POV is sad to hear of the passing of prolific doc-filmmaker and innovator Colin Low. In memory of the filmmaker’s commitment to Canadian film, POV would like to share this interview with Colin Low conducted by Marc Glassman and Wyndham Wise for the former Take One. This interview, reprinted in full below, comprises of a two-part feature published in the Fall and Winter 2000 issues of Take One. We would also like to acknowledge Athabasca U for making this article possible. -PM
Colin Low naturally embodied the qualities espoused by the National Film Board’s creator and philosopher. John Grierson wanted people who could do it all, from conceiving films, to making them, to managing themselves and others. In Low, he and the Board got the whole package. As a young artist from Alberta, Low served his apprenticeship as a designer and animator. To this day, he is renowned as a storyboard artist. He was directing films in his early 20s and running the animation unit well before the age of 30. His abilities made him uniquely qualified to direct the brilliant and very different documentaries, City of Gold and Universe, one an evocation through photographs of the Yukon gold rush and the other an imaginatively drawn and animated reconstruction of the galaxy. Low pushed his design and management skills even further with Labyrinthe, a now legendary groundbreaking multimedia exhibit at Expo 67.
Throughout his half-century career Low never lost sight of what his and the Board’s filmmaking should be about: representing Canada to Canadians. While animation critics hail his The Romance of Transportation in Canada as an influential departure from the then-reigning Disney style, the film is a clear and funny depiction of the importance to Canada of its railroads and highways. Corral, Low’s most poetic documentary, is remarkably precise in its description of an Albertan cowboy’s taming of a wild horse. Though his films have won many awards (his filmography includes eight Oscar nominees, the most ever by a Canadian filmmaker) Colin Low usually avoids the limelight. Take One caught up with him in January at his home in Montreal. —Marc Glassman
TO: Marc Glassman and Wyndham Wise
CL: Colin Low
TO: We thought it might be interesting to start by talking about how you first got to the Film Board back in 1945. Did you graduate from the Banff School of Fine Arts?
CL: Not graduated. I had gone there on a scholarship. My teacher in high school badgered me into it. I used some of my art work I had done for her to get into the Banff school. The school only operated for a month or two during the summertime. So I went there and met two wonderful teachers, two Englishmen, Henry Glyde and Walter Phillips, who were the main teachers at the school then. They gave me a little prize at the end of the summer, a weekend of painting and sketching at the Sunshine Lodge, which was a spectacular place. Then I finished high school a year or two later.
TO: What kind of style were you working in at the time?
CL: I worked in every medium, but mainly watercolours and drawing. I was really very interested in magazine illustration and colour printing. Phillips was a wonderful printmaker. He was absolutely marvellous and he has since been recognized as a great printmaker. He was really a 19th century man and he knew all about the great English printmaking and watercolour school. Glyde had encouraged me to send my work to the National Film Board of Canada, which was looking for artists to start an animation department. Norman McLaren had a few animators going already and two of us that summer got chosen: myself, from Alberta, and Bob Verrall from Toronto. Grierson always wanted to get people from across the country.
TO: You were brought up on a ranch outside of Cardston, Alta., during the Dirty Thirties. Did you see any NFB films out there?
CL: I had seen posters done by the Film Board, wartime posters made by the graphics department. They were beautiful, very strong. I hadn’t seen much film work, but afterward I realized I had seen several films from the Canada Carries On series in theatres. But coming from a ranch, I didn’t go to the movies very much. I thought I was going to the National Film Board to make posters and I was wondering whether I was qualified, but I figured I could try anything. I was surprised to find thatthe first day there I was making films. Mainly 35mm black-and-white films for Canada Carries On and World In Action. McLaren was my boss.
TO: What was your first impression of him?
CL: Very positive. He was a very pleasant guy to talk to. He was authoritative, being head of the animation department, but also he was very interested in the kind of material he was getting. I arrived in Ottawa—I was 18 at the time—in a rainstorm and I was soaked to the skin. I got on a streetcar, asked for directions, and went to the old lumber mill. I walked in wet as a duck, but Norman invited me—when I got settled in a boarding house—to come for dinner at his house. I met George Dunning and Guy Glover that night and it was a good conversation. George had incredible connections and he was a superb graphic artist, a real prodigy of a painter and draftsman. More a designer than anything. The next day Norman put me in a room with two French Canadians.
TO: I’m guessing one of them was Rene Jodoin?
CL: That’s right, and Jean-Paul Ladouceur, who became a famous watercolourist. They had been at the Board for a few years. They spoke French continuously, but they both were bilingual and bicultural. They took me under their wing and taught me the tricks of the trade. Ladouceur was very clever and Jodoin was kind of a philosopher. All the people around me were real artists. Bob Verrall, who later became the head of the animation department, had been there for a couple of weeks or so.
TO: It would seem that the Board did rather well with its choices in 1945.
CL: Well, McLaren was a true genius. I don’t know what he saw in my work, but my application letter came back instantly. I had sent a great pile of stuff. I was prolific, but I didn’t think I was very good. I was very insecure about my graphic skills. I had two superb art teachers and I thought I could never emulate them. I thought I had something, but I didn’t know what it was.
TO: Did Norman teach you? Did he take you under his wing?
CL: Yes. At first there weren’t many instructions. The first day I was expected to produce backgrounds and titles. The first two weeks I produced a title for a World in Action by Stuart Legg. I had to take the artwork into him, have him criticize it, and take it back to change it, take it back to him, then take it back again and again until the paper was worked down to the other side. Then McLaren put me with Evelyn Lambart. She was very instructive and she liked kids. She had been virtually deaf until she was 21 when she got a hearing aid. She was all business and mainly she worked on maps, because her father was a famous explorer and geographer.
She was really Norman’s right hand. So I worked with Evelyn on titles, but Norman would come in and say, “Your lettering can be better than that, why don’t you try this kind of lettering?” I had Rene and Jean-Paul on one side, and Norman and Eve on the other, then I had these seniors who already had four or five years of art training, like George Dunning and Jim McKay, who was a great cartoonist and stayed in animation all his life.
TO: The first film you worked on as an animator was with George Dunning, was it not?
CL: Yes, Cadet Rousselle.
TO: How did that come about?
