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Colin Low: Recollections from a Distinguished Career

Colin Low: Recollections from a Distinguished Career

Colin Low was a pioneer at the NFB and remains one of our most important filmmakers. His career with the Film Board began in 1945 when he enrolled in a summer training program set up by Norman McLaren with the aim of creating a Canadian animation facility.

Starting out as a graphic artist hand-lettering titles for films, he worked his way up the ranks and was officially recognized as a filmmaker in 1949. In 1950, he was appointed Head of the Animation Unit, where he directed and produced one of our most popular films, the award-winning short The Romance of Transportation in Canada (1953).

Throughout his career, he was a tireless innovator who produced quality films that were recognized the world over. They include Billy Crane Moves Away, The Hutterites, Universe, Corral and Moving Pictures. In the 50 years he worked at the NFB, his enthusiasm for cinema never waned. Even after he left the Film Board he continued to work in the field, experimenting with and developing new techniques for 3-D IMAX HD.

Colin Low is a legend. On February 15, 1996, his contribution to the world of cinema was recognized when he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. Anyone who has ever met him knows how intelligent, talented and charming he is. And boy, can he tell a good story.

This is his playlist. Enjoy the films and savour his recollections of shooting some of his, and the NFB’s, all-time classics.

Colin Low

  • Corral
    1954|11 min

    After I had been at the NFB four years, I went with my father to a cattle auction. (My father was the foreman on one of the largest cattle ranches in southern Alberta, the Cochrane Ranch.) I watched while several hundred head of ranch cattle were brought through the rain by the ranch hands. Wally Jensen was the top hand at the ranch. He was riding through the wet grass with his yellow dog at his side. A wave of nostalgia hit me that I had never felt before. The next summer I asked Wolf Koenig, a farm boy himself, if he would like to come with me to Alberta to make a film about a cowboy. He was delighted and we spent three weeks on the ranch. My father provided his top hand, Wally Jensen, and the horses.

    We made Corral in 1953. Wolf Koenig was in the NFB Animation Department and this was his first live-action shooting using a new Arriflex and a tripod with a gyro stabilizer. He was an amazing cinematographer! I had written a script but Wally Jensen re-wrote it while we worked.

    My father knew that we would work with about 20 horses and he urged us to work sensibly. He did not want the horses spooked. The horse that Wally chose was a young half-broken mare that he had not yet ridden. In the corral he used several horses for the roping shots so that the mare would not be hurt.

    The mounting of the horse for the camera surprised the horse so that she reared and then ran with the other horses as Wally had predicted. To do the long run at the end of the film, we took Midge, the horse, up to Waterton Park, where there was a paved highway without fences. We followed the flying run for a couple of miles with the camera in the ranch truck. Everyone thought we had a helicopter.

    Most of the shots in the corral were hand-held by Wolf standing behind or close to Wally or the snubbing post. The horses were mostly trained and were not hazardous to be around, but a certain amount of buffeting occurred. It was a corral that was used very often. We did not rush the shooting and often waited for the light and broken clouds to give us strong light and shade.

    I worried that we would need a fairly long narration to explain the process, but when I talked to Stanley Jackson at the screening of the cutting copy, he said, "This film doesn't need narration, it speaks for itself." Tom Daly, our producer, cut the film, and Wolf and I were in the cutting room and I must say that we learned a lot from Tom's skill and experience. Eldon Rathburn wrote the score for two jazz guitarists in Toronto based on several well-known cowboy songs. Most people seemed to like the simplicity of the film.

    The year that the film was finished, it won the documentary prize at Venice. I stopped worrying that we needed narration.

  • City of Gold
    1957|21 min

    One day I had a call from the head of photographs from Public Archives who wanted me to come over to look at stills photographs that had come down from Dawson City. There were 200 photographs shot by A. E. Hegg during the Gold Rush in 1898-99. They had been found some time before in wooden boxes in a sod-roofed log house. They were 8x10 glass plate negatives. These found their way to White Horse, where a representative from Ottawa Archives ordered a set. I called Wolf Koenig and Bob Verrall to come to Ottawa Archives to look at the prints. They were both excited. I decided to get Tom Daly involved and he was very impressed. We began to discuss Dawson City and found out that we knew nothing about it. Hugh O'Connor at the NFB knew a mounted policeman who had worked in Dawson City and invited him to come for dinner. He was full of incredible stories, and we decided we had to film in Dawson.

    In June, 1954 Wolf and I flew to Dawson City to make a film. Dawson was overwhelming in all respects. There was no night--just day. It was a ghost town. It was the headquarters of a big gold-mining company still working on the creeks with huge dredges and hydraulic operations. A thousand workers came in every summer and left in the winter. The gold-mining area was hundreds of square miles called "the creeks." There were hotels like Pearl's Harbour, a favourite of American flyers during the war, with a bar--no restaurant. There were three bars in Dawson, and one restaurant working continuously, run by a Japanese black belt called Mitch. He needed the belt! There was a large hospital and a court house that was in session with a judge trying a murder trial. We decided to take that in--after one morning we felt sick.

    The scale of everything was so huge and strange that we fell to arguing about what we should shoot or not shoot. There were too many visual riches. But, what was there of the Gold Rush? A lot of beautiful decayed abandoned buildings and a few ancient old men left from the Gold Rush. There were too many great photographic possibilities and some ancient old guys still panning gold if you could find them in the woods---and we did. One had been a silent movie comedian, Pete Huley, who still claimed that Charlie Chaplain stole his style and walk. He was authentic and there was a film in the Nugget Theatre, we were told. Pete was certain that we had come to work with him. He had a script ready.

