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A research essay that uses an interview methodology to examine Montreal’s Expo 67’s role in the development of IMAX through the films Polar Life and Labyrinthe.
Author: Alberto D’Onofrio
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On November 5, 2014, Montreal was witness to another IMAX premiere of a Hollywood blockbuster – Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. As an enthusiastic cinephile, I attended one of the first IMAX screenings, while as a student of the medium, I sat quietly in the midst of the excited Montreal audience and asked myself, “Does anyone here know the role of their own city in the development of IMAX?” I wouldn’t expect many to know. Admittedly, there was a time I didn’t know myself until I took a class in University titled Advanced Topics in Film Studies: Expo 67. This is where I discovered that Montreal’s Expo 67 is the birthplace of IMAX. Expo 67 was a world fair exhibition held in the summer of 1967 with the theme of “Man and His World” where artists’ creative genius was put into place on works of paintings, sculptures, music, theater, dancing and motion picture (ExpoVoyages 1). Motion pictures, a medium that filmmakers experimented with in terms of style, format and exhibition, was part of the Expo’s intention to realize a future gaze. Roman Kroitor and Graeam Ferguson were part of the Expo 67‘s vast cast of filmmakers who’s work represented the future gaze and would be the eventual inventors of IMAX. Ferguson’s Polar Life and Kroitor’s Labyrinthe provided an experiential experience that included a precise and rigorous process that was not only appropriate for Expo 67 but an inception for the following years of developing IMAX, the world-renowned form of film exhibition.
An interview methodology that includes discussions with Ferguson, Kroitor and fellow co-workers (Toni Myers and Colin Low) will be used to understand their perspectives on the films that led to the development of IMAX. Interviews are particularly useful for getting the story behind a participant’s experiences and can pursue in-depth information around the topic (Mcnamarra 1999). Using the most common form of interviews of “people about specific historical periods or events in which they have participated” (Reuband 18), my study will be accompanied with an authentic perspective on Expo 67. While filmmakers are important to this analysis, an audience’s perspective on the world fair is also valuable to properly describe their cinematic experiences. Offering a touristic perspective, I will include excerpts from an interview with my cousin Antonello D’Onofrio. He was fortunate to experience the Expo at the age of ten – young enough to witness this future site with a childhood sense of wonder, yet old enough to remember the experience years later. Filmmakers created these works to immerse their audiences and they were equally important to the world exhibition. Participation by Ferguson, Kroitor, Myers, Low and D’Onofrio in this essay will offer a unique and personal outlook that would not be found in other methodologies.
Our understanding of Polar Life and Labyrinthe in relation to the aura of Expo 67 and IMAX’s development will also be discussed through theoretical discourses found in Andre Jansson’s “Encapsulations: The Production of a Future Gaze at Montreal’s Expo 67” and Alison Griffiths “Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive”. The precedent will be essential to examine selected statements from the interviews.
Bearing the theme “Man and his World”, Montreal was a city of the future during Expo 67 and pavilions of themes, corporations, and countries were built with this intention of a future utopia. Additionally, as writer Andre Jansson explains, “The future gaze was continuously worked out in tandem with other gazes, in particular the tourist gaze” (Jansson 420). The Expo used this model of design to elevate a tourist gaze of its visitors, to an extent that the Montreal citizens felt like tourists themselves. For instance, my cousin Antonello reminisces of feeling like an outsider in his own town because of the architecture’s hypermodernity. Besides the pavilions, a feature element of this world was the Minirail. At its basis, it was a transport system. Though most importantly, the futuristic monorail was applied as a scenic element that provided multiple perspectives of the utopia – similar to the films at Expo 67: “Whereas the Minirail moved people as viewers, Expo cinema immersed them in simulated mobility” (Jansson 429).
