Mystery of the Maya - The Film

Production Notes

From the ancient walled city of Tulum, perched on sea cliffs high atop the Atlantic ocean... inland to Uxmal, and the exquisitely-carved Temple of the Magician... to Palenque, site of the magnificent Temple of the Inscriptions and one of the most startling finds in Mayan archaeological history... director/producer Barrie Howells and his filmmaking team travelled to over 15 locations across Mexico and Guatemala to create the giant-screen motion picture Mystery of the Maya.

A Canada/Mexico co-production, principal photography for Mystery of the Maya was completed in Mexico between March and June of 1994. Additional filming of interiors, miniatures and archival material took place in New York and Montreal. Animation sequences were also created in Mexico to illustrate Mayan mathematics, astronomy and their remarkably accurate calendar.

Mystery of the Maya is a breathtaking film filled with the vastness and grandeur of ancient cities as well as the exotic sights and sounds of the region's spectacular natural beauty. It was co-produced by

    the National Film Board of Canada,
    the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía, and
    the Canadian Museum of Civilization,

in association with Mexico's Secretaría de Turismo, the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las artes and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.


The centrepiece of Mystery of the Maya, and one of the most thrilling finds in modern history, is Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz's astounding 1952 discovery of a secret burial tomb deep inside Palenque's Temple of the Inscriptions. To play the late Mexican archaeologist, the filmmakers enlisted Ruz's son, Alberto Jr.

Ruz plays his father in dramatic sequences where the archaeologist unearths a hidden stairway beneath the temple floor, and spends four long years digging out a secret passage leading, eventually, to the king's burial chamber. This sequence was filmed on location in the Palenque temple.

For Ruz Jr., the temple at Palenque was familiar ground. He had visited it many times with his father, who is buried at the temple site - a rare honour granted in recognition of Ruz's enormous contribution to Mayan archaeology.

Shooting the climactic scene where Ruz uncovers the king's tomb required some imaginative solutions from set designer Jean-Marc Côté. The burial chamber was extensively cleaned and restored following its discovery: gone are the dust, decay and stalagmites which Ruz and his assistants saw when they first entered the crypt. To recreate this eerie underworld realm exactly as it was, the entrance and interior of the tomb were painstakingly rebuilt on the NFB's soundstage in Montreal.

When Ruz flew to Montreal to shoot the interior scenes, he was struck by the authenticity of the recreation. He had visited the tomb with his father shortly after its discovery, and was one of a relatively small number of people to have seen it before it was restored. The burial tomb that viewers enter in Mystery of the Maya was just as Ruz remembered it.


An impressive recreation of 16th-century Mayan life was constructed in the Yucatán region, near the city of Merida, where art director Carmen Gimenez Cacho and a team of designers worked closely with Mexican archaeologists to recreate a Mayan village. Costume designers created authentic clothing for over 50 actors and extras who lived, worked and played in this living replica of Mayan life.

Filming in Mexico began on March 20, 1994 with a race against the clock to record one of the Maya's most magical events: the appearance of the serpent on Chichen Itzá's Castillo" pyramid. During each vernal equinox since the days of the ancient Mayan kings, a serpent-shaped shadow appears on this massive pyramid when the sun strikes the stairs in exactly the right way. The serpent is perhaps Mesoamerica's most sacred symbol, and its miraculous arrival every year is further proof of Mayan achievements in astronomy and engineering.

Mystery of the Maya also features the rich legacy of engravings and early photographs by Catherwood and Maudsley, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Beautifully displayed in all their exquisite detail, in many cases these rare works offer the only glimpses of Mayan relics that have since been lost to the ravages of time or humanity.

Along with the breathtaking vastness and grandeur of the Mayan civilization, audiences are also treated to the exotic sights and sounds of the region's spectacular natural beauty. In one impressive scene, the expedition headed by Stephens and Catherwood crosses a stunning jungle waterfall in Chiapas, captured in all its wild splendour on the giant screen and recorded in Ambisonic™ sound.

