Silhouetted against a small screen in a private viewing studio, film director Kieth Merrill extends his arms upward in a grand, expansive gesture as if trying to burst through the confining ceiling. He invites his guests to use their imaginations.
"Imagine that the film you're about to see is being shown on a screen seven stories high," he says.For the next 40 minutes, the audience sits captivated in the dark, viewing sweeping scenes of the South Pacific, the tropical beauty of the Polynesian Islands and the untamed jungles of New Zealand.
"Polynesian Odyssey," the latest film from the Oscar-winner, will premiere in April on IMAX screens, which are 65 feet high and 90 feet wide. Produced for the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, the scenic spectacle was reviewed recently at the Brigham Young University Motion Picture Studio.
The Utah-born director's imagination is as vast as his movie screens. Envision skiing in deep powdery snow down Utah's steepest slopes and exploring the jagged red cliffs of Zion National Park Canyon via an IMAX-type film shown at a theater in Salt Lake City.
Merrill's immediate plans include building an IMAX theater downtown to show a film celebrating Utah's diversified natural beauty. It would be similar to his IMAX films shown on location at the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.
Imagine also sitting home and watching a network television series of Merrill-produced shows depicting stories from The Book of Mormon.
While the ability to reach millions through his IMAX films is satisfying to Merrill, his ultimate dream is to use television to spread the message of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His religion serves as the inspiration of his life - behind the camera and at home in California with his wife and seven children.
"I have to create an economic base so powerful that I can do any project I want to do - and not be at the mercy of the big money guys," he said. "The day I know my family is taken care of, I will spend the rest of my life producing these uplifting stories - and be happy to do that."
Fifteen years ago, after accepting his Oscar for his documentary, "The Great American Cowboy," Merrill vowed to maintain high moral standards in his films.
Merrill has kept his promise to those who enter theaters to see his work.
His commitment has not only remained uncompromised, it has deepened.
After Merrill completed the production of the feature film "Windwalker," he became engaged in a lengthy, unresolved court battle over the creative integrity and control of his film.> While "Windwalker" only required $2.5 million to produce and grossed $30 million, many investors were not reimbursed.
"At that point, I determined to become fiercely independent," he said.
Out of this quest for independence, the concept of a large-format, specialty screen was born.
But his autonomy exacted a personal sacrifice. At one point, he came within $25 of filing for bankruptcy.
Merrill says, with some qualification, that he intends to "go back" to producing feature films such as "Harry's War," "Take Down" and "Windwalker."
He believes he is going forward - not backward - in his evolution as a filmmaker. He envisions bringing "significant, dramatic films" to IMAX screens.
The power of motion pictures to uplift or offend, enlighten or confuse - "to stir someone's heart" - is a power Merrill takes seriously.> Joking that filmmakers "make the same film in different versions over and over trying to get it right," Merrill said his films embrace a common theme - a quest for spiritual understanding.
In the final frames of "Polynesian Odyssey", depicting the vastness of the ocean, the narrator repeats a significant Merrill message: "Some things have changed and some things will forever remain the same. For all things are spiritual and all things are part of a single fabric of a consciousness that never ends.">