CL: George was already working on it. Norman had commissioned a series of French-Canadian folk songs. He did some, Rene and Jean-Paul did some, and George had taken on “Cadet Rousselle” because of its Commedia Dell’Arte theme. He had just produced a nice little film, Three Blind Mice, and Bob Verrall, who went back to art school, had worked on the backgrounds. When you had two or three characters and flat puppets, you needed two or three people to animate, so George asked me to be his assistant when Bob left.
TO: And that was 1947?
CL: It was finished in 1947. We started on it in 1946.
TO: How did McLaren like it?
CL: Norman loved it. He thought it was a vindication of his ideas. Norman was anti-cel animation. There wasn’t enough money to make that kind of film nor was there enough celluloid during the war. Cel animation had been tried a little bit by George and Jim, but the paint wasn’t very good and the eels weren’t very good. So we generally worked with flat puppets, just scraps of paper and things. This was Norman’s way of doing it, and you could do it mainly by yourself. Then, because the Film Board did not have much money at the end of that fiscal year, George, Jim and I left the Board for four months and did a film in the basement of Crawley’s. Budge loaned us a camera, and we filmed at night. We did a film on Baron Munchhausen, which was not finished until years later when George went to England.
TO: And then he finished it by himself?
CL: He was able to finish it because, by then, he was head of TV Cartoons in London. George and I worked together for quite a long time at the Board, and I think we would have continued but George decided he wanted to see Europe. In retrospect, maybe by him talking about it so much, it gave me the idea to leave myself. By 1947, I was married to a French-Canadian girl from Ottawa. George went to Paris for a year, and Jean and I went to Europe for a year to travel and work.
TO: And then you came back to the Board?
CL: I came back, having been around a bit. Tom Daly had remembered me from a number of things I had done for him, such as a little film called Time and Terrain about Canadian geology, the first classroom film ever made at the Film Board. Tom finished the production after I left for Europe. He liked the way I had done that film, because I had storyboarded it completely, very quickly and almost singlehandedly. It was a simple film about the geological areas of Canada. Another thing that he liked was the papers I wrote on the different film studios in Europe and my trip down through Germany and into Czechoslovakia after the Communists had taken over. He thought they were scholarly. He said, “Come back to the Board because were about to do two or three films and we need you.”
TO: Is this when you started work on The Romance of Transportation in Canada?
CL: No, it was before that. It was The Fight: Science Against Cancer. I did the animation with Eve Lambart. The two of us were working on different sections of that. It was a big, important film because it was a coproduction with the Americans and there was American money involved. It was directed by Morten Parker and the cameraman was Grant McLean. It was being shot in 35mm. Eve and I were doing it in the manner of Pavel Tchelitchew, the famous transparent artist. So I began doing chiaroscuro animation, which was Norman’s principle of staggered mixes, and I combined it with linear outline. The Americans loved it. It was considered very successful at that time and it even ran in one of the theatres in Ottawa. The prime minister, Louis St. Laurent, was there for a screening.
The Romance of Transportation in Canada by Colin Low, National Film Board of Canada
TO: We would like to move on to The Romance of Transportation in Canada because it was a different style for the Board and it won the first of several Academy Award nominations for you.
CL: Well, I said I would like to do cel animation, and we started on Teamwork—Past and Present, which was a cel-animation film. It was really very difficult because we didn’t have the equipment or the know-how to do it. But a half-a-dozen people learned on that film, including Wolf Koenig, who really believed in cel animation. We believed in small teams. We were flying off on McLaren’s tradition of creating teams. McLaren thought that cel animation was essentially a kind of sweatshop, mass-production line, and that you would end up with studios like Disney, which could be real hell for artists; the Disney studio underpaid people, etc. A lot of Hollywood was like that, and I think a lot of the violence in Hollywood cartoons comes out of the frustrations of workers in the various animation studios, but maybe that’s just a theory.
TO: It’s an interesting theory.
CL: We thought we could keep small teams of three or four people and do cel animation in the style of UPA. Wolf, who had cut his teeth on Teamwork—Past and Present, did his best cartooning in Romance of Transportation. My work was mainly learning how to do layouts for cartoons; how to express that to the animationcamera department (which was fairly hidebound and not very good at that point); to control the kind of doping and camera moves; and build the equipment for cel animation which could carry all the planes. Most of the movement was done in the layout, then we used little cycles. It was flat. Bob Verrall did the wonderful backgrounds for Romance, and I helped him, that is, I painted alongside him, using his style. Wolf did the animation.
TO: What a great team.
CL: It was a terrific team. We all learned a great deal from that film and we hoped to go on with it, but we were being distracted by live action. Part of Wolf’s enthusiasm was for live-action film and he was learning to be a cinematographer. I was interested too, and so we did Corral very soon after Romance of Transportation.
TO: With the Academy Award nomination, did The Romance of Transportation in Canada give you status at the Board, a sense of accomplishment?
CL: Yes, because a lot of the people at the Film Board really didn’t like the storyboard for that film. It was highly criticized by our distribution department. When it came out, it was such a success in the classrooms. They really found it hard to get their heads around that. They really wanted something quite pedagogical, and I might have given them something like that but for Wolf Koenig and Bob Verrall.
TO: Do you think they felt it was too entertaining, too humorous?
CL: It might not have been so entertaining if Guy Glover had not gotten into the act and put that fey commentary on it.
TO: So a team was being assembled that would go on to produce so much good work.
CL: That’s right, but at the same time we were having to produce, what I would call service work. Titles, diagrams, bits and pieces, and it was all happening in a very small space. We were right on top of each other. So keeping it straightened out became my job. I was voted in as the supervisor of the animation department. Not the producer or the executive producer, but the supervisor, the shop foreman.
TO: Why did they choose you?
CL: Because I had been away and I was clean of any kind of political nonsense that went on during those nervous times. I helped to establish a firm, long-term relationship with Tom Daly, whom I liked. I got along with him, but he was a hard taskmaster. Then there was the establishment, the top people at the Film Board, who really didn’t know anything about animation and wished it would go away.
Corral by Colin Low, National Film Board of Canada
TO: You very quickly moved on to Corral, which was a real departure for you.
CL: Well, it’s simply because the sedentary life of an animator drove me crazy most of the time, coming from the kind of background I came from. I used to get homesick for the West and especially for my family. Corral was a summer holiday that I cooked up with Wolf, who loved the idea of taking a 35mm camera out West. It was to be part of a series called Canadian Profiles, which was meant to train young filmmakers. The film was much more successful than Wolf or I, or anyone else, could have anticipated.