Recording the natural sounds of the jungle meant plenty of sleepless nights for soundmen Yves Gendron and Louis Marion, who woke regularly at 3:00 a.m. to hike into the forest and record the sounds of howler monkeys and other wildlife. Night recording was necessary because insect noises during the day were so loud that they virtually drowned everything else out. Consider, too, that Gendron and Marion could not use any illumination during their nocturnal taping sessions, since this would scare away the very animals they wanted to record. Often it was so dark that they couldn't see their hands in front of their faces... or any poisonous snakes that might be passing by.

While early explorers had to risk journeys through dangerous rivers and unfamiliar jungle, in Mystery of the Maya audiences soar from site to site via sweeping aerial photography. To shoot these sequences, the filmmakers used a special helicopter mount initially developed by the NFB and Divtec Developments Inc. for the filming of the NFB giant-screen production Momentum, the first film in high-definition IMAX HD.


Mystery of the Maya marks the second time that director/producer Barrie Howells has brought one of the world's great civilizations to the giant screen. In 1989, he produced the Canada/China co-production The First Emperor of China, produced by the NFB and the Xi'an Film Studio in association with the CMC. In fact, it was during the launch of The First Emperor of China at the 1989 International Space Theatre Consortium (ISTC) in New York that the idea for Mystery of the Maya was born.

Attending the ISTC convention with Howells was CMC Executive Director Dr. George F. MacDonald. A Maya scholar in the early days of his archaeology career, he has envisioned a series of giant-screen motion pictures on the great civilizations of the world. While in New York the two men met with Imcine's Ignacio Duran Loera and representatives from the Tijuana Space Theatre to discuss working together on a film about the Maya. Five years later, after countless meetings, long hours of work and an unwavering personal commitment from director/producer Howells, Mystery of the Maya became a reality.

Was it hot filming in the Yucatán? Just ask director of photography Savas Kalogeras, who received a nasty burn on his arm simply by leaning against the black surface of the camera while it and its human operators roasted under a blazing sun at Uxmal. The filmmakers' solution for a camera that was too hot to handle: keep it covered with borrowed hotel towels while not in use.

If it was dry at Uxmal, it was certainly wet enough in Palenque, where the high temperature and humidity was such that everything and everyone - people, trees, equipment - were literally dripping with condensation. One of the greatest sources of amazement for the Canadian filmmakers was the speed and endurance with which the Mexican crew members could carry hundreds of pounds of equipment up and down the tallest pyramids, even in the worst heat. To their unacclimatized crewmates from the north, this feat seemed almost superhuman.

The long list of cinematography credits for Genie award-winning Savas Kalogeras includes such acclaimed features as Princes in Exile, The Tin Flute and Why Rock the Boat?, Donald Brittain's The King Chronicles series and the giant-screen motion picture The First Emperor of China.

Mystery of the Maya is written by Dominique Dufetel Crimet. Carmen Giménez Cacho is art director. The film is co-directed by Roberto Rochin Naya. Mystery of the Maya was edited by NFB veteran Michael McKennirey, who has three previous giant-screen NFB productions to his credit. Sound recording is by Yves Gendron. The music composer is Larry Crosley, who has scored over 60 film and television productions during his career.


Mystery of the Maya is the latest in a long line of giant-screen productions from the National Film Board of Canada, who helped pioneer the Canadian-designed IMAX giant-screen technology. The Canadian Museum of Civilization, Canada's largest museum, and a strong proponent of innovative communications technology, is currently involved in several Imax productions with partners around the world. Imcine is a key player in Mexico's motion picture industry, providing assistance and funding for a broad range of projects. Without the support of Imcine and the Instituto Nacional de Anthropologia e Historia (INAH), Mystery of the Maya could not have been made.

The NFB executive producers are Mark Zannis, Dennis Murphy and Don Haig. Executive producer for the CMC is Frank Corcoran. Ignacio Duran Loera is executive producer for Imcine.