    An old man named Lorenz talked in German with Wolf. He had fought with the American Cavalry in the Geronimo and Sitting Bull wars, and we were certain from his stories that he had! Doctor Roux confirmed this with not a moment’s hesitation. We were angry that we did not have sync sound equipment. The mythology of Dawson was extravagant.

    We were in Dawson six weeks and shot two films, Gold and City of Gold. There were all the stills to deal with--mountains of them and I found more in Edmonton as we were coming home.

  • Universe
    1960|28 min

    When I was in Paris in 1949, I met Berthold Bartosch, the famous pioneer animator. He was planning a new film that he said was on the cosmos. His equipment was very simple but very ingenious, and he showed me how he planned to execute it with three-dimensional models. I was struck by his audacity and ingenuity. Afterwards I thought about him frequently as our equipment at the NFB developed.

    When Roman Kroitor told me about his idea for a film about an astronomer, he said, "Why not experiment?" So we started in an old garage behind the NFB. I remembered some of Bartosch's ideas on time exposure and the importance of extreme depth of field. The 35 mm rushes on asteroids began to look very good in action. The asteroids were clinkers from the furnace travelling on a panner that we built for Grant Munro for a puppet film that he was making. His cameraman was Herb Taylor, and Herb became one of the cameramen for Universe.

    When we moved to Montreal, we had a good studio close to the Animation Department. Sydney Goldsmith could experiment with effects, and Gerry Graham and Des Dew found a British special effects expert from England, Wally Gentleman.

    On and off we experimented, and our cutting copy looked better and better. When the first Sputnik went into outer space, management at the Film Board suddenly got interested. What was to be a little classroom lesson became a production! Roman Kroitor and Dennis Gillson had shot a great live-action sequence of the astronomer and the observatory. I had pushed for lighting that would match the spectacular effects.

    Eldon Rathburn wrote the score and recorded it in England, and the narrator was Douglas Rain, a Stratford Shakespearian actor. The narration was written by Roman Kroitor and Stanley Jackson. Tom Daly was the watchful producer from the beginning. It was exciting to see it come together. I watched the film not long ago, and I think that Berthold Bartosch would have been proud.

    Universe has a simplicity, clarity and accuracy that films from space and the computer have not quite managed yet. I think!

  • The Days of Whiskey Gap
    1961|28 min

    After City of Gold I tried hard to find another Canadian gold mine archive of photographic or drawn graphic material that would make a film. I looked at the archive of the Mounted Police and the Calgary archives. They had a few photographs that I copied. Then I found a book called Whoop Up Country by Paul Sharp, published in 1955, that revitalized my interest. I found another book that mentioned Henri Julien, the young French-Canadian newspaper illustrator that had accompanied the Mounted Police going west to record their trek in detail. I decided that there was enough pictorial material to begin work.

    In a trip to Alberta I talked to old timers--very old timers such as Ellis Henri. I had gone to school very close to Whiskey Gap with several of his twelve children. Whiskey Gap was an historic valley through the Milk River Ridge where much of the early history had occurred.

    I worked with Tom Daly, John Spotton and Roman Kroitor to make a television film in the style of the Candid Eye Series. I interviewed many people in the Canadian West and Montana, USA. While it was fascinating history, it was also disappointing because some people had wonderful stories but they had lost their verbal skills or memories… A very few were GOOD storytellers. They were not affected by the presence of the camera, our film crew or myself. There were very old people who had lived before the end of the nineteenth century. Pure gold! I wanted authentic people only, not fictional people. They existed!

    There was careful editorial selection by my colleagues, a narration by Stanley Jackson and a musical score by Soapy Douglas.

    The film won a prize for television at Cannes. Some American critics thought that it was anti-American. I still don't think that fifty years later.

  • Circle of the Sun
    1960|29 min

    My father was the foreman of the Cochrane Church Ranch, and he knew many Blood Indians since childhood. He introduced me to Jim Whitebull in 1953, the year that we made Corral. We visited the Sun Dance that year, and I met Shot Both Sides at the Sun Dance camp. In 1956 and 1957 we filmed the Sun Dance footage, which became Circle of the Sun, and was completed in 1959. It was a long-term project. Jim Whitebull was very helpful in all respects. He was patient and thoughtful.

    I was less interested in the rituals of the Sun Dance and fully aware of why they were out of bounds. I needed to find a young person that was able to express the ethos of the culture without the detail. Almost accidentally I found this in one person, Pete Standing Alone. We needed to include some of the modern details of the Blood Indians. I chose an oil well exploration on the reserve, not aware that oil would become part of the future economy and eventually a long-term potential problem as it is today. In making the film I met many people on the Blood reservation. I found them very supportive. Pete literally became part of the crew.

    When we finished cutting the film in 1959, I asked a writer director who was a senior filmmaker, Stanley Jackson, to write the narration. He felt he could not do it without talking to the participants. I had recorded an off-the-cuff conversation with Pete and so I played it back to Stanley. Stanley was intrigued so we had Pete come to Montreal for ten days. After working on the movieola and in the cutting room, Stanley and Pete went into the studio, and after a couple of tries, Pete read the commentary that he had almost memorized. It was a splendid, natural delivery and we were delighted with it. Pete's participation in the film was extensive. In this film I learned the importance of the happy participation of the subjects in a documentary and I tried to expand that experience in my career in films that I directed or produced or in which I was consultant.