TO: It’s still a wonderful film and it’s one of the ones that John Grierson showed in my [Marc] class at McGill as an example of how to make a documentary. Was it storyboarded?
CL: I scripted it. And I still have the script, and from my memory of the whole thing, the film ended up very much like the script, although Wolf gave it a whole different feel in terms of the kinetics. He insisted on a gyro head for the camera, so we could do the moves fluidly. Then we hit upon the idea at the end of doing the run out of the herd of horses along a highway. It was a smooth, paved highway which had no fences alongside it. People think that shot is done from a helicopter or something.
TO: There’s a real kinetic feel to the whole film.
CL: Wolf had a lot to do with that.
TO: But the subject itself? You’re an Alberta boy.
CL: Sure, I spent my childhood on horseback. I rode to school. I knew the cowboy in the film when he was a small boy. So I knew what it felt like to be on a horse and half of the film I spent rounding up and looking after the horses. My father turned 40 head of horses over to us.
TO: Corral is considered to be one of the classics of the NFB from that great period in the 1950s. How do you feel about it now, in retrospect?
CL: It became a nuisance, really. It was hard to top. The Film Board was 15 years old. There was a critical mass of talent in the place then. The people who were there were passionate about their jobs. Certainly in the animation department, because McLaren radiated this experimental energy. Koenig and Kroitor were important and Verrall was an incredible inspiration because he was a superb, natural graphic artist. Corral came out of my background and looking back I had found that stuff really quite boring. A year before shooting I saw Wally Jensen [the cowboy in the film] on his horse in the rain with his dog delivering cattle to auction. Five hundred head of cattle; suddenly, I saw him very differently.
TO: Did the film turn your career around?
CL: It did because it corrupted me for animation. I never really learned the whole craft of animation. I produced a lot of work and I was very good at layouts, but I was never a cartoonist and partly because of my training, I was much more interested in the three dimensional, live action and the kinetic, rather than funny little characters flat on the screen. Some moments of Disney would really turn me on, but I realized that they were exorbitantly expensive.
TO: Could we talk about another big success during that period, City of Gold?
CL: It’s almost too good to be true, the two films coming together.
TO: How did City of Gold come about?
CL: Wolf said he would like to make a film about the Second World War from stills. He was crazy about taking pictures, and he was a very good still photographer, a natural. Cartier Bresson was his hero. He said, “With all those great World War II photos, you could make a film out of them.” I said, “Wolf, you’d be bored after three or four pictures.” He said, “You could make a drama. Sometimes stills are more dramatic than live action.” I went over to the archives and there was a lady there who said she had some wonderful pictures that had just come in from Whitehorse. They were from negatives that were found in a sod-roofed log cabin in Dawson City by a local radiologist and a jeweller, and would I like to look at them. I looked at these incredibly sharp, beautiful photographs from 8 × 10 negatives and I thought, my God, this is Wolf’s dream. So I called him up and he and Bob Verrall came over to the archives right away. I said, “Look at these pictures.” They said, “This is fantastic. Where the hell is Dawson City?” I said, “It’s up north, by Whitehorse.” No one had really heard about Dawson City, but these pictures…maybe 200 photographs.
TO: And these were the ones shot by A. E. Hegg? They had been preserved, but no one had paid attention to them?
CL: The log cabin was falling in, so the health department had made the city tear it down and all these plates were found in wooden boxes. The radiologist had X-ray processing equipment for big plates, so he printed them up, and the jeweller was selling them to tourists who came to Dawson City. One of the guys from archives had seen them in Whitehorse and bought a set of them. That’s how they got to the Board. We talked it up at the Board and one of our friends, Hugh O’Connor, who worked in filmstrips, said, “I know a retired Mountie who spent time in Dawson City. Why don’t I set up a dinner, and you and Wolf come over?” The Mountie was enthralling in terms of stories about grizzly bears, wild men, crazy people, Madame Zoom and all that stuff. Wolf’s mouth was wide open. He said we should go to Dawson City, right away, and see what’s there. So we decided to go. Partly because of the success of Corral, we persuaded the head of English production, Mulholland, to let us go ahead without even a formal budget proposal or even a scrip —except that we showed him the pictures. I did some research before we went to Dawson City, and when we got there we shot some live-action stuff. But we got confused about what we were doing and started making a film about gold mining.
TO: Is that Gold?
CL: That’s right. We shot footage for two films simultaneously in less than six weeks. It was just the two of us, Wolf and I, in a rented taxi from the undertaker, who kept on borrowing it back to bring in stiffs, which made us feel a little spooky when we were out in the quaking aspen forests with all these ghosts in the back seat.
TO: And you were tracking ghosts.
CL: We met some real ghosts. A guy who had worked in Hollywood movies as a silent comedian claimed Charlie Chaplin copied his tramp performances. He had failed to
make it into sound pictures and ended up in Dawson City.
TO: Didn’t Chaplin use that shot of the long line of men going over the pass in Gold Rush?
CL: He did, but I’ve seen that shot used about half-a-dozen times from various different angles. A lot of those prints got all over the place. Hegg printed them for Harper’s in New York, and then they were put into woodcuts. They were sold in New York City to collectors.
TO: But you had the original glass plates. The technique that you on City of Gold was like going back to your animation days, whereby you panned and zoomed across the images.
CL: What we did, because we had the negatives, was pack them up in wooden boxes in Dawson City and flew them back to Ottawa where they were retouched. Then we made diapositives, in effect 11 × 14 transparencies, and that’s what we worked with. We could preserve, in 35mm, the tonality, so they wouldn’t increase in contrast. If you work directly off prints, the contrast increases through the several stages. We used the original plate to make, in effect, an interpositive. I had made the Krieghoff film, Jolifou Inn, in a similar manner. I had started that film by doing colour transparencies, big ones, 11 × 14. To improve our animation camera movement, the Board had hired an English mathematician by the name of Brian Salt, who was also a filmmaker. He made mathematics films and was a wonderfully erudite, scholarly and intense man with a pipe and corduroys. The thing that was unusual about an earlier film I did, The Age of Beaver, was that all the camera moves were preplotted from a log table. All the accelerations and exponential moves were made from a log table.
TO: Is that what you did with City of Gold?
