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March / 2010

The Personal Vision of
Christopher Chapman, CM, RCA, CSC, CFE

This abridged interview, recorded in 1989 and transcribed by Patricia Thompson, the late editor of Film Canada Yearbook, was conducted by Gerald Pratley, then head of the Ontario Film Institute. It was edited by Risa Shuman and Gerald Pratley, with additional material by Christopher and Francis Chapman and Wyndham Wise, 2010. Ontario Film Institute.

Christopher Chapman
Christopher Chapman
Christopher Chapman was born in Toronto, on January 25; his twin, Francis was born January 24, 1927. They are the sons of the distinguished Toronto architect Alfred Chapman. His first film, The Seasons, purchased by Imperial Oil, won the Canadian Film of the Year in 1954, and A Place to Stand received two Academy Award nominations and won the Oscar for Best Live-Action Short in 1968.

Chapman was the first Canadian filmmaker to receive an Oscar outside of the NFB. A Place to Stand was also named Canadian Film of Year at the Canadian Film Awards (CFA). He was awarded the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts medal for distinguished contribution to the art of cinematography and presented with the first Ontario Film Institute Award for his distinguished achievements and significant contribution to the development of the Canadian film. He is the recipient of the 1967 Centennial Medal, the 1977 Jubilee Medal and the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation. Chapman was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1987, and awarded a Doctor of Laws by Ryerson University in 2000.

His variety of projects include films in 16 mm, 35 mm, 70 mm, Multi-Dynamic Image, 3D in 35 and 70 mm, IMAX and multi-media. He has created major films for expositions, film companies, corporations, NASA and governments, both federal and provincial. In most of Christopher Chapman's films, he has acted as creator, director, cinematographer, editor, and in a number of cases producer or co-producer. For a number of years Christopher and his wife Barbara-Glen lived on a farm in an early Ontario stone house near Sunderland, Ontario. They are now enjoying retired life in Uxbridge.

GP How did you get your start making films at a time when there was no appreciable film industry in Canada?

CC I had been in advertising for six years. I found that I just didn't like advertising at all. I didn't like the whole concept of advertising, and there was something inside of me fighting it all the time. I liked the company I was with and I enjoyed the kind of work I was doing, but the reason for it really bothered me. Had I stayed another year, I would have probably resolved my doubts and continued. So I made a very quick decision to leave and buy a camera, a basic Bolex with a wind-up 'motor.' I was not a film buff. I had not even taken still photography, but I was searching for a medium of expression, and film had a ready fascination for me. I bought a very basic camera and went up to a cottage my father had on Lake Simcoe and settled down for the winter, not really thinking that I could make a film. But I wanted to explore my relationship to the motion picture camera and, in a sense, what I felt was its relationship to me.

I've since shot all my own films, and I am still learning about cinematography. I wanted to convey and share with people what excited me about winter, because winter to me is a very beautiful season and very few of us have a chance to see the beauty in it. So that's what The Seasons [1953] became and how it started, but I still didn't believe I was making a film as such. It was a film without words, except for the introduction. The only person I knew who had any remote connection with film was Gerry Moses of Imperial Oil. I showed it to him, running the music by hand off vinyl records. He went to bat for it and Imperial Oil bought it. So then I could afford to 'marry' the music and picture, which I did at Crawley's Studio. Even then I wasn't terribly sure about going into the film business because I didn't want to go right back into the kind of thing I was doing in advertising, which would have meant making films for the sake of making films. I wanted to make the kind of films I believed in.

GP Obviously it took you a year to shoot The Seasons. During this time were you doing any other work?

CC No, I had saved enough money to live in this one spot very simply, with enough to buy a very small amount of film to shoot The Seasons. I didn't know where I was going from there at all. I was deeply involved in environmental issues.

GP Had you been going to see films in cinemas and where did your ideas and knowledge come from?

CC I was exploring film from an intuitive point of view. I really didn't study other people's work or see many films. After The Seasons, I was classed as a naturalist - a nature photographer, and in fact I was very involved in environmental issues.

GP You must have been tremendously buoyed by the success of The Seasons, winning the 1954 Canadian Film Award, and having it purchased by Imperial Oil. Then you must have started to think - what shall I do next? And you turned your attention to Quetico?

