Visual Moment | Jerusalem

By | Aug 30, 2013

A High-Tech View of an Ancient City

xJER Films Stills TL Tower_Of_David_blue_0001

Beyond the barren shores of the Dead Sea,” begins the narration of the new IMAX® film Jerusalem, “lived an ancient people called the Jebusites. Thousands of years ago, on a large outcrop of bedrock, it is said they worshiped Shalem—the god of the setting sun. The city below was known as ‘the place of Shalem’…Yerushalem.

Strategically located at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, and once believed to be the center of the world, the ancient, multi-layered city of Jerusalem has been conquered, destroyed, rebuilt and re-conquered again and again over a period of more than 5,000 years. The .35 square mile that comprises Jerusalem’s Old City contains some of the holiest sites in the world for Jews, Christians and Muslims and has been the most fought-over parcel of real estate on earth.

Images of Jerusalem abound, but now, thanks to the advanced technology and high-resolution cinematography of the large-format IMAX® process, and unprecedented access to the city’s iconic sites, viewers can experience Jerusalem as never before. “We are thrilled to provide audiences with the story of the Old City on this grand scale,” says writer-director Daniel Ferguson. “The film offers unique perspectives, aerials and access to this part of the world in a way you could never get in any other format.”


The aim of the film, Ferguson emphasizes, was to portray the pluralistic nature of the city and celebrate its mosaic of cultures and beliefs. The key to getting the film made was investing countless hours developing a rapport with government, municipal, archaeological and religious authorities, Israeli and Palestinian security forces, and local police. In his effort to establish street cred with residents of the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters of the city, he says, he consumed literally hundreds of cups of tea. The greatest triumph was obtaining special permission for low-altitude aerial photography, which, due to a strict no-fly zone, had been prohibited for some 20 years.

Local expertise and earning the trust of “key holders” was particularly important in obtaining the arresting view below of the Old City at sunrise. Ferguson consulted the renowned Jerusalem photographer Garo Nalbandian about the best location and timing for a sunrise shot. Nalbandian advised him to wait until winter, when the days were shortest and the light and clouds best for capturing a sunrise moment. He also suggested that the best vantage point would be the tower of the Ecce Homo Convent of the Sisters of Zion in the Muslim Quarter. After delicate negotiations with the convent’s nuns, Ferguson and his team obtained the necessary permission, and in January 2013 the time-lapse motion control crew (led by Peter H. Chang and Dustin Farrell) set up 3D cameras on nine feet of track on the roof of the convent’s tower—not an easy task given the height and precariousness of the structure. Starting at 4:00 a.m., the cameras ran continuously for five hours, taking approximately one frame every three seconds and recording thousands of images. At 6:30 a.m., just as Nalbandian had predicted, the nuns came up to the tower with espresso for the crew.

xJER Film Stills Zion25mm

The shot above looks out over Jerusalem’s Old City from the top of the convent, which is off the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Sorrows”), thought to be the path Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. The dome of the Ecce Homo Church is in the immediate foreground. To the right of the church is one of four minarets that surround the storied stone platform that takes up one-sixth of the Old City. Referred to by Muslims as “The Noble Sanctuary,” it marks the place where it is believed Muhammad ascended to heaven on a ladder of light. For Jews, it is “The Temple Mount,” the foundation stone in Jewish tradition where the world was created, where some of the most important stories in the Bible took place, where it is believed the Jebusites worshipped and where the First and Second Temples once stood. In the center of that platform is the golden Dome of the Rock shrine, built by Caliph Abd al-Malik in the 7th century C.E., and one of the oldest Islamic monuments in the world. On the far left, where the sun is about to rise, is the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane, the site, according to the New Testament, where Jesus was arrested.

To capture the rare view (second from top) of the birkat kohanim (priestly blessing) at the Western Wall during Passover, the crew mounted an IMAX® camera on a crane above the packed plaza so they could film the moment when the mass of men don their prayer shawls and the colors as seen from above turn from black to white. This required months of preparation and coordination with the Jerusalem municipality, the rabbi of the Western Wall and the police. Since an IMAX® camera holds a maximum of three minutes of film at a time, the crew had to know exactly when to start and stop filming. Special arrangements also had to be made to shoot the aeriel view (top) of the city’s historic Citadel, now the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem, and its archaeological treasures.

Presented by National Geographic Entertainment, produced by Taran Davies, George Duffield and Daniel Ferguson and written and directed by Ferguson, the Cosmic Picture/Arcane Pictures film will premiere in giant-screen, IMAX® and 3D theaters in the U.S. and worldwide beginning this September. For additional information, go to: —Diane M. Bolz

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