CL: Exactly. Brian would work the movements out to four decimal places and make the animation-camera people follow them. If there were any bumps or bad moves, he would say, “This is not in the mathematics, now take it back to here.” He would go over to the movieola and say, “Here’s the jump. It’s not in the mathematics, so it’s your fault on the animation stand.” The animators had to follow the meter counters on the north, south, east and west moves.
TO: It did result in very smooth camera movements.
CL: We were working on the primitive animation equipment which McLaren had worked with, but because we were now working with larger than 11 × 14 fields all the time, we needed larger equipment. This equipment didn’t exist in Hollywood. It didn’t exist anywhere, so it was built at the Film Board. Ultimately, we began working with Oxberry in New York and all our animation equipment was developed between Oxberry and the engineering department at the Film Board. It compared to Disney’s multiplates, but at that particular time Brian Salt was adding the discipline that made our moves so smooth.
TO: Who’s idea was it to get Pierre Berton involved with City of Gold?
CL: It was Wolf’s, and that didn’t happen until we had a cutting copy. Tom Daly was very involved in the editing and Roman Kroitor was involved also. Roman had good ideas about the storyline. The whole idea about going up to Dawson City and going straight to the gold field was Roman’s idea.
Universe by Roman Kroitor& by Colin Low, National Film Board of Canada
TO: Could we now segue into Universe, which came three years later?
CL: Universe started earlier.
TO: Prior to City of Gold?
CL: Sometime earlier. Bertold Bartosch, who was then living in Paris, had started me thinking about the subject. Bertold was a very old man whose last film had been destroyed by the Nazis. It was a film called The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. He was part of the labour movement from Belgium and had done the magnificent animation in L’Idea. When I met him, he was an old man living on the top of a theatre and his wife really was the only one with a salary. He had wonderful ideas like a dome field with light sources under a very wide-angle lens. He had a camera with very long exposures, operated by a a bicycle pump with a weight so that you could control exactly the length of each exposure.
TO: Is that how you approached Universe?
CL: From my discussions with Bartosch, I realized that the film would have to be three dimensional. Then I had some early talks with Roman Kroitor, who was always talking about computers and artificial intelligence. I said, “What kind of movie would you like to make?” I think we were walking to the Research Council for lunch. He said, “I want to make a feature film about an astronomer, but it is a love story.” We began our discussions about Universe then. However, it was always put off and put off until finally it somehow got into the program as a classroom film of a half-hour length. We were still going to keep the astronomer, but the love story faded into the background. The Board management wanted to divide the film into three parts, because 10 minutes would be better for the classroom, but we wanted to do a half-hour. Altogether, from the first discussions to the final film, it took seven years to make.
TO: When did Sydney Goldsmith get involved?
CL: Sydney was involved early. After Brian Salt returned to England, he was the only decent mathematician in the place.
TO: It seems to me that Universe was the genesis of everything you ended up doing later with IMAX. It was the first of your visionary films.
CL That’s true. I think Roman and I were equally mad. Plotting curved movement is very hard to do mathematically. Sine curves and three-axis movement get very complicated. Roman suggested that we could have a pen that vibrated at 24 frames a second or something on wheels that ran at 24 frames a second. The engineering department built it for us. They called it a “turtle,” now sometimes called a “Kroitorer,” which vibrated at 24 frames a second. We would run it over a piece of celluloid and it made little pinpricks every one twenty-fourth of a second. It would slide quite marvelously, because it was on its own little casters, and we would record the accelerations and decelerations in pinpricks. However, those pinpricks had to be made visible. So, what we did was run a grease pencil over the piece of celluloid and all the pin pricks were made visible. They were tiny, so tiny that you could barely see them, but if you put them under a microscope they were the size of footballs. My suggestion was that we put an arm on the side of the animation table, which had an X/Y axis on it, and then we got a microscope with a crosshair in it and followed the “footballs,” centring on each of these “footballs” with the crosshairs. It made the most elegant, floating movement you possibly could imagine. It gave you the sense that you could do curved movement through the stars, through the galaxies colliding with each other. Eve Lambart had done similar effects with Norman on the cancer film, a zoom through a cell. It was very effective. When most people did a star zoom, you could see the stars appearing in the distance, but we kept the star bank outside of the frame and continually shifted our end position on the the multiple superimpositions. That’s the way it was done. There were about 80 superimpositions on that star zoom; 80 pieces of artwork.
TO: In a way, this technique was taking you back to your animation work, wasn’t it?
CL: Animation with motorized movement. Norman had done zooms with motorized movement from the very beginning. C’est l’aviron was a motorized movement film.
TO: Stanley Kubrick has said that Universe was an inspiration for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Could you talk a little bit about that?
CL: Universe didn’t get released until 1960. The Russian sputnik went up in 1958 and then there was pressure to finish the film. The Board management also stopped complaining about the the cost overruns. The sputnik launch gave us a shot in the arm to finish the film and when it was complete, NASA ordered 300 prints of it.
TO: The Film Board must have been pleased.
CL: The Board sold almost 4,000 16mm prints. It was simply because we were there before anybody else with a serious film on the subject with special effects nobody had ever seen before. They were mostly new inventions, the way we did the special effects, but we did them modestly. They were mostly tabletops really.
TO: Kubrick somehow saw the film.
CL: I’ll tell you how he saw it. I was in New York at the Blue Ribbon Film Festival. I was in my hotel room and I got a message asking me to call Stanley Kubrick. The next day I called back, and he wanted to meet me for lunch. There he told me he was doing a film with Arthur Clarke. I said that’s wonderful, Childhood’s End was one of my favourite books. The only science fiction I really liked, because it is metaphysical. It’s an enormously metaphysical book. He asked me if I would work on the film as a designer for the special effects. I said, “That’s a wonderful idea. I love your work and I love Arthur Clarke’s work, but I’ve started a project with Roman Kroitor for the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. I couldn’t possibly get involved, but I would love to help in any way I can.” Then he began to ask me very specific things about Universe, like how did we do this and how did we do that. We had a very long conversation. He said, “I’ll be in touch with you again. I’ll send you a copy of the script.” He also said, “I don’t want to make this film in Hollywood. I may have to make it in England, but I really don’t want to. How about making it at the National Film Board?” I said, “We’ve never done anything on that scale. We’ve got a beautiful shooting stage, but it is never used enough. Yes, we could.” I did most of Universe in the basement, in the vaults of the Film Board.
TO: So you’re telling us 2001 could have been made in Montreal?