CC: After The Seasons, Budge Crawley hired me to shoot a film celebrating the Province of Saskatchewan [Canadian Wheat, 1956]. It was good experience, but I wanted to make another film over which I had full control. Quetico was my opportunity.

Quetico National Park had been set aside [by the province] before Algonquin Park, somewhere in the early 1900s. It was forgotten because there was no access to it. It was a real wilderness park adjacent to another park the Americans set up on the border with Minnesota. When the open pit mine in Atikokan began operations, it meant Quetico was opened up and there was talk of commercializing it. The Quetico Foundation was established to promote Quetico as a wilderness area, and I was asked if I would make a film. This was an exciting possibility, and I replied, 'Well, you do the campaign telling people why we should preserve it. I'd like to just make a film about the mood of Quetico and the magic of canoeing.' They paid the material costs, and I put my own time into it - which was considerable - and we shared the cost of the film this way.
I had heard about a man called Bill Mason, in Winnipeg, who was a canoeist. He had apparently loved The Seasons and was delighted to accept when I asked him to join me in Quetico. At the time he was on the verge of getting into film. He joined me, and I made Quetico [1958] with him as the canoeist. It took us six weeks to shoot. I just used one person because had there been two of us before the camera, it would become a film about people rather then relating the wilderness to this one person, this superb canoeist. After that, Bill joined the Film Board to make a number of extremely successful films.

GP You attempted, through images, to show why Quetico should be preserved as a park.

CC That's exactly right. Most of my films have been without words, and I have always been excited by the fact that the magic of film comes from its visual power; if you set the right mood, it becomes something that gets inside of you. I found it very interesting showing Quetico to schoolchildren. Being a slow-moving film, I thought they would find it a bit boring. But the kids I talked to were quite involved. They weren't being told anything; they were being allowed to imagine they were having their own adventures when watching the screen. This strengthened my feeling that certain films could be very strong without words.

I first did a number of film assignments for Crawley Films. I think I joined Budge and Judith for about eight months, but I moved on because I didn't want to be given films I didn't believe in. Then the Film Board, which was kind of a god to me, came and asked if I would make a film for them. They gave me a clear feeling of freedom, and I started to make A Persistent Seed in a secure frame of mind. It's called 'persistent' because it's concerned with the seed within children, within nature, within the city and so on. But it turned out to be an unsettling experience. I took it to the Film Board after editing and they wanted me to analyze what I had done and why, which I couldn't do. I felt very discouraged, because I thought I'd made a film that was working, but with all their committees it never seemed quite to function. So I left it at the Film Board. A year later I called them and said, 'This film is still inside of me. What have you done?' They had done nothing. They had put it in the stock shot library.

I took it out again and put it together, and in a way it turned out to be the same film. I took it back to the Film Board feeling a little silly - and they loved it. It went from committee to committee, and was passed by all of them. Then they said, 'We want to show it to one other group.' One of the top executive producers analyzed and described it to this new group, and I sat there stunned that he could read into this film so many extraordinary psychological interpretations. I always felt strange at the Film Board. I've never been able to write about what I'm going to do. If I could convey in words what I want to express, I wouldn't be making films.

In the first run through of The Persistent Seed, I had a rain sequence: the rain was in the city, in the concrete, in the people, and during the thunderstorm, in the glass, then cutting to a storm in the country to a rather wonderful and dramatic moment when a cow was giving birth to twin calves in the storm. I thought this a fairly emotional and really quite exciting, these patterns of life. Because I had shown the calves being born, the Board said it wouldn't distribute the film in schools unless the scenes came out. I think Bill Mason (as well as many others) did find the formula by which he could work for and through the Board, but I never did. The Persistent Seed was finally released with modifications.

Some time before that, I was asked by the Department of Parks in Ottawa to make a film, which became known as The Enduring Wilderness [1963], about the National Parks. I knew it had to go through the Film Board. So I tried to write what I thought they wanted. The Film Board said, 'This isn't good enough, so we will rewrite it.' I phoned the Parks Department and asked them to approve whatever script the Board gave them but I would make the film they wanted. The people at Parks agreed, and I went out and shot the film and came back thinking I was going to edit it. The Board told me, 'We don't believe that cameramen should edit their own work. That will be done internally.' Finally the film came out, The Enduring Wilderness, and it had 'directed by Christopher Chapman.' I said I wanted my credit removed. It was nothing to do with whether the film was good or bad. I filmed it, but it was not put together the way I intended. It's these practices that made me feel so discouraged about the NFB. Of course, the idea of cameramen editing their own work is accepted now.

