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May / 2003

remembering . . .
Eugene Boyko csc & Ernest McNabb csc

Canadian Filmmaking Loses Two of Its Finest

Both with Prairie roots and with contemporary careers at the National Film Board in Montreal, two brilliant cinematographers and CSC stalwarts have passed from the scene. The CSC sadly acknowledges the deaths of retired director/cameraman Eugene (Jeep) Boyko csc, a native of Saskatchewan, on March 14 at age 80, and Alberta-born IMAX specialist Ernest (Ernie) McNabb csc on April 4. He was 63. Each stamped his respective genius on Canadian filmmaking for all the world to see, and their outstanding contributions to the art and technology of motion pictures live on.

Eugene (Jeep) Boyko csc
Eugene (Jeep) Boyko csc

Jeep Boyko, raised in Saskatoon, was one of the finest and most prolific director/cameramen ever produced by the NFB. Over a 32-year career in Montreal and Vancouver, he was behind the camera for dozens of the Film Board’s influential documentaries and was especially recognized for one of the most entertaining, educational and visually dazzling films in the history of Canadian cinema — the 1967 Centennial tribute Helicopter Canada.

The 50-minute film, the first full-length, widescreen (Panavision) production ever to be filmed entirely from a helicopter, was nominated for an Oscar and won an Etrog at the Canadian Film Awards. It took Boyko 18 months, 542 air hours, 15,000 miles of travel, and 131,000 feet of 16mm and 35mm colour film to complete Helicopter Canada.

From 1955 through 1958, Boyko turned out some 30 widely diverse shows for the NFB’s Perspective television series, including, appropriately, Saskatchewan Traveller, which won the Canadian Film Award for best TV film in 1955. In 1957, he was one of the original members — with membership number 31 — of the fledgling Canadian Society of Cinematographers and was closely involved with the Montreal chapter. He was also a member of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

GROUNDED only momentarily, Jeep Boyko csc (left) takes a break with his chopper pilot and engineer during the shooting of the spectacular 1967 NFB film Helicopter Canada.
GROUNDED only momentarily, Jeep Boyko csc (left) takes a break with his chopper pilot and engineer during the shooting of the spectacular 1967 NFB film Helicopter Canada.

In 1972, he joined the NFB Regional Production Unit in Vancouver as technical producer. Administrative duties and assisting others with their projects — he was a mentor to up-and-coming filmmakers — gave him less time for his own camera work, but he still shot a number of films, one being the half-hour Canaries to Clydesdales that was notable for its realistic photography. He retired in 1983 in Richmond, B.C., as a CSC Full Life Member and later wrote to Roy Tash csc, then Society treasurer, that “I had my turn and enjoyed every moment.” He added: “As long as they keep calling me I’ll help anyone who wants to pick my brains.”

Bruce Worrall csc was one of those young cinematographers so honoured, while he was a student at Emily Carr College of Art and Design in 1986. “It was through the school or one of the teachers that I was introduced to Jeep,” the Vancouver DOP recalled for CSC News. “I was applying to the Canada Council for a grant to make a documentary in Nicaragua and Jeep agreed to look at a short film I had made.

“I had an old projector but no screening room, so we ended up in the house where I was renting a room, forced to project my film against the wall and baseboard. We both sat cross-legged on the floor, staring at an image not much bigger than 8"x10”. I never got the grant, but I was impressed with someone of his standing taking the time to come down to my level and offer his help.”

Boyko got the nickname Jeep when as a teenager he sang and played guitar in a band on a local radio station. Broadcaster Jack Wells tagged him with the name Jeep after a comic strip character of that era called Eugene the Jeep, and it stuck.

He worked at many different jobs across the country — salesman, welder, union organizer and taxi driver in Vancouver. Once, a few days after a fare left a camera in his cab, Jeep came across a streetcar accident, took some pictures and submitted them to a Vancouver newspaper. He was paid $5 and the editor encouraged him to pursue a career with a camera. He moved back to Saskatoon and worked with a local photo studio to learn his craft.

The Boyko Crane
The Boyko Crane

His first contact with the NFB was doing some stills for Grant McLean (later csc) and Gordon Burwash on a shoot in Saskatoon. In 1951 he joined the camera department as a summer casual, and stayed on for over three decades. He worked his way up to director/cameraman, and was part of about 130 documentaries shot in Canada, the United States, Europe, India, and Afghanistan. A number of these films won awards; Juggernaut, shot in India, won a CFA Etrog in 1969.

He also built what was known around the NFB as the Boyko Crane. Designed to be mounted on a tripod, it provided more camera flexibility on location when it was impractical to bring in bulkier and heavier gear.

In Toronto, former NFB colleague John Foster, another CSC original member, remembered Jeep as “one of the NFB camera department’s finest products. He was excellent — fastidious and meticulous.”

His work on Helicopter Canada, Foster said, was “the world’s first extensive use of a helicopter (a French Alouette) as a camera mount. The film delivered incredible movement shots, such as a close shot of a football centre snapping the ball to the quarterback, which cued the camera into flight to a long shot of the game and the stadium. It was Jeep’s love of perfection that made such films sing.”