CL: I went back and talked to the director of production, who was always very friendly to me.
TO: That was Grant McLean?
CL: Yes. I said to him, “I met this guy in New York at the Blue Ribbon festival called Stanley Kubrick. He wants to make this film with Arthur C. Clarke at the Film Board, and I think we could do it on our sound stage. I think we could make the sets.” I told him the problem would be building the spaceships big enough because of the depth of field problems that you would encounter with small models and you would have to make them bigger if you wanted to make them really look like they’re out there in space. “What do you think?” He said, “Look, Low, we aren’t in the feature—film business. It’s probably going to cost the earth. What’s the budget?” And I said, “probably $5 million.” He said, “We can’t undertake that. It’s interfering with the private sector, forget it.” I said, “You’re probably right and, anyway, I’m going to be busy with Roman on this World’s Fair thing.” Then it was announced that Labyrinthe was definitely on.
TO: So you had to call Kubrick and tell him that it was no go.
CL: I talked to him again. I told him it couldn’t possibly be done for $5 million. Later I went to visit Arthur Clarke in New York. Kubrick paid for my trip, and I spent a most enjoyable evening in his apartment, which was way up, looking over New York City. We looked through Kubrick’s telescope on the balcony then went back in to watch TV because Lyndon Johnson was being elected president that night. We talked about 2001 and many things. It was a long evening, a nice evening and we were cheering for Johnson. I said I was involved with this project with Kroitor and I couldn’t back out because we were already shooting test footage.
TO: Did Kubrick eventually use your ideas?
CL: Yes. Certainly they were used, but I didn’t complain because I didn’t ask for a contract. What happened was that he hired Wally Gentleman from the Board and tried to hire Syd Goldsmith. Wally wanted to go back to England, so he went, but I don’t think he and Kubrick got along at all.
TO: I [Marc] also heard that Arthur Lipsett was approached as well. Is this true?
CL: I don’t know. I don’t think so.
TO: I heard that from Derek Lamb.
CL: Maybe, because Arthur Lipsett was quite famous then.
TO: You had worked very closely with Lipsett on Very Nice, Very Nice.
CL: I had hired Arthur at the Board. I loved the samples he brought into the animation department, and he did a lot of service work. He really did work very hard. Initially he was very sensible. He was very easy and good to have around. Then he got playing with magnetic tape and going around at night taking stuff out of the throwaway cans, putting together a soundtrack which became the soundtrack for Very Nice, Very Nice. It was really quite wonderful; strange, these bits and pieces out of garbage cans. Then he asked me if I would support him shooting a lot of stills because we had done City of Gold at that point. He had been doing very decorative drawings and some stuff on eels which were very handsome for live—action films. He built models, too. I said, “I’ll get you a budget to buy some film for your still camera.”
TO: He was a young man, wasn’t he?
CL: He was a kid. Couldn’t have been older than 21 or’22.
TO: Was he unstable?
CL: No, not at that point. He was the most serious guy. One tended to get some eccentricity in the animation department. You don’t get very good people without being eccentric.
TO: Derek has told me a little bit about Arthur because they also were very close.
CL: They liked each other a lot. The tragic thing was the drugs. We thought of him as such a reasonable character.
TO: He had been an art student hadn’t he?
CL: Yes, and a terrific artist. The whole experiment with drugs affected a lot of people by the end of the 1960s. There was a lot of LSD around. By this time I had very little to do with the animation department. After Very Nice, Very Nice, I watched his films and thought there was some very interesting stuff in them, but he needed some kind of support. I was working on Labyrinthe and tired most of the time. He invited me over to see his house full of storyboards pinned up. In the end, I couldn’t understand what he was trying to do.
TO: Let’s go back to Very Nice, Very Nice.
CL: It was cut together and was a big success. However, there is another story about Arthur Lipsett. He did a beautiful film for me that was never, ever shown, and was lost. It was called Faces. It was done very quickly to demonstrate multi-image to the mayor of Montreal. It was done on two screens, in black-and-white, and projected in theatre three. Arthur had cut it together and he worked with Maurice Blackburn on the soundtrack. It was breathtaking. It just stunned the mayor and that’s why we got the go-ahead on Labyrinthe. It was done from art books that I had brought down here from the National Gallery. I told Jeff Hale to shoot 100 images on the animation stand, and he gave them to Arthur to cut together. It was so good that Roman took it to Japan to get the first IMAX film. It got mislaid over there and never came back. There was only one cutting copy made. It couldn’t be shown on television.
TO: Did you know him when he committed suicide?
CL: I saw him through various stages of disintegration. Sometimes he didn’t seem to know me. The Film Board tried to reinvolve him, rehabilitate him, after he came back from Toronto. Toronto did him in, I think.
TO: That was during the early 1970s drug scene.
CL: I was deeply concerned. He had come to my house once during the Labyrinthe work and brought his storyboards. I told him I didn’t have the time or the energy to get involved. I also remember when he first showed me Very Nice, Very Nice in the theatre, I told him it’s a terrible downer. I don’t believe the world is that disgusting. I said, “For God’s sake, at least get a shot of that beautiful girl and put it in at the end.”
TO: And did he?
CL: Yes, he did. I think it was a bad time for young, creative people.
TO: Where did the idea for the Labyrinthe project come from?
CL: Roman [Kroitor] and I used to talk about myth and legend quite a lot. I told him about my interest in Theseus and the Theseus myth from Mary Rennault’s book The King Must Die. Roman came back several months later and said we should do a project for the Montreal World’s Fair and why not a labyrinth? I thought about it for a while and told him about an idea I had been working on. The audience walks through a door into a darkened room and everything is subdued. Suddenly, the room lights go out and they are standing on a glass floor looking down 1,000 feet into the middle of Montreal. Roman liked it and rented a helicopter, clamped a 35mm Ariflex to one of its skids, and flew across downtown Montreal to do some aerial shots. We had a portable projector put up in the rafters of the Board sound stage and projected the footage onto a screen on the floor. We got up into the rafters, lay on our stomachs, and looked down for a long time. Roman said, “It doesn’t quite work, does it?” It didn’t have the effect we were looking for. Roman had some more ideas, so I came back in the afternoon and we got up there again. He had recorded the sound of traffic and put a couple of loud speakers on the floor. Suddenly it was magical. It gave the sense of space and reinforced the whole idea of looking down a great distance.
