biggest rapids in the US. Imagine navigating rapids, trying not to fall out of the raft, and balancing a camera that weighs well over 250 lbs. and knowing there are only 4 of these cameras in existence. You don’t want to drop it. Luckily, all went smoothly, but even after we got out of the river the team and I still had to make it up a super steep cliff in the canyon with mules carrying about 400 lbs. of precious cargo — our film we just captured. I got back with the film in tow and the footage looked amazing. In retrospect, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, what’s life without a little adventure?

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

There’s a variety of projects we are currently working on, but most recently we announced a film with Brand USA titled, Into America’s Wild. The film will follow two incredible trailblazers, John Herrington, the first Native American astronaut, and Alaskan pilot Ariel Tweto, on a cross-country journey of the USA’s great outdoors. Into America’s Wild will take audiences kayaking through Oregon’s stunning coast, exploring ancient canyons of the Southwest, into the deep wilds of Alaska, and walking the Appalachian Trail, along with a few other surprises. We created this film to help inspire kids and their parents to journey outside of their comfort zone and into the great outdoors. We want to take audiences off their couches and out into nature, just like some of the most revered explorers in history. It’s a super fun and incredible project, which is scheduled to premiere in Washington, D.C. February 2020.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

When working on the film, America’s Musical Journey, it was a wonderful experience and opportunity to work with Aloe Blacc. He is a phenomenal, renowned musician and songwriter, and has an amazing presence on camera. I’m fortunate in that each day and on each project I get to work with experts from various different fields with diverse backgrounds. Whether it is music, the national parks, engineering, space, marine biologists, or extreme athletes, each project is unique and it is really exciting to learn from the very best in each field. The many amazing people who work with us on our films lend to our company’s most key mission, to never stop learning.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Stay curious and always maintain a mindset of constant growth so you can continue learning more each and every day. I read and listen to about 100 books or audiobooks a year and hundreds of articles, reports, and essays. It’s crazy how much amazing content has already been written, ready for you to learn. Thank you Amazon.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

With water being one of the world’s most treasured and important resources, MacGillivray Freeman Films has a huge passion around fresh water and the oceans. We have committed millions to our One World One Ocean campaign and have worked with some incredible partners, explorers, and scientists. Like many of the themes of our films, it’s important to show audiences that we can heal and learn from nature, and as the earth’s most incredible resource it is imperative we open our eyes to preserving and nurturing marine wildlife.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. The filmmaking industry is difficult. You need to have passion for it and be curious, it can’t just be all stories and creativity, you have to put your business hat on and hustle.
  2. Not everything is going to go according to plan. When a roadblock appears, try to see it as a learning opportunity. If you’re unable to see a way around the problem yourself, ask someone else. A pair of fresh eyes can sometimes help you see an easy solution that you may have missed.
  3. Keep setting goals. Set short term goals and long term goals. Always be working towards something bigger and better. It keeps the drive alive and it will make you an expert of your craft.
  4. Don’t forget why you started. There’s good and bad days in every profession. Remembering why you started in the first place is a great way to help reignite the passion if you’re feeling burnt out.
  5. Surf the wave. Sometimes you just have to allow yourself a surf day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The poem “The Will to Win” by Berton Braley has always been a favorite of mine. It’s strong, it’s inspiring, and it mirrors my own views on having the will to keep on fighting for what you’re passionate about.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My father, Greg MacGillivray. MacGillivray Freeman is a family company, and I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside my dad, mom, sister and 30 incredible team members every day. I’ve learned so much from my dad over the years. We don’t always agree on sequences but we both know that the best idea, the most emotional, impactful and immersive story wins out, and that goes for great ideas from our entire team here in Laguna.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Charlie Munger. Smartest man on the planet, and incredibly funny. If you haven’t read “Poor Charlie’s Almanac” you need to — a collection of his speeches and talks, worth more than an Ivy league degree.

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