Upon first consideration, engineering might not seem the stuff of grand cinematic adventure. But could it secretly be an exciting, creative, heroic realm where the optimists of today are creating the life-saving, world-altering marvels that will make for a safer, more connected, more equal, and even more awe-inspiring tomorrow?

Filmmakers at MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF), in partnership with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and Bechtel Corporation, answer that question in a resoundingly positive way in what is MFF’s biggest production to date. Dream Big: Engineering Our World is a film that is not only a journey through engineering’s greatest wonders but equally a tale of human grit, aspiration, compassion, and the triumph of human ingenuity over life’s greatest challenges.

It’s also intended to be part of a movement aimed at bringing engineering into the forefront of American culture. That’s why the film will be accompanied across the U.S. by ongoing educational, museum, and community efforts to expose young people from all backgrounds and walks of life to what engineering is and what it can conjure in the world.

Dream Big took MFF’s filmmakers on a three-year odyssey and to a greater number of locations than any previous film they’ve tackled. From the outset, the team of filmmaking veterans faced their biggest storytelling challenge: How to bust the long-standing myth that films about science and engineering can’t be mesmerizing, relatable, or full of heart. They were determined to completely do away with that illusion, while also upending stereotypes about just who it is who becomes an engineer and why their careers mean so much to them. Engineering can be a mystery to those who have never encountered it up close, so MFF embraced that approach — using a series of human stories to expose the hidden world behind the most exciting inventions and structures in our daily lives.

A close-up view of the Shanghai Tower’s aerodynamic twist, which reduces the impact of typhoon winds on this 2,073-foot, 128-story structure. Photo: © American Society of Civil Engineers

With an estimated more than 2.4 million science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs that need to be filled by 2018, the film’s message is timely and relevant. And with African-Americans and Latinos now representing just 9 percent of the science and engineering workforce, the opportunity for exponential growth is clear.

“For the past two decades, people have been itching for a popular film about STEM,” said Director Greg MacGillivray. “Teachers, museums, and parents are looking for ways to get kids not just exposed to but also really turned on by science and engineering. So we wanted to see if we could bring something new to that effort with an entertaining, visually spectacular film full of stirring human stories, one that energizes kids of all kinds, including girls and minorities, to think about engineering as something that might be an exciting thing to do with their lives and their way to make a mark on the world.”

The film is a bit of a departure for MacGillivray, best known for his explorations of the world’s most spectacular and often remote creatures and landscapes. But MacGillivray and his team still approached Dream Big in their typically adventuresome style, deciding to travel the globe in search of some of engineering’s most captivating feats and stories.

In each locale, the filmmakers use the scope of 3D IMAX to give an unprecedented view inside the engineering marvels they uncover in their path. Breathtaking imagery takes you soaring into the twists of China’s 127-story Shanghai Tower; circling through the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s only rotating boatlift; rolling through the desert on sun-power in Australia’s World Solar Challenge Race; sizzling amid the mirrors of the Mojave Desert’s Ivanpah solar power plant; rocketing through North Las Vegas with the Hyperloop transportation experiment; and down to the wire at the Underwater Robot Competition at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Engineers work on the final pieces of the Chameau footbridge in Haiti. The Chameau Bridge will provide much-needed access to schools and medical care for isolated, rural families. Photo: © American Society of Civil Engineers

“This film actually has more worldwide locations than any film we’ve shot before,” Producer Shaun MacGillivray said. “There was a ton of logistics involved, but it was all worthwhile because we really wanted to emphasize the global nature of engineering, which is vital anywhere and everywhere you go on earth. But we also wanted to balance these big, visually awesome projects that take your breath away with projects that are equally about the power of compassion, such as Avery Bang’s Bridges to Prosperity, which helps poor communities by literally building bridges to new worlds.

“We embraced the idea of incredible breadth in Dream Big — because it showcases how engineering can be so cool in so many different ways. We also hope the film reveals that engineering has at its core far more than just math and science, as people tend to think. Sure, you need to study math and science to become an engineer, but engineering is just as much about getting creative, about helping people, and even carving out our human destiny. That’s exciting stuff for anyone.”

For production manager Meghan MacGillivray, the approach of the film was different from any other in the company’s long and varied history of filmmaking. “It’s the biggest topic we’ve attempted,” she said. “So we had to find a way to tell a massive story in just 45 minutes, one that not only does justice to the amazing engineers we met but that really gets kids thinking, ‘This is super fun.’ For us, the heart of it all was finding our cast, who each in their own way make the subject joyful and thrilling. At the same time, the imagery of the film — from the ancient Great Wall of China to San Francisco’s futuristic Transbay building — is just made for the majesty of IMAX. It’s a true marriage of visual and personal storytelling, which is what we love the most.”