Roman, being a genius with promotional ideas, said we had to sell this to the Board. We needed a big screen, 70mm, and to put the audience above the thing, we needed a glass floor. We went to Grant McLean and asked for $10,000 to put on a show for Mayor Drapeau and the Expo committee. We also talked to Guy Roberge, who was the commissioner of the Film Board at that time. They both loved the idea. So we used some footage that I had done for Microcosm, a zoom through a crystal lattice. We had it blown up to 70mm and projected it with a mirror system on a back screen.
TO: You mean rear-screen projection?
CL: That’s right. We had a catwalk and a glass floor. The mayor came with his staff and they were quite enthralled with the whole thing. We had sound effects, music and some of the aerial shots blown up on the screen under their feet. Then we took them into a theatre and showed them Arthur Lipsett’s Faces film on two screens with an incredible soundtrack by Arthur and Maurice Blackburn. I had also done a few sketches of what some of the chambers might look like. That’s how we sold the Mayor and the Board on the project.
TO: How many chambers did you plan?
CL: We planned more than three [the final installation had three chambers] and we guessed at a budget of $4 million. The city asked what resources we would need to proceed and we said we would need about $75,000 to continue development and go onto the next stage, which was an actual architectural plan. It was my job to relate our ideas to the architects. We had to make a mockup of the pavilion in a space large enough to hold it so that the technology could be done at the same time. We looked around Montreal to no avail and then someone suggested Canadair. I met with the president who said, “Yes, we have an old hanger.” I asked how much he would rent it to us for three years. He said $110,000. And even though we only had $75,000 I said, “we’ll take it.” [Editor’s note: The Board subsequently advanced the funds necessary to cover pre-production expenses.] This way we got out of the Film Board; however, we took quite a lot of the Film Board with us. We hired staff and built in the changes. I was in the drawing room most of the time, working back and forth between the architect and doing the storyboards. We bought 30 years of Life magazines and tore them up, filling the room with pictures, trying to create the feeling of going from childhood, to confident youth, disillusionment, then to reaffirmation of the spirit. Then we went out and shot test material. We made a trip around the world to about 10 countries. I went to Ethiopia and had a good shoot there. Then I went to Cambodia for Angkor Wat. Roman went with a smaller team to southern Ethiopia for a crocodile hunt. I went to Japan, but I didn’t do any shooting there. Later Roman went back with a small crew. Hugh O’Connor went to India with a small crew. The full team went to Russia and other countries, of course.
TO: Was all footage shot on 35mm and later blown up to 70mm?
CL: Chamber one was shot in 70mm for the aerials then 35mm anamorphic blown up for the projections. It was our first experience with 70mm film. We had a vertical screen at the end of the theatre and a horizontal screen at the bottom, which worked together. We realized that the 70mm footage was tremendously stable on the screen, with no movement, and running the projector on its side was perfect. It gave me the idea that you could make a triptych show, using 70mm on its side, much like today’s IMAX.
TO: What you were doing was combining 35mm with 70mm. Had this been done before?
CL: They had tried it on a big screen with Cinerama in the 1950s, but we were really looking back to Abel Gance who shot Napoleon using three screens in the late 1920s. It wasn’t that you were inventing anything new, it was just unusual to see this combination. The reason we used five screens was because the audience was on four different levels in chamber one and we didn’t want to take them off those levels, so when they came into chamber three we wanted them to be viewing the film on the vertical and horizontal. We built everything on a one-third scale at the Canadair hanger and we also designed the maze there. The maze was three prisms in an octagonal room full of mirrors on all the walls, floor and ceiling. The prisms were made of partial-silvered glass so when the lights were on the audience, it would be the audience reflected back to itself, and when the lights went off the audience and came on in the prisms, it made an infinity of stellar lights. A cosmos.
TO: Some people consider Labyrinthe as one the highlights of the Film Board’s many accomplishments. It attracted a lot of attention to the Board and what it was capable of doing.
CL: Certainly we didn’t know that until the second day when the lineups started and then they became seven hours long. It became a real problem, strategically, to control the movement into the pavilion. The design capacity—running 10 hours a day—was for 1.2 million people, and that was met. The downtime was amazingly short given the complexity of the whole thing.
TO: Going to Fogo Island must have been a complete change for you.
CL: I was exhausted after five years of continuous work on Labyrinthe and it was nerve-racking. I was delighted to finally drop it. I had started to worry about everything, like were people going to fall over the edge of the balconies. It was a very exciting experience, too exciting. One of the people who worked on the project as location manager was David Hughes. He had left Labyrinthe and had gone to the NFB to work with John Kemeny on Challenge For Change, which was called the “Poverty Program” then. Kemeny had produced The Things I Cannot Change and he asked me to come and talk to them about poverty. I said I knew a thing or two, or so I thought. I talked to them about the whole question of community development and how you had to go about the educational and communication problems of poverty. They asked me what my ideas were and then they said, “We have a project for you. We want you to got to Newfoundland.” I worked all summer on Fogo Island while Labyrinthe was playing.
TO: Didn’t you start at Memorial University in St. John’s?
CL: Yes. The head of the extension program at Memorial was Donald Snowdon who had worked in the Canadian Arctic in fish co-ops. He took me places in the province that were supposed to be models of community development and let me draw my own conclusions. They weren’t. They were simply resettlements off islands to cut services. It was resettlement to permanent welfare. So Donald sent me to Fogo Island with a community-development man by the name of Fred Earl. He was from Fogo Island. You could see there were the seeds of local government there; there was an improvement committee which was very articulate, lively and smart, made up of fishermen, merchants and school teachers. I went back with a crew. I had Bob Humble with me as my cameraman, a sound man, and four kids from Memorial University, including Greg Malone, who later became famous with CODCO. When I got there, I realized that people were very nervous about this project. They generally would try and avoid us, because, number one, we were mainlanders, and two, they thought that we were with the government. There were great differences of opinion. Part of the island wanted desperately to be resettled and others were absolutely convinced that they could stay there and continue to fish. All they needed was a bit of intermediate technology.
TO: The idea was to shoot the footage in a straightforward manner, is that right? To have the people talk directly into the camera with no editing. How did you manage this approach?