GP After The Enduring Wilderness, you moved from nature to the work of the world-famous Toronto sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle.

CC I've never felt much separation between doing something on people and then doing something on nature. My love and feeling for nature doesn't preclude me feeling the same emotions for people. It became a very natural subject to explore, and I was very glad to do it. It was a Telescope film in black and white for the CBC [Ed's note: an anthology series of in-depth profiles, 1963-73]. At the time Fletcher Markle was the host and Francis, my brother, came in with me. Frances Loring and Florence Wyle were very elderly at that time. They lived in a renovated church in downtown Toronto. We spent an enormous amount of time going over their history with them, tape recording and trying to find a way to make this film work.
I felt very responsible, knowing what these artists had meant to so many people in Canada and the world of art. Wyle was particularly confused. How do you respect that and make something to bring out the wonderful feelings those people had? I remember when I was editing the film, I became aware of the difficulties I was facing. This could quite easily have become a film about two funny old biddies.

The argument I had with the producers over Loring and Wyle [1963] was the cost of the film. They were paying $7,000, and I said, 'I can't do it for that, so grant me the 16-mm rights beyond TV,' which after a great deal of bother, they agreed. I was out about $10,000, but the film had to be right and I was willing to work this way. I hoped the Film Board might buy it from me as a record for their files. They looked at it, but didn't take it. So I still have the film, and it is a piece of archival work.

GP Was this the first time your brother Francis joined you?

CC Yes, Francis had been on the perimeter of films with me, and he'd been in his own right an independent producer/director in television for the CBC, BBC and later TVO. I enjoyed making the film with him.

GP Who backed Expedition Bluenose (1964), your film on the famous Canadian schooner, Bluenose II?

CC It was Maurice Taylor's project assisted by John Trent. Former RAF pilot, Ian McBean had spent 25 years studying the history of the treasures that were supposed to be hidden on Cocos Island, a remote island in the Pacific during the plundering of the Spanish Main. A lot of gold was thought to be hidden, and McBean was trying to get the CBC interested in making a film. But they couldn't justify it. Then Taylor came up with the idea that as Bluenose II was about to be launched on its maiden voyage, perhaps the two topics could be combined. I remember going down to Lunenberg in January. It was terribly cold and here was this little ship all cover in ice and snow. I felt that the story had to begin at Lunenberg with Bluenose II. We set sail, with Angus Walters, the skipper of the original Bluenose, on board as a passenger, between Lunenberg and Bermuda.

The voyage was marred somewhat by a terrible hurricane, but we got through. Being with Captain Angus Walters during the hurricane - the worst storm he said he had experienced - was one of the most memorable events of my life. He was 82. I was the only member of the film crew on board this leg of the trip. We all joined up in Jamaica. Then we sailed through the Panama Canal into the Pacific, to Costa Rica, and then off to Cocos. It was a marvellous trip but when I got back home, I was done in and completely exhausted; yet, I had to plunge right into the editing. I just had to literally throw the film together; there was little time to get it on air. It just killed me because I knew we could do more with it. Extraordinary things happened on the trip that we were unable to show. There were interesting subtleties that required more time to make them work, and I abandoned them. What was required was a film that was just a big adventure, and so I cut it that way.

GP Now we arrive at your masterwork, A Place to Stand (1967). When the Ontario government asked you to make this film, where you told what kind of film was required or was the concept of the split screen entirely your own?

CC It all began because I wanted to make a film about Canada. Bell Telephone and the Telephone Association said they were interested in a film for their pavilion for Expo '67 so Francis and I did some research into multi-image and made a presentation. In the end, Bell chose Disney over us. Later, when the Ontario government came along with an idea for a film for Expo 67, I said 'yes.' They were already far behind, even in coming up with ideas. I spoke to Barry Gordon, and he joined us and investigated the possibilities of multiple optical printing on a single frame. As you know, split screen is an old technique. What's original about A Place to Stand is that no one before 1967 had taken the technique and woven it as a tapestry into a complete idea. It almost becomes a subliminal experience, because no one can really see all the moving images but our eyes take them in simultaneously.

