Magical movie moments

Introducing a 3D format that works

Published: Jul 04 2016, 01:01:am

Sunday, June 29, 1986.
DON'T BELIEVE YOUR EYES. They'll tell you that a teddy bear just rose off the toy factory assembly line.
    They'll tell you that it is now floating in the air and moving gently towards you, so close that you can actually touch it. Believe your eyes and you'll find yourself reaching out for it, caught up in the illusion and moved by the magic of the moment.
    Don't be embarrassed. Everybody who sees Transitions reaches for the teddy bear.
    The experience is sure to be every small child's single most treasured memory of Expo 86.
    Transitions, produced by the National Film Board of Canada, is the first live-action movie in the newly developed 3D IMAX process. Conceived and directed by Alberta-born film genius Colin Low, it is the premier motion picture at this world's fair.
    Sponsored by Canadian National, the crown corporation involved in railways and   telecommunications, Low's 21-minute movie is ostensibly about transportation. There are even some dynamic-looking trains among the subjects recorded by cinematographer Ernest McNabb, the film's director of stereoscopy.
    Here, though, the real subject is movie magic. A joyous, exuberant cinema experience, Transitions celebrates a major breakthrough in film technology — 3D that works.
    From the beginning, the whole point of stereoscopic filmmaking has been to create a depth dimension so real that the human eye could believe in images that the mind knows are illusory. Low, together with his Film Board team, does just that, combining mechanical expertise with a sense of elegant whimsey to produce a picture that is both an experiment and a demonstration of new potential.
    Their film is an inventory of breath-taking effects. From a fixed position, McNabb's camera puts dressed lumber, a gymnast and that wonderful teddy bear within our apparent reach.
    Parallel tracking shots follow voyageur canoes along a wilderness river, and an historic steam locomotive across the country. When McNabb tracks forward, the audience drives down a rural road behind a vintage automobile, trots around a track just inches ahead of a harness race horse and, briefly, sits astride a speeding motorcycle.
    (Aware of the general audience nature of the his production, Low avoids genuine shocks. The image clarity of 3D IMAX is so good that intense point-of-view material  — a roller coaster ride, for example — could easily induce cardiac arrest.)
    In another experiment, Low effectively divides his screen into quarters to offer four separate shots of cute kids eating. In still another, he shows the startling fantasy effects available with computer animation.
    On view at the 500-seat CN Theatre, Transitions is the highlight of Canada's classy national pavilion.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1986. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Earlier in this series, I wrote in an Afterword about Canada's IMAX Corporation and its continuing involvement with 3D filmmaking. Here, my focus is on Colin Low, a directorial innovator whose influence far exceeded his fame within the popular culture. It is his fellow filmmakers who know his name. American documentarist Ken Burns has acknowledged the Alberta-born Low's 1957 documentary City of Gold as the "key inspiration" for the photographic technique that has come to be known as "the Ken Burns effect." Anglo-American auteur Stanley Kubrick based his approach to special effects for his feature 2001: A Space Odyssey on Low's 1960 short subject Universe. (Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, both films were nominated in their respective years for the best short subject Oscar.)
    Colin Low was 19 when he went to work for the NFB, a young artist fresh out of the Calgary Institute of Technology with a talent for animation. He spent more than 60 years with the federal agency, producing, directing, innovating and teaching. Anticipating the Expo 86 theme, he made a cartoon in 1952 called The Romance of Transportation in Canada. It was the first NFB short nominated for an Academy Award in the animation category. Later, Low was an integral part of the team that created In the Labyrinth, the NFB's contribution to Montreal's Expo 67, and the first public demonstration of what would become the IMAX film format. Among that world's fair's most popular attractions, Labyrinth consisted of seven screens, three chambers and one overwhelming experience.
    Low's Labyrinth co-directors Roman Kroiter and Hugh O'Connor were convinced that big screens were the future of cinema and, together with Graeme Ferguson, they left to found the IMAX Corporation. Low stayed at the NFB, and together with John Kemeny started the Challenge for Change initiative, a socially responsible project that used media as a tool for participatory community development. A generation later, with IMAX ready for its transition to 3D, Low was the artist the corporation called upon to direct its debut, the 20-minute Expo 86 attraction Transitions, produced by the NFB for the Canadian National Railway. Colin Low died earlier this year (February 24, 2016) at the age of 89.

See also: The nine articles included in this, the second of four Expo 86 special reports, explore the pavilions of:

14: Expo 86 British Columbia
15: Expo 86 Canada/Washington State
16: Expo 86 Canada
17: Expo 86 California
18: Expo 86 Mexico/Cuba/USA