What happens within our bodies when we push ourselves to the boundaries of human performance? To the Limit shows the viewer this in ways no one has ever seen before as it follows three world-class performers—a rock climber, a downhill ski racer and a ballerina. While the vignettes are interesting in and of themselves, what makes To the Limit so dazzling are the high-resolution graphics, innovative photography and, above all, IMAX, a spectacular large-screen format.
To the Limit takes the audience on a trip through each performer's respiratory, blood and nervous systems, and to say it is a roller-coaster ride is to vastly understate the sensations. Starting in Yosemite with rock climber Tony Yaniro, we share the phenomenal muscular stress he endures scaling El Capitan's daunting vertical face. Then, as Yaniro gasps for breath, we witness how oxygen travels to his lungs and rejuvenates his red blood cells.
Next we catch a 60-mile-per-hour ride down Aspen Mountain with Olympic silver medalist and World Cup skiing champion Maria Walliser of Switzerland. "I want my body as strong as I can make it," Walliser says. "Strength wins races." And where does that strength come from? We take another journey inward to see the heart valves opening and slamming shut in perfect synchrony. Then the viewer follows the blood through the aorta and down through a labyrinth to the leg arteries where, as the narrator says, "a skier's strength is needed most."
Finally, we travel to Moscow and dance with Bolshoi prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili as she prepares for Don Quixote. "In ballet there is no winning or losing," says Ananiashvili, "only the search for the impossible goal—perfection." To the Limit explores the neural feedback between muscles and brain as Ananiashvili repeats delicate movements in her search for perfect coordination and grace.
The muscle-brain link alluded to here is demonstrated by computer-generated graphics. However, the technology used for the amazing internal voyages undertaken in this film is primarily microscopic and endoscopic photography. (Endoscopes are flexible, miniature fiber-optic television lenses that can be inserted into the body.) Director-producer Greg MacGillivray of Laguna Beach, Calif., used human beings whenever possible in filming To the Limit. But because endoscopic photography is risky, MacGillivray sometimes used animal stand-ins. For example, the heart we see is actually from a pig—human and swine hearts are virtually indistinguishable in anatomy and size.
While the microphotography and all of this first-person athleticism make To the Limit impressive, it is the size of the presentation that blows you away. IMAX attempts to fill the viewer's field of vision completely. Its crystalline images are projected onto screens up to 70.5 feet high and 96 feet wide. "The more of your retina that's occupied by the image, the more powerful it is psychologically," says Roman Kroitor, one of IMAX's creators. "When you get into a frameless visual space, such as in a giant-screen theater...the experience is so strong that the theater itself seems to move and fly." Indeed, the Walliser sequence is so realistic that the audience ducks and leans with her as she blasts through the gates.
IMAX has the largest film frame in motion picture history. It uses standard 70-mm film stock, but instead of running the film through cameras and projectors vertically, yielding an almost square frame, it works horizontally, so that each frame is a rectangle about the size of a standard playing card. This requires expensive and cumbersome custom equipment, but it yields an image 10 times larger than a conventional 35-mm movie frame and three times that of 70-mm film. It's a simple matter of physics—the bigger the film frame, the higher the quality of the projected picture. IMAX's powerful image has already attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Because of its screen-size requirements, you won't find To the Limit playing at the local sixplex. It is shown exclusively at 69 IMAX theaters in 15 countries (including 33 in the U.S.) at locations such as the National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C.; Spaceport, at Cape Canaveral, Fla.; the New York Museum of Natural History; and the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles.
In sum, To the Limit is 38 minutes of unique and exciting entertainment.
Free-lance writer Duncan Brantley was a reporter for SI.