A Place to Stand includes the technique of multiple screens (where multiples are important to the story). It goes from a single large or small screen to as many as 15 small screens. Images within each screen are carefully tailored to move in relation to each other. The series can change shape and move in relation to camera movement. All these techniques combine to create a new language to film, like reading whole sentences instead of individual words. Gordon found a company in Los Angeles, Film Effects of Hollywood, willing to take on the optical printing that we couldn't do in Toronto or anywhere else in Canada. (The film was to be shot in 35 mm and optically printed onto 70 mm.) I then settled down to planning what to put into a film about Ontario.

I was given an absolute free hand by the ministry, which was a tremendous asset. It scared me though, because I had no way to show what I was doing. I wrote 350 pages. They didn't mean anything to anybody, except me. Nobody else understood them and [executive producer] David Mackay never saw them, and certainly government officials never saw them; if they had, they would have been scared stiff. I had to believe in it myself. It was like writing music. Gordon took my original charts and transposed them for the technicians doing the optical printing.

Getting back to the shooting, I worked out exactly what I want to film in Ontario. But while I go with a certain plan, I never let that plan keep me from being alert to changes that might turn up. I don't want to miss something that may be far more important than what I originally envisioned for the film. This kind of film has to evolve. I also had to believe, as I try to believe each time that the film is already complete; it's out there, and I am the process by which it comes through. When I start interfering with the way things are, the film will go wrong. I find that when I edit a film, three or four frames make a difference between scenes working or not working. When I was writing the charts, little things like moving a frame this way, or so many feet that way, and recalling that this shot was 96 frames long and that one overlaped by 10 frames, and so on, all had to be imagined. I had to see the film in my head without the benefit of seeing it on the editing machine.

While I know nothing about writing music, I think my charts became almost like writing music. A composer hears all his or her music and knows what he or she is doing. I could see and actually hear the film, but if I thought about it, I was scared stiff because I had never worked that way before. It was impossible to preview a multi-image film on a Moviola. All the footage I brought back from location seemed to me like a huge container of energy and I felt like the Inuit who takes a rock and starts chipping away at it and then discovers that there is a bear waiting to be released. It was like that with me. I was screening and screening and screening and gradually chucking out this and that, and moving this and that. It was scary, because it was not like a script. I had nothing to hang on to, nothing to go back to. It was pure feeling. Sometimes I would be editing, and the film was conveying feeling, but sometimes it was just pieces of celluloid that meant nothing. Then there's the wonderful moment in which the film suddenly says, 'Here I am, this is what I want to be.' It comes in every film, but in A Place to Stand it was a monumental moment, because it really did say, 'This is what I want to be.' It was like the genie coming out of the bottle, and I just let it come. I knew that I wouldn't have the time to make changes. All the film went down to the optical printers in Los Angeles, and if it didn't work it could have been an absolute mess.

GP It must have aged you considerably.

CC I was ill at the end. Ken Healey-Ray did a superb job with the sound, and David Mackay met several different composers whose work he listened to. We finally decided on Dolores Claman and Richard Morris, whose song became part of the film's success. Again, I didn't want to make a film with narration. The song was fine, but we were communicating to the world with images, one of many exciting things about Expo. No matter who the audience is in any part of the world, it can relate to this film because of people working and playing; it's amazing how much industry there is in A Place to Stand, woven into nature, into work, into play.

At the beginning I said to Barry Gordon, 'I want the biggest screen on which to paint a film mural.' Not because I wanted the biggest screen for its own sake, but because I wanted space. I had a mock-up of the Expo theatre and its 66-foot screen with the places where people would sit, to see whether there would be distortion form here or there and I realized that it took my eye half-a-second to cross 66 feet if I wanted to go from one side of the screen to the other, which is 12 frames in editing. So I worked carefully with all these factors in mind, with that responsibility to the audience. It was exciting to know that it was to be shown only in one theatre at Expo (I never expected it to go anywhere else) and to know what the theatre was going to be like - the size of the screen, the sound system, and all these components.

