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Bill Mason: Beyond the wild, beyond the paddle

Bill Mason: Beyond the wild, beyond the paddle

I never met Bill Mason in person. He left the National Film Board shortly after I arrived but I wish I had had the chance to talk to him about his magnificent films. My first contact with his work was the film Cry of the Wild, which I saw over 30 years ago at a movie theatre in Montreal. I remember the word of mouth for it was incredible. There were television ads promoting it, and all the kids in my neighbourhood were dying to see it. The film grossed over $5 million at the North American box office, and Mason would become known as one of the first environmental filmmakers. But Bill Mason is so much more than Cry of the Wild, even though it is the film that he is most often associated with.

Born in Winnipeg, Mason worked as a commercial artist before joining the staff of Crawley films in Ottawa, where he contributed to the animated TV series Tales of the Wizard of Oz. In the early 1960s Mason photographed several sequences of an adaptation of Holling C. Holling's children's book Paddle to the Sea. The NFB saw this footage and invited Mason to make a film. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mason worked at the NFB for 20 years (he would occasionally take a sabbatical to paint), creating a multitude of films that highlighted his love of the outdoors. These included the Path of the Paddle series, In Search of the Bowhead Whale and Blake. These films often starred himself, his wife and children and his good friend filmmaker Blake James. Mason would go out with his canoe and a portable camera and shoot for several weeks in some inaccessible part of Canada, emerging with spectacular footage. A perfectionist at heart, his films are all meticulously shot, edited and scored. He was not averse to using older footage if it fit his needs. His last film, Waterwalker, includes footage shot over a 12-year period mixed with newer material. Mason also wrote several books about the outdoors including Song of the Paddle to accompany his film of the same name.

Anyone who has seen a Mason film can appreciate his ability to convey his great love of nature through his films. You escape the distractions of the city by simply watching one of his films and enjoying the beauty of the wild while being educated at the same time. What a refreshing change from the sterile documentaries of today that barely scratch the surface or seek to shock rather than inform. Mason's films are a celebration of nature devoid of preachy sermons.

By the time he made his last film, Mason had decided to devote his energies full-time to his other passion, painting. The fact that his producers were not interested in distributing Waterwalker theatrically must have helped Mason make up his mind. The NFB wanted to sell the film to television, feeling it had a very limited potential in theatres. Mason felt otherwise, explaining that the big screen was the only place to enjoy this type of film. He left the NFB in 1984 and bought the theatrical distribution rights to Waterwalker. He rented a theatre in Ottawa and showed the film to packed houses. It was a huge hit, which led to screenings across the country.

Sadly, Mason died of cancer at the young age of 59 on October 29, 1988. His films were such an important part of Canada's culture that Canada Post unveiled a stamp in his honour ten years later. He may be gone, but he lives on through his films, paintings and books.

Albert Ohayon

Albert Ohayon est l'expert de la collection à l'ONF : il a vu plus de 8 000 films! Albert a étudié le cinéma et le journalisme à l'Université Concordia, à Montréal, et travaille à l'Office national du film du Canada depuis 1984.

  • Paddle to the Sea
    1966|27 min

    Bill Mason looked at securing film rights to the book Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling as early as 1960. It was originally intended for the non-theatrical (educational) market, but was eventually blown up to 35 mm and distributed theatrically, which led to an Oscar nomination in the best short subject category. Parts of the film were shot near Mason’s home at Meech Lake.

  • The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes
    1968|16 min

    The film was conceived and produced for the educational market. It was to be on the evolution of the Great Lakes (the working title was Evolution of the Great Lakes) and man’s impact on them. Mason agreed to a lighter approach for the film but was disappointed when the producer made several changes to his finished work. Test screenings proved to be very successful with children and teachers, who appreciated the humorous approach to the subject. The feedback was so positive that the film was blown up to 35 mm for theatrical distribution. Nevertheless, Mason was not happy with the finished product, feeling he had lost creative control over it.