The filmmakers of Expo 67 intended to immerse an audience with their vision of the future in cinema. This came in a wide range of exhibitions from multi-screens, 70mm or 35mm film, to the creative use of water jets to form the screen in Canadian Kodak’s The Wonder of Photography (Journal of the STMPTE 196). Graeme Ferguson’s Polar Life was among these films at Expo 67. He acknowledged that, “There was a whole tradition of that [multi-screen] going back through the Expo’s in Europe and the American exhibit in Moscow” (Wise 18-19) which inspired Ferguson to make a new kind of movie theater where you felt like you were part of the movie (Zayas 1). Polar Life was exhibited in a circular theater that slowly rotated around its seated audience. Eleven fixed screens were placed behind a wall revealing different frames as it rotated through the open window (Lamont 4). Interestingly, Polar Life was initially made possible as a result of his IMAX partner Roman Kroitor. Ferguson recalls:
“Roman has asked me to consult for a day or two on Labyrinth when he was first conceiving that film. I had done a fair amount of filming in the Arctic and Alaska and so it wasn’t a startling idea, but I nothing particularly to show the committee, so I showed them The Love Goddesses, which couldn’t be a more remote film from what they were asking me to do. They said okay, “We’ll hire you to go and wander around the Arctic, but give us a film on the polar life” (Wise 18).
While the world fair was host to grand and imaginative film exhibits including Polar Life, Roman Kroitor’s Labyrinth was regarded as the most ambitious and expensive film at Expo 67 (Siskind 16).
Roman Kroitor was already known as a technical innovator for being one of the first filmmakers to use lightweight cameras in the 1950’s for his works of cinema-verite (Wise 21). He also co-directed Universe, an experiential film about space. Kroitor’s inventive and ambitious nature was fitting for Expo 67 and his film Labyrinthe reflected that. As the director explains:
“The original idea was to have seven theaters that the audience passed through. But when it came down to practicalities, we reduced it to three. We shot some footage with two 70mm cameras for the first theatre – one projected vertically at one end of the first chamber and one projected horizontally. The middle chamber turned into a light show and the third was a cruciform structure” (Wise 2).
Its exhibition was grand as the filming process. Kroitor recalls shooting on a camera rig that supported five synchronized Arriflex cameras (Wise 2) and Colin Low, one of the collaborators on the film, explains that Kroitor clamped a 35mm Arriflex to a helicopter to shoot aerial coverage of Montreal (Wise and Glassman 23). Despite its technical innovations in production and exhibition, Kroitor did not believe this was very innovative:
“What led to the creation of IMAX was the fact there were several big–screen things happening at Expo 67. Labyrinth was just one of them. Graeme Ferguson’s Polar Life was another. Chris Chapman did A Place to Stand and Francis Thompson did one for CP Rail, which was a six–screen film. What was very clear was that these big–screen images really knocked people out. It wasn’t just Labyrinth that put the bee in my bonnet” (Wise 31).
Furthermore, Labyrinthe included the combination of both 35mm and 70mm film. Though Colin Low explained, they weren’t the first to do so either: “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” (Wise and Glassman 24).
As Roman Kroitor and Colin Low expressed, what filmmakers did in Expo 67 was not new, and theorist Alison Griffiths shares the same thought by writing, “This fascination with immersive, simulacral experiences of virtual environments is far from new” (Griffiths 81). Examples of these experiences include landscape paintings, magic lantern slides, and motion pictures such as Vitarama, the horizontal projection system in 1938 and its eventual successor, Cinerama. Griffiths includes early examples of immersive mediums to express that this technology, “Still positions it as constantly on the cusp of radical transformation in filmic experience” (Griffiths 81) meaning that it is always under investigation to expand. At Expo 67, the filmmakers explored new ways of expanding their knowledge of cinema with the intention of immersing through virtual travel and hyperrealism which has been a common theme in history. As panoramas and nickelodeons transported audiences on a journey, for minimal costs and without travel inconvenience (Griffiths 86-87), Polar Life and Labyrinthe did the same. Although applying different exhibition methods and content, Ferguson immersed his audience to the cold, yet familial Arctic and Kroitor provided its audience with a sensorial experience of beautifully photographed sequences. Eventually, Polar Life and Labyrinthe represented the birth of IMAX. Kroitor and Ferguson collaborated to develop their multi-screen technology after the world expo – an indication that cinema is “constantly on the cusp of radical transformation” (Griffiths 81).