I felt it was important that everybody in the Ontario Pavilion theatre was going to have a chance to experience all of these things. After Expo, it was printed in 35-mm anamorphic, and had wide distribution and exhibition through Columbia Pictures. Then it sold like hot cakes in 16 mm. All my concerns with style, form and pacing went out of the window. But my attention to these concerns was important initially and played a vital part in my attempts to avoid visual confusion for the spectators. Remember, there's an hour-and-three-quarters of film running in 17-and-a-half minutes. When it was finished, I was afraid I had failed. I remember being at Todd-AO in Los Angeles when we did the final mix and got the print. As I was leaving the theatre, desperately depressed by it, two stenographers - they were eating lunch - came out from the screening and both had tears in their eyes. I thought, 'maybe it was working.'

I had no idea A Place to Stand was going to be the success it turned out to be; people came to me and told me what happened to them during the film. That's when I felt excited and thought it must have come close to what I intended. I consider it a personal work even though I know it was a glossy picture of Ontario. But then we were celebrating. and I felt it was a time in which we could say we were proud of Ontario. No one told me to do this. I felt that way. I felt it deeply.

Everything I do is personal, but somehow with this film, with the extra freedom I had, something happened. I learned and discovered something that was exhilarating, which is that it is not who makes the film; something happens beyond me and if I can get in tune with this and believe in it, then creation takes place. As you know, many filmmakers then adopted multi-dynamic image even though few understood it. Multi-dynamic image, as I called it, is a wonderful language and an effective teacher, but one has to respect it and be very, very careful.

GP You say that filmmakers who use it don't understand it, and I agree with you. But how do you understand it other than what you have already told us? In what way do you see it as being a wonderful language? How do these images moving across the screen and all this translate for you into a language?

CC I don't think I can put it into words. I guess it's like somebody having the ability to make a painting. It is very intuitive. Steve McQueen saw A Place to Stand when we were down at Todd-AO. He was one of the few people in Hollywood who seemed to understand it in its real sense, not just as a gimmick. He wanted to film Le Mans in multi-dynamic image, and I told Steve that he was going about it the wrong way. It was much too big a film, with too many writers; it wouldn't work that way. We would end up destroying what both he and I felt. He was very disappointed, but he agreed. I liked him very much as a person. Norman Jewison wanted me to work with him when I was down in Hollywood doing The Happy Time with [Broadway producer] Gower Champion, but I wasn't able to. I saw Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair about 10 years later, and I was quite interested with the way multi-dynamic image had been used. It showed signs of working in the way it could be used more effectively.

GP There's one aspect about your comments on A Place to Stand that I'm not sure about. You were talking about your charts - what came first, the footage or the charts?

CC The footage came first because it is the footage you collect that dictates the charting. When shooting an ordinary film, one normally starts the camera when the action starts and stops it when the action stops. In every case for A Place to Stand I would try and get cameras going before the action began and hold it long after the action had ceased. Almost every shot was twice as long as it normally would be, because in multi-image one can't have action in all the screens (except under certain circumstances), otherwise it would utterly confuse the viewer. These were the important things one had to consider, when shooting for multi image projection.

There were a few times on location when I immediately knew how I wanted to use the footage I was shooting. For example, when I went up to Sudbury to film the coke ovens, the big vertical ovens pushing the coke out. It was exciting because suddenly I could see seven or eight vertical coke ovens on the 66-foot screen - one would pour, the next one slightly later, and then the next one a little later to that one so that it would flow across the screen like a ribbon. They were all the same shot, just staggered. Take the little boy with the geranium. I knew he had to go across the screen, as a sort of punctuation. Those are some of the things I saw on location and I would know instinctively that they were destined to work in certain ways.

GP Like Norman McLaren, you must be something of a mathematician. How did you cope with all this?

CC Your observation goes back to my days when I was in advertising. I was hopeless at school, and at mathematics; but I became what they call a 'paper engineer' - doing structural things with paper and cardboard in which I had to make things very strong out of flimsy material. My mathematics consisted of cutting out pieces of paper and folding them into divisions - just purely a game, and my own way of doing things. Barry Gordon helped me in one sense by showing me the mathematics of dividing up 35-mm and 70-mm frames so that I could tell him in numbers what part of the 35-mm frame I wanted with other figures indicating what part of the 70-mm frame the 35-mm frames were to be printed on. Then I had to work it all out in my studio and I don't even remember how I did it, but I developed a system that worked for me. Now, of course, with computers, it could be fairly straightforward.

GP How did your film for Expo 70, in Osaka, Japan, come about?

