The day Expo 67 opened to the public, a Montreal radio station wrapped its yearlong countdown show with the following: “There really is no way to describe this spectacle. Superlatives are meaningless. Pictures do not do it any real justice. You only believe it when you’re actually seeing it. You feel like Dorothy must have felt when she reached the end of the yellow brick road.”
For millions, the six-month event was a wonderland that never stopped yielding visceral sensations and mind-expanding moments. Within three days, says NFB executive producer for special projects Rene Chenier, one million visitors had already landed in Oz. Many distinctively designed, national and thematic pavilions beckoned. Visitors mainlined sensory overload.
When director Karine Lanois Brien began collaborating with Chenier on a hugely ambitious 50-year anniversary project, she was inspired by her observation that, “When people talk about Expo 67, they still have light in their eyes fifty years later. It’s my interpretation. But I think it was a rare moment in history where you can have a transformational experience. There was a shift inside. You have that kind of experience when your child is born.”
The project to honour Expo within the framework of a big shout out to Montreal on its 375th anniversary could have been a movie. “That was not enough,” said Lanois Brien at the Film Board’s media launch of what it’s calling Expo 67 Live. “I watched many documentaries, but they were always on the brain level. Nothing happened physically. And Expo 67 was a physical experience.
A physical experience?
“There were many streets and people from all around the world,” Lanois Brien continues. “It was a big party on two islands. It was a collective experience.” Subtitled Man and His World, the exhibition played out like a microcosm of the planet. Visitors bought a “passport” that transported them into close encounters with everything from oriental carpets to Cuban ice cream.
For many Quebecers who had never travelled by plane, “It was close to your house, and you were able to meet everybody from everywhere. I don’t want to say that Quebec is small, or Canada is small, but at that moment in history, people like my mother, poor people, had an opportunity close to their homes to be in contact with magic.”
Lanois Brien and Chenier brainstormed, and the director became sure that the project should “connect with what they did in ’67, so I decided to create a place outside where people could be together.”
That place is Expo 67 Live, a hugely scaled, intricately designed installation looming up on Montreal’s Quartier de Spectacle, the street venue where many events, including the city’s jazz festival, draw huge crowds. The installation offers four 27-minute shows a night from September 18 to the 30th.
Expo expanded horizons, loosened attitudes, and shook up one’s sense of self. It was also a laboratory and showcase for technological experimentation, particularly in moviemaking. Expo 67 Live aims at tapping into the cinematic brilliance that was on display.
“There were 5000 movies at Expo,” says Lanois Brien. “Many nations presented something,” and multiscreen projections proliferated. But the undisputed multiscreen hits were the Bell Telephone Pavilion with its 360-degree presentation, and the National Film Board’s In the Labyrinth project. Viewers waited up to six hours to see the latter.
“In the Labyrinth was the moment of inspiration for us,” says Chenier. Created by Roman Kroitor, Colin Low and Hugh O’Connor, presented in the Film Board’s Labyrinth pavilion, the show deployed five screens in the shape of a cross. “They had five cameras, five editing tables, five sound systems,” Chenier continues. “Having all that synchronized on one reel is complicated, and that’s why the filmmakers at that moment decided to create IMAX. We’re not designing an IMAX system, but for me, telling a story all around you in public is new for the NFB. It’s probably new for the world.”
Lanois Brien points out that the show in the Quartier de Spectacle deploys “435 feet of projection screens, and we designed our screens within natural architecture.” Some of the screens rise up five stories. Large cubes placed in the venue will also display the synchronized footage telling the story of Expo and evoking the experience of it.
“For example, if we see Mayor Drapeau talking about the construction,” says the director, “you see him in a close-up, but on each wall, you see bulldozers, you see rocks being removed. We have a master control board that will connect with 18 projectors.”
The production team, working with a $2.5 million budget, assembled footage from the NFB archives, and other sources around the world. Lanois Brien doesn’t know exactly how much archival footage and music from the period they scrutinized. Her first editor, Jacqueline Mills says, “We would have these discussions and get very excited about an idea, and it felt like we were underwater in diving bell suits. It would take a day just to try one.”
“We did the equivalent of 12 edits at the same time,” Lanois Brien explains, “You always have to think about the main story, and the environment around it. You’re trying to create a landscape, and you’re trying to create a story.”
Did Lanois Brien piece together a script?
“This was my first time writing a movie,” she says. “I approached it as multiple screens. The best place for me to write was in my car, playing music, listening to interviews, and thinking about how to harmonize the material.”
Expo 67 Live is the NFB’s biggest, most ambitious, most experimental undertaking since Labyrinth. It is meant to be a living flashback not just to Expo 67, but also to the creative surges of the 1960s in everything from architecture to music. A moment in time when for many Dorothys, the world shifted from black and white to colour.