CL: We asked people if they would talk to us. They were diffident. They said, “we aren’t educated” or “we don’t know what the government wants,” pretending to be shy. But when you had a glass of rum with them, you could tell they weren’t so shy at all. They were just about the most articulate people you could ask for. I said, “If we go down to the wharf and have a discussion, would you do it?” They would say, “No, I don’t want to be on film.” So I said, “If we have a discussion, and I put it on film, I guarantee you I will bring that film back to you and if you don’t like it I promise you I will burn it.” And they said, “You’re not serious.” And I told them I was perfectly serious. Eventually they agreed. Usually I would work with Fred and the two of us would do the interviews. I didn’t really know enough about their lives to ask all the right questions. Fred would talk and I would ask some questions that were sometimes foolish. The people would answer with a kind of intensity, trying to explain their situation to someone who wasn’t knowledgeable. We used a one-to-one shooting ratio and a hand-held camera. We made 27 films and then we brought the rushes back to Montreal where we did the rough edit. I worked with a local school teacher, Randy Coffin, who had agreed to come and spend three months in Montreal. And then we took the films back to the island.
TO: Were these films of a uniform length?
CL: No. They really couldn’t be. Sometimes we let them run on, this way people felt their whole opinions were being expressed and not taken out of context. For the screenings on Fogo, we balanced the footage we projected with films like High Steel, which I would put in for entertainment. It took us a month to run the films. There were 6,000 people on the island, in seven towns. We would move from community hall to community hall in the middle of winter. We would advertise and get the people out. We got around the island about four times every four weeks and ran as many of the films as we could. Sometimes we would have good, sustained audiences and sometimes, after a second or third showing, the audience would drop off completely. But generally they were good, with as many as 300 people crammed into a small hall. The discussion afterward was absolutely riveting. That was where the action was, but we didn’t film this because if we had poked our camera into the discussion it wouldn’t have had the spontaneity or truth we were after.
TO: There was at least one film, Billy Crane Moves Away, that must have been provocative.
CL: When we ran that on Fogo Island, it raised the roof. One of the senior fishermen said, “I don’t all agree with that Bill Crane has to say, but I think he knows a great deal about his life and business and the government should hear him in his entirety.” And he got cheers. So the Billy Crane film didn’t get edited when it went to St. John’s.
TO: What happened to the people on Fogo Island? Did they get resettled?
CL: While we were there, a government group came up to the island and met with the improvement committee. We filmed that night. The people told the government people that they wanted a functional co–op. The government said co–ops wouldn’t work, but the people said, “we know enough to make it work.” The government agreed to build a shipbuilding yard so that each family could build its own boats. The films had shown that could be done. During the course of filming a man had built a longliner after a generation of not building boats.
TO: Then you went to work in the United States on another community project.
CL: That’s right. One of the people with the OEO, which is the Office of Economic Opportunity, a lady who was the head of their media services, came up to Fogo Island while we were there. Then she came back to Memorial University the following year while I was teaching a small summer–training course. She wanted me to come the United States and do a film in California.
TO: This was the Farmersville project?
CL: Yes. I went that autumn in 1968. We were contracted by the OEO—Julien Biggs, Donald Snowdon and myself—to do the Farmersville project in the style of Fogo Island, with prestudies and poststudies. When we finished, Washington considered the whole thing a success and wanted us to do a similar project in Hartford, Conn., which was the headquarters of the Black Panther Party. But I predicted that such a project would have to be sustained for at least five years and maybe 10 to be a success. The OEO didn’t have that sort of time or money because when Nixon came to power in 1969, it was immediately taken apart.
TO: Could you talk a bit more about your experience in Farmersville.
CL: It is the part of the country that Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a town of people from Oklahoma and Arkansas who had come out there to work in the fruit and vegetable fields.
TO: And this was 35 years later.
CL: That’s right. They had become the blue–collar workers in Farmersville and now the labourers were the “wetbacks.” The community action agency had never been able to establish a working group in Farmersville. The Latino workers lived in tin shacks without proper facilities. It was a complex and interesting situation and we got some incredible material right in the orange groves. We talked to labour contractors and foremen. Just down the road from Farmersville there was a town with nothing but millionaires. We set–up our cutting room and movieola on the main street, next to the barber’s shop, so everybody could see us, and we ran film once or twice a week in the veterans’ hall. We invited everybody in town to come. We were working with young Peace Corps kids and students from UCLA.
TO: How many films resulted from this process?
CL: Thirty–six in three months. The screenings were very successful. People who came from Washington couldn’t believe you could put Chicanos and Anglos in the same hall and get lively debates. They saw this and then they wanted to put money into the Hartford project. However, Julien Biggs got ill and I was exhausted from Fogo and other things. I had had enough.
TO: So you came back to the Board, is that right?
CL: At that point the Film Board wanted me to take over the Challenge For Change program. George Stoney was going back to the United States, and they wanted somebody to take it over. Everyone in Ottawa knew me at that time because of the Fogo Island films. I am not an administrator but agreed to do it with the people who are already were, people like Rex Tasker. I ran it for three years before they got another person. After that I continued to work with the Board with Tom Daly for the next three years. I think there were over 100 films made during that period.
TO: Including Torben Schioier’s and Tony Ianzelo’s High Grass Circus and Ianzelo’s and Andy Thomson’s Blackwood, both of which were nominated for Academy Awards. There was also the wonderful Cree Hunters of Mistassini.
CL: That film was planned just before I left Challenge For Change. The Privy Council wanted to do a film about aboriginal rights. Boyce Richardson started the research and I wanted to put a really good journalist and a filmmaker together. So I put Boyce and Tony Inazelo together for the first time.
TO: Which was a great team.
CL: It was a wonderful team. Then we heard from the prime minister’s office that Mr. Trudeau didn’t want the films made because they were fraught with hazards. Trudeau wanted to integrate Indians into the mainstream and Indians were suspicious of this. I suggested we proceed to do four films about four different families and if the subject of aboriginal rights came up, then we would simply shoot it. That was agreeable. Cree Hunters of Mistassini was the first of the four and Boyce and Tony met with three hunting families and spent the winter with them in the bush in the James and Ungava Bay areas of northern Quebec. At the same time, they shot Our Land is Our Life which was more on the political end of the aboriginal issue as it involved the development of the Hydro projects in northern Quebec. That was a popular film, but not as popular as the Cree Hunters. Cree Hunters was shown in all the Cree communities across Canada. They understood the language and it was a knockout.