  • Blake
    1969|19 min

    Bill Mason and Blake James had a long history together, first meeting at a commercial art studio in Winnipeg. They later worked together at Crawley films before both moving to the NFB. In Blake, Mason wanted to show the world how his good friend marched to the beat of a different drummer. The filming was often dangerous. On one occasion Mason was filming Blake from another airplane and lost him. He searched for him for a great many nervous minutes before discovering that Blake had landed on an Island in the St. Lawrence. Blake had forgotten to switch on his main fuel tank and was forced to land wherever he could. The film was shown theatrically in Canada and bought by an American distributor. Theatrical showings stateside led to an Oscar nomination in the live-action short category.

  • Cry of the Wild
    1972|1 h 28 min

    A qualified box-office hit, Cry of the Wild, would eventually gross over $5 million in North America. Not bad for a documentary! Bill Mason had already made a TV documentary on wolves a few years earlier entitled Death of a Legend. The success of this film encouraged Mason to try and capture the wolf on film in its natural habitat so he decided to take his camera to the Northwest Territories over three consecutive winters. He interspersed this with some footage he shot near his Gatineau Hills home in a special outdoor enclosure where he kept several wolves that had been raised in captivity. The feature documentary was to be released in Canada on a small scale. At a showing in Edmonton, the NFB was approached by an American distributor very interested in releasing it in the USA. The company bought the North American rights and released it in New York City by renting out several theatres outright and showing the film on a continuous basis. This formula, known as “four-walling,” was so successful that Cry of the Wild eventually grossed $1.8 million in New York City alone. The film was released subsequently all over the U.S. and throughout Canada (along with a non-NFB short film on the legendary Bigfoot) and played to full houses everywhere. Well over 30 years after its release, it remains a big seller in the home video market.

  • In Search of the Bowhead Whale
    1974|49 min

    The film was shot in April 1973 at the aptly named Icy Cape in Alaska, an abandoned Inuit village once known for spring whaling. The World Wildlife Fund sponsored the expedition, which included several American scientists and was originally going to include four Soviet biologists working in tandem with the Americans. For some unexplained reason, the Soviets pulled out at the last minute. Bill Mason, acting as director/cameraman, and soundman Chester Beachel were added to the group to document the event. While the divers were prepared for shooting in the frigid waters, they never anticipated that the visibility underwater would be so poor. Nonetheless, they managed to get some spectacular footage of the whales from above and below the ice. The film was shown on TV and enjoyed great success in the non-theatrical market. It also won several wildlife film awards.

  • Song of the Paddle
    1978|40 min

    Mason had envisaged shooting three instructional films on canoeing and one on canoe-camping. The instructional series would eventually be expanded to four films (Path of the Paddle) and Mason would work with his wife and children to make Song of the Paddle to share their love of canoe-camping. The film won three Etrogs (the Canadian film awards precursor to the Genies) in the non-feature film category for direction, cinematography and sound editing. Mason would also release a book bearing the same title, which the press dubbed “a philosophical guide to outdoor living.”

  • Waterwalker
    1984|1 h 26 min

    In Waterwalker Mason was aiming for a visual poem on his love of nature and canoeing. The NFB was interested in a documentary for television but Mason was against this, deciding instead to shoot more footage and bring the film up to feature length for theatrical distribution. Some of the money had to come from a co-producing agency, IMAGO films, because many at the Film Board didn’t feel the film had enough potential. Even when shooting was finished, Mason had a great deal of trouble convincing his producers that his film had enough structure to make it interesting. Mason re-worked the film and wrote a new narration to complement what he had tried to capture visually. Bruce Cockburn was interested in the project and signed on to write and record the musical score. The result is a haunting work that blends seamlessly with the strong visuals. The film can best be described as an ode to the majesty of nature (Lake Superior in particular) and an affirmation of Mason’s strong religious beliefs. Mason canoes throughout Lake Superior and stops occasionally to paint a spectacular waterfall or other scene, all the while talking about spirituality in nature and humans. Unfortunately at the time of Waterwalker’s completion, the NFB was still only interested in selling the film to television. Consequently Mason resigned and bought the distribution rights himself. After premiering it at the 1984 Montreal World Film Festival, Mason rented a movie theatre in Ottawa and released the film commercially. It had an extended run in Ottawa and became a local hit (6 weeks). The film would eventually play commercially across the country. The film was also a huge success on the home video market and on television. It remains to this day (in my opinion) his greatest film and continues to be one of the NFB’s biggest sellers on DVD.