In the interview with Antonello D’Onofrio, who attended Expo 67, I briefly mentioned that the expo inspired the creation of IMAX. While he did not know this, Antonello replied in an unsurprised manner knowing that what he was seeing at Expo 67 was a vision of the future. “It wasn’t just something to get us excited [for this one time event]”, D’Onofrio said, “but this is it, this is a preview of what’s going to happen [in the future]”. I can imagine that most audiences shared similar reactions and this response inspired Ferguson to develop this technology further:
“It was right after Expo [The development of IMAX] . I was up in Montreal in August, and Expo was very popular. It was obvious to us that there was a big audience. And it wasn’t just because it was multi–screen. It was because we had the screens bigger. Because we had more projectors to fill the bigger screens as well as the multi–images” (Wise 19).
Kroitor also saw the potential for this technology:
“What was clear to me was that you could create some interesting graphic and thematic connections using more than one image. I personally think that some day cinema will move in this direction. That was my main interest in developing IMAX, creating a system where this could happen” (Wise 31).
When Kroitor and Ferguson started developing IMAX after Expo 67, they agreed that while the films were successful, it was an inconvenient way to project them. This thought led to simplifying their idea to a large–format projector to fill a large screen with a horizontal, 70mm format – a method that is still found in IMAX today.
IMAX’s 70mm format remained a staple to its projection as did the medium’s encapsulation – to immerse an audience the same way Polar Life and Labyrinthe has. The Expo was, “Promoted as a new stage in development of cinema – even the future of cinema” (Jannson, 429) and witnessing its development since 1967, IMAX did prove the Expo’s vision true with sensory immersion still being a key component. An experiential experience remained an important element and technological breakthroughs in IMAX cameras made capturing extraordinary moments possible, such as, “Doing daredevil aerials in a small plane, exploring the oceans, experiencing space and life in zero-gravity, and being onstage with the Rolling Stones”. Toni Myers (co-worker on Polar Life) explains in 2009, “The [recent] invention of IMAX3D has provided a new, even more intense way to explore our surroundings and a challenging way to tell a story” (BMZ Staff 1). Alison Griffiths theoretical discourse continues to be true: while technology is due to expand to achieve greater accomplishments, the touristic gaze as developed in panoramas, and multi-screens of the past will still be present in cinema.
Considering cinema’s boundless direction, Kroitor’s and Ferguson’s interviews through the years generally included the question: What’s the future of cinema? In 2001, Roman Kroitor expressed his thoughts on multiple storytelling:
“When compared to literature, which can be evocative or poetic, etc, the concreteness of a single image is a barrier. When you put two images side by side – the right images side by side – then you can be 100 times more subtle, more wide ranging, more evocative or poetic. Technically it would be difficult and would have to be well thought–out beforehand. You would have to shoot it so it all came together properly. I think if you could do that, you could move cinema to another level. I think one day it will. Maybe not for many years, but someday it will happen” (Wise 33).
In 1997, Graeme Ferguson discusses if an eventual change from forty-minute documentary, travelogue films to ninety minutes is imminent:
“The term “feature” has got to be put in quotation marks because what has happened, although we have done two 90–minute films, in fact, our theatres mostly want 40 minutes. Originally this came from planetarium screenings that turn around on a quicker cycle. IMAX theatre can be run all morning, afternoon and evening. And they love that business of turning family audiences around in 40 minutes, and instead of seeing one 90–minute film, they will stay to see two 40–minute films. This will change, but right now in our industry those 40–minute films are widely shown and we call them features” (Wise 23).
In retrospect, Kroitor’s and Ferguson’s prediction of the future have already been fulfilled with the collaboration of Hollywood blockbusters and IMAX technology in films such as Avatar (Cameron, 2009) and The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008). As Ferguson suggested, these films are well over ninety-minutes compared to the limited forty-minute documentaries. Furthermore, they allude to Kroitor’s vision of multiple storytelling. The feature-length films utilize different images and scenes simultaneously to depict a narrative. Avatar and The Dark Knight are among the many achievements in IMAX’s history. This would not be possible without Graeme Ferguson’s Polar Life and Roman Kroitor’s Labyrinthe at Expo 67 – the first event found on IMAX’s historic timeline.