Jeep Boyko is survived by his wife Delia (Del) and daughter Debbie, son Lee and grandsons Gabe and Tim. Del said her husband’s health had failed the last few years and then he fell and broke his hip and never recovered from the distress of the operation.

* * *

Ernie McNabb csc   Photo: John Narvali
Ernie McNabb csc
Photo: John Narvali

Ernie McNabb was presented with the CSC Kodak New Century Award in 1998 for outstanding contribution to the art of cinematography. The CSC News story at the time said Ernie “is to IMAX what film is to a camera. It’s hard to imagine one without the other.”

Today, the giant-screen format this inventive Quebec-based cinematographer worked for years to perfect is a little smaller with his loss. McNabb succumbed to pancreatic cancer after an illness of only four months, passing peacefully in bed after an adventurous career of buzzing around in aircraft, diving under ice and scaling mountains.

McNabb, who in recent years ran his large-format film company, Kinomax Cine Inc., out of Morin Heights, Que., came East to Montreal from Edmonton — he was born in Viking, Alta. — as a youngster with his family. He joined the National Film Board in 1960 as a technician in the engineering department, and stayed for the next 37 years.

At the NFB, he moved to production and found a niche in non-conventional cinematography, where he could make use of his electronics background, his knowledge of movie cameras, his interest in technology, and his taste for physical adventure. Over the years, his photographic diversity ranged from time-lapse to macrophotography, and various jobs found him hanging out of airplanes and helicopters and even diving under Arctic waters for a 1975 NFB documentary. It was the first-ever look at the underside of the polar ice cap.

He was camera and Wescam operator for the NFB’s award-winning film on the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, and filmed underwater sequences for the NFB co-produced documentary, The Mystery of the Bay Bulls (1979), which explored Canada’s oldest sunken shipwreck. Even before that, in 1973, McNabb worked on research and experimentation that resulted in a demonstration film in IMAX 3D, and subsequently was a consultant and designer on 3D film projects for the Disney Epcot Center, Marineland, Columbia Pictures and the Sudbury Science Centre.

Then came the presentation in IMAX 3D of the NFB film Transitions at Expo ’86 in Vancouver, on which McNabb was DOP and stereographer and for which he helped pioneer the stereoscopic IMAX camera rig. Several more IMAX and 35mm assignments as DOP and/or stereographer followed, while along the way he earned recognition for his equipment design work on IMAX’s 48-frames-per-second technology.

ON LOCATION at Angel Falls in Venezuela, DOP Ernie McNabb csc (left) pauses at the IMAX camera with Per-Inge Schei.
ON LOCATION at Angel Falls in Venezuela, DOP Ernie McNabb csc (left) pauses at the IMAX camera with Per-Inge Schei.

McNabb was president and CEO of Kinomax Cine, a company formed to help advance the large-format film industry. Kinomax Cine designed and built specialized film equipment such as helicopter mounts and gyro-stabilized camera platforms.

He is survived by his wife Susan and daughter Heather.

CSC Associate Per-Inge Schei of Toronto, one of McNabb’s close friends and IMAX collaborators, visited him just a few hours before he died. He was weak and did not want many visitors, Schei told CSC News, “but a few of his old friends from the NFB had been there the day before. When they arrived he looked at them and said: ‘What is this? A production meeting?’”

Schei said McNabb’s “understanding of mechanics and physics made him a creative and technical force when IMAX came to be.” He said his association with McNabb started on Emergency, a large-format film on which the latter was DOP and which opened the first IMAX theatre in Montreal.

“It was during this time that I started to learn about Ernie and the unique qualities he brought to the film industry. He knew what he was doing, and in the years of working with him as an assistant and later as a DOP I never heard him raise his voice or get mad.

“He was relentless in his pursuit of a proper solution to a problem or situation. There was no point in bringing a half-baked solution or proposition as he would pick it apart. I learned that early and it became a foundation of mutual trust.”

One problem that challenged McNabb’s ingenuity, said Schei, was “the lack of helicopter camera mounts to properly isolate the inherent high-frequency vibration artefacts from the final image. He came up with a technical solution and co-operated again with Wescam founder Noxon Leavitt (who was a gyro-stabilization consultant for Transitions) in making a mount for the NFB. In typical fashion, Ernie looked for a better and more compact solution. Another prototype was designed and put into use for the Japanese IMAX film Yangtze: The Great River of China.

“Kinomax’s Kinomount was born, and after some modifications that Ernie and I implemented, it was flown to Venezuela’s Angel Falls. By this time, we were working together like clockwork, and even though he was the DOP Ernie hardly ever looked through the camera. He knew what to expect by the lens chosen and how I pointed and operated the camera. A non-verbal communication and simple hand gestures often relayed the T-stop and other elements. To his credit, there was no ego to battle and he was perfectly willing to accept another proposed shot or solution to a problem if it appeared to be a bit better suited. As always on location, he became well respected by the local crew.

“From the rain-forest climate of Angel Falls we flew to the High Arctic for some aerials around Resolute Bay, the last location where we worked together. Ernie went to Guatemala and I had already agreed to be the DOP on a Dutch IMAX film shot on several continents. We had firm plans for the next three 15/70 films currently in the works at various stages, but now his loss has created a void I do not know how to fill.”

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