That the cast includes so many women was also exhilarating for Meghan. “I just love having these amazing, powerful, strong women on the IMAX screen,” she said.

The vastness of the production is matched by MFF’s efforts to make Dream Big not just a movie but a movement that might have ripple effects beyond the theater. From the start, the team hooked up with key forces within the engineering world — including the ASCE and Bechtel Corporation.

Innovative engineers designed the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland, which moves boats between two levels of canals. It is the only rotating boat lift of its kind in the world. Photo: © American Society of Civil Engineers

  ASCE has been working for a long time to connect the American public with engineering and especially to diversify engineering — to attract more women and minorities to a profession that thrives on different points of view and experiences. The ASCE previously worked with public television station WGBH in Boston on a Peabody Award-winning project about the building of marvels like skyscrapers, bridges, and domes. But Dream Big offered an opportunity to take engineering to family audiences who might never even have given it a thought before, let alone known it could spark a wild adventure.

“This film is another major step toward telling the story of engineering on a larger and larger scale,” said ASCE Executive Director Tom Smith. “MacGillivray Freeman Films and the IMAX format are a perfect match for this story because giant structures are that much more spectacular on the giant screen. But as visually exciting as this film is, we are especially gratified by the personal experiences it shares — experiences that reveal how vitally important engineers are to our society right now and to future generations. We’re excited for audiences to see how engineers are working in such unique ways to make our world a better, safer, more wondrous place.

“The challenges engineers are taking on are the big ones — clean water, smart buildings, climate change, creating sustainable cities for tomorrow,” Smith said, “and that means there is a pressing need for lots of young people to bring their fresh ideas. We hope many will be inspired when they see how engineering can take you to different places across the globe, from China to Nepal to Seattle. You also see how different kinds of people — from Avery Bang working in Haiti to a first-generation American such as Angelica Hernandez making her dreams come true in Phoenix to Steve Burrows flying across China — can each make their own individual mark on their communities and the world at large.”

Bechtel saw getting involved with a film that highlights the exciting lives of engineers as a natural fit. “Dream Big is a first-of-its-kind film that aims to educate the public about the inspiring work that engineers are doing worldwide,” said Charlene Wheeless, principal vice president at Bechtel for Global Corporate Affairs. “The production also gives us a fresh way to reach out to all kids, especially girls — a group that we know from countless research studies is less likely to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Our aim is for the film to inspire more girls to pursue career opportunities in engineering.

“Every day, engineers bring creativity, discipline, and passion to their work, Wheeless said. “The film showcases how engineers dream big to create a sustainable future and better quality of life for people everywhere. Whether its mega-construction projects, technology innovations, solar cars, or humanitarian structures, engineers across many disciplines, backgrounds, and industries can and do change the world.”

STEM education has been a long-time focus for Bechtel. In 1990, Stephen D. Bechtel Jr. served as the first chair of DiscoverE (formerly National Engineers Week Foundation), and also supports diverse STEM organizations like Society of Women Engineers, National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, and National Society of Black Engineers.

With the support of ASCE, Bechtel, and additional partners, MFF will, on top of the film’s release, bring forth an array of exhibits, events, and educational programs to accompany Dream Big and take the film from visceral viewing experience to fully interactive educational movement. They include:

  • an expertly designed school program that includes 12 lesson plans for grades K-12;
  • 50 hands-on engineering activities designed specifically for museums and informal outreach;
  • plans for engineering-themed events, including Girls’ Nights Out;
  • collaborations with local ASCE groups across the country, as well as other groups including the Society of Women Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers; and
  • local engineers leading demos and events at museums, schools, and public places.

The hope is that the mix of Dream Big and these enhanced programs will light fires of aspiration, even in unexpected places.

“To us, the film is a kick-off to a campaign that aims to give everyone — children and adults — hands-on engineering experiences,” Greg MacGillivray said. “We created the film to be as entertaining and fun for everyone as we could — but we do harbor a wish that it might spark a kid to think, ‘Hey, I’d like to design a futuristic building or life-changing bridge or cool underwater robot one day.’ If there’s a 10-year-old girl in the audience thinking, ‘I have ideas, too,’ we want to not only inspire her but give her a chance to learn more and keep going.”   

Information provided by MacGillivray Freeman Films. Dream Big: Engineering Our World is a MacGillivray Freeman film, in partnership with the American Society of Civil Engineers, and presented by Bechtel Corporation. View a trailer and theater listings across the United States, Canada, and Mexico at www.dreambigfilm.com.