The public is still experiencing IMAX developments in 2014. As mentioned, selected Hollywood blockbusters are using IMAX technology to film and project, like the most recent, Interstellar. While IMAX Hollywood blockbusters focus on its visual immersion, they realize an experiential experience and touristic gaze similar to Polar Life and Labyrinthe at Expo 67, the birthplace of IMAX. The theory developed by Andre Jansson of the touristic and future gaze at the Expo influenced the world fair’s creative and inventive nature on pavilions, transportation, and film. Although sensory immersion is a common theme in history, as Alison Griffiths examines, its technology will constantly change, as Kroitor’s and Ferguson’s IMAX continues to transform. Griffiths essay is also significant because she places an importance on observing the past to understand the present, similar to my examination of Expo 67’s influence on IMAX. The interview method made this study possible. It offered a personal yet informative perspective as all participants, from filmmakers to audiences, were instrumental at Expo 67. Engaging with a personal perspective, part of this process included a viewing of the digital re-creation of Polar Life at the Cinemateque Quebecois. It is a project organized by Monika Kin Gagnon, professor of the Expo 67 class mentioned at the beginning of my article. Montreal citizens will be opened to learn about their hometown’s involvement in IMAX and feel proud of it as I am. Having experienced both IMAX and its predecessor, I can fully acknowledge and appreciate the technology’s past and present while anxiously anticipating its future.
A Place to Stand. Dir. Christopher Chapman. 1967.
Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. 20th Century Fox. 2009.
BMZ Staff. “Interview With Under The Sea 3D Producer Toni Myers”. Big Movie Zone (February 13, 2009), 1-4.
D’Onofrio, Alberto. Interview with Antonello D’Onofrio. Conducted November 11, 2014.
ExpoVoyages. “Expo67.” Library and Archives of Canada. 3-CU-2 August 15, 1966. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.
Griffiths, Alison, “Expanded Vision, IMAX Style: Travelling as far as the eye can see,” in Shivers down your Spine: Cinema, Museums and the Immersive View (New York: Columbia UP, 2008), 78–113.
Interstellar. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures. 2014.
In the Labyrinthe. Dir. Roman Kroitor, Colin Low and Hugh O’Connor. National Film Board of Canada. 1967.
Jannson, André, “Encapsulations: The Production of a Future Gaze at Montreal’s Expo 67.” Space and Culture 10, no. 4 (2007): 418–36.
Journal of the STMPTE. “Table 1: Presentations at Expo 67,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers vol. 77 no. 3 (March 1968): 195.
Lamont, Austin F.. “Films at Expo: A Restrospective”. Journal of the University Film Association. Vol. 21, No. 1 (1969), pp. 3-12
McNamara, Carter, PhD. “General Guidelines for Conducting Interviews”, Minnesota, 1999
Napoleon. Dir. Abel Gance. MGM. 1927.
Polar Life. Dir. Graeme Ferguson. 1967.
Reuband, Karl-Heinz. “Oral History: Notes on an Emerging Field in Historical Research.”. Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, No. 12 (October 1979), pp. 18-20
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The Dark Knight. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2008.
The Love Goddesses. Saul J. Turell. Paramount Pictures. 1966.
The Wonder of Photography. 1967.
Universe. Dir. Roman Kroitor and Colin Low. National Film Board of Canada. 1960.
Wise, Wyndham. “IMAX at 30: An Interview with Graeme Ferguson,” Take One no. 17 (Fall 1997).
Wise, Wyndham. Roman Kroitor: Master Filmmaker and Technical Wizard – Take One’s Interview. Take One no. 32 (May 2001).
Wise, Wyndham and Glassman, Marc. Take One’s Interview with Colin Low Part II. Take One (Winter 2000).
Zayas, Daniel. “Science Center Hosts IMAX Co-inventor.” Downtown Devil. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.