Circle of the Sun by Colin Low, National Film Board of Canada
TO: If we could divert for a minute from the chronology, there is a film I would like to talk about. Circle of the Sun is a film you directed in the early 1960s about the Blood Indians of Alberta. It seems you have a particular sensitivity toward the native people.
CL: The Circle of the Sun had the same problems, politically, as Cree Hunters and the other films. The warrior religion of the Blood Indians had survived because it was a clandestine and highly secret affair. The federal government tried to outlaw the Sun Dance in the 19th century. They took away the buffalo tongues which are sacramental in the Sun Dance. Fortunately, the Mounties were sympathetic toward the Indians and resisted the orders of the federal government. In the Sun Dance of the Blood Indians, the tradition of the North American Indians is preserved. It is very elaborate, and I had seen it several times when I was younger.
TO: When you were growing up in Alberta?
CL: I had seen it for several summers, but I wasn’t allowed to participate in the ceremonies. The Indians were quite private about all that, but I had got to know a man who had known my grandfather, who was a minor chief among the Blood tribe. We got to be friends and he arranged for me to shoot what was available to shoot. I was not allowed to shoot any of the ceremonies of the Horn Society, which is the centre society of the Sun Dance, or the Buffalo Woman Society. But I could shoot private ceremonies that were going on simultaneously like the beaver—bundle ceremony, which is very important. In those days, you needed the permission of the federal government to go onto the reserve. John Spotton and I shot the film over a couple of years. We got to know Pete Standing Alone, a band member, who helped with the crew. Stanley Jackson wanted someone to help him with the narration, so we brought Pete to Montreal and he and Stanley did the narration together. It endorsed the whole idea of editorial control remaining in the hands of the Indians. We couldn’t have done it without Pete. He knew what people would accept through a white man’s eyes and what they wouldn’t accept.
TO: Subsequently, you were named an honorary chieftain of the Blood Indians. What did that mean to you?
CL: It was very important to me. I know some people would think it funny, that I was joining John Diefenbaker and Prince Philip, who were also named. The Bloods are a very smart people because they have a tradition, called Kainai, which means many chiefs. If any enemy was impressive enough, they would make him a member of the band, even a chief, so confident were they of their own power, which was very great before the Europeans arrived. I think the reason I was chosen had a lot to do with the influence of Pete Standing Alone. The film really gave him a special place in the tribe. He became an important man because of that film. The Blood Indians really loved the film. They were seeing their grandparents, and any showing of the film on the reserve would result in a full house. They still run that film in schools. Of course, now it’s on video. Pete Standing Alone married a woman from an important family, and I made Standing Alone years later. It was Pete’s idea to make Standing Alone. He came to Montreal and proposed the film to John Spotton and me and we made it in 1982.
TO: In the 1970s you became important in organizing regional offices for the Board.
CL: After working as an executive producer for three years, I was asked if I would take over regional production.
TO: That was a big moment for the Board because nothing had been done much in the regions before that.
CL: Rex Tasker, who was a friend, was keen to go to the Maritimes to start up something there. Peter Jones had gone to the west coast, but never had been given enough money to work with. Grant McLean had had the idea for regional productions years before, but it had not jelled. Challenge For Change made it jell, in effect, because we stimulated the nerve endings of the country with our experimentations in new media. It made a Winnipeg studio seem possible. Rex proved, very quickly, that the Board could make good films in Halifax. John Taylor and Peter Jones proved that it could be done in Vancouver. I had been reluctant to become involved because I really believed in the necessity of a creative critical mass and everybody told me if the Board regionalized, the centre would be gone. In retrospect retrospect, maybe they were right. Sid Newman, the film commissioner at that time, also believed a critical mass was everything. However, Bob Verrall asked me to take over the regions, so I did that for three years. It meant spending a lot of time going back and forth across the country, but it was apparent that good films could be made in the regions.
TO: It was a lot of work setting up all these units.
CL: The one I was quite proud of was Edmonton. It was Tom Radford who came down to Cardston when I was vacationing with my parents and pestered me about setting up an office in Edmonton. We managed to persuaded Sydney. So, in one sense, I don’t look back at that as a bad experience but I do wonder whether or not, as some had predicted, it was the beginning of the end for the centre. I care a lot about that. I think the idea of the Film Board is strong enough to survive until it is rediscovered. But if it is really eliminated in Montreal, it may not survive in the rest of the country.
TO: Do all the cuts at the Film Board worry you?
CL: Yes it worries me and I see the erosion and the disappearance of the creative critical mass. I think the creative critical mass has been badly mauled and the Film Board has never been given the proper credit it deserves as a kind of cultural bridge between Quebec and the rest of the country. I think a federal government that doesn’t understand that lacks acumen. Now serious documentary filmmakers fish for money in strange and hostile waters.
TO: Was your last film Momentum?
CL: Yes, that was done for the Spanish World’s Fair. We wanted to do another 3—D film. We did Transitions, which was the first film shot in IMAX3—D, for Vancouver’s Expo in 1986. It was such a hit that we thought we would like do another one, so we asked to do that for Seville. After Transitions, IMAX had decided that 3—D was the way to go and was off and running with it. It’s been very successful for Imax and its growth. IMAX 3—D had came out of Norman McLaren’s early experiments for the festival of Britain in 1950-51. I was also very interested in 3—D. The night I first met McLaren, I saw his 3—D paintings on the wall of his apartment. He was very enthusiastic about the process but it never went anywhere for years because the problem with 35mm is that it moves slightly on the screen and your eyes can not tolerate any vertical misalignment. When I first saw an IMAX film on the full screen, which was Graeme Ferguson’s North of Superior in 1971, I said now you can do 3—D properly. It took 15rs to do it properly for Expo ’86 in Vancouver.
TO: As someone who has gone from the visionary films of Universe and the Labyrinthe project to IMAX 3—D, to the simple, straightforward filmmaking of the Fogo’ Island films which returned to the Griersonian sense of films made for social change, over the years have you developed a philosophy of filmmaking?
CL: Film troubles me and I have occasionally been frustrated as a filmmaker. It’s a bit like Navajos and painting. It’s not very permanent in relation to art. It maybe has become permanent, but the new wave of filmmaking done on video is highly temporary. I don’t see it making monuments. The most fun in filmmaking is the making of it and the people you work with. I loved working with John Spotton, Tom Daly, Bob Verrall, Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor and the dozens—no hundreds—of wonderful people who worked at the Board during my 50 years there.
Watch more of Low’s films courtesy of the NFB.