CC I was in Los Angeles working on The Happy Time when James Ramsay came down and persuaded me to come back to Toronto to do an Ontario film for Expo 70 in Japan. I knew in a sense that I was asking for trouble; but I was keen to communicate to Oriental audiences because I felt there was something in the relationship between nature and man, and work and play, which was universal. I felt I would like to try this again.

GP You didn't want to repeat yourself. You didn't want another 'Ontari-ari-ario.'

CC No! Actually, I was thinking lyrically; I wanted to take big pan shots and move them slowly across the screen. And I went out and did this. It was not going to be A Place to Stand and it wasn't going to be music from one end to the other. I wanted to take pieces of a music camp up north, or a June Mardi Gras in Ottawa, or the calliope in Western Ontario - all this things that gave it a spirit somewhat different from A Place to Stand. Bill McCauley was musical director and worked closely with me composing the linking music. I was asked to make a longer film, which was fatal; the crowds were just too big for anything longer. Francis joined me, and we called the film Festival.

The first thing James Ramsay from the ministry did at the initial screening in Toronto was to give out a questionnaire asking audiences to compare it to A Place to Stand, which just killed me. The whole idea of even trying to compare the two was the wrong way to go about it. Anyway, it obviously wasn't A Place to Stand, and was never intended to be. So it went to Japan - the longer version - [but] the Ontario Pavilion was an absolute disaster. And I was tied in with its program. There was a monumental multi-slide show that didn't work properly, and it was confused with my film. I went to Japan feeling very depressed after hearing all the bad publicity in Ontario, but in Japan I was greeted warmly and they said the film was an enormous success. The theatre was supposed to hold 650 people, but 1,200 were trying to get in. There were several items in the papers about the success of the film, and it raised my spirits somewhat. Some reviewers considered it one of the most Japanese of all the films at Expo. But despite the fact it won an award at Expo, the ministry considered the whole venture a failure and they didn't even announce the award.

GP And you've never been asked to make a film for Ontario since?

CC Oh, no, and it would be wrong for me to do another. There are great young talents who should be given a chance. But I will say this, Ontario Place was built and put up entirely as a result of the success of Expo 67. They had Cinesphere, but they weren't going to put in an IMAX screen. IMAX was nearly bankrupt. I convinced Ontario Place that an IMAX system should be included on the grounds that it is a very exciting new medium; it's Ontario, and it's going to be sold to the States if they don't adopt it. So they decided to install an IMAX projection system. In 1973 the new director of Ontario Place, Ian McLennan, asked me to do Toronto the Good, a multi-media show using 36 slide projectors in combination with 35-mm film, and I enjoyed working with Francis again. It was done in remarkably short time, and the possibilities were so exciting; the film part was going to be there all the time, but over the seasons we could change all the slides. They were designed for that purpose, so there was always something new. It did very well and there were some tremendously nice comments.

Then, suddenly, I was asked if I would go to the volcanic eruption on the island of Heimaey off the coast of Iceland. We had been talking about the idea of making five-minute films on IMAX of natural phenomena, which would gradually be connected together in one big film. During the discussion of this idea, the volcanic eruption occurred. I rushed off with an assistant cameraman, Averill Townsend, from New York who knew IMAX. There was just the two of us. Volcano must be by far the cheapest thing that's ever been made in IMAX.

GP With Volcano were you involved with Graeme Ferguson and IMAX?

CC No, it was the Ontario Place Corporation. It was a case of renting the camera and going off and doing it. And, as you know, the secret to IMAX is a huge frame running horizontally, and it is quite phenomenal. It doesn't have an intermittent movement in the projector, but the camera does, and so I had an enormous amount of trouble in those days. The IMAX cameras are more reliable now. This was in January and the temperature alternated between extreme cold to extreme heat. The camera finally just wouldn't work at all. I got into the Mayor's office of the little town of Heimaey, which was partially destroyed by the volcano, and found the phone line was still open. The town had been totally evacuated.

I phoned Galt, Ontario, and tried to get a hold of Bill Shaw, the guy who built the camera. I found him in San Diego, California. We went over the camera piece by piece. Finally, after three-quarters of an hour on the telephone, Bill said, 'it sounds like it should work.' Meanwhile, this volcano was bellowing and screaming like mad crying out to be filmed and I had no camera. Because it runs at such a high speed, the loop, which saves it from jamming, was just not functioning. It was two in the morning when we finally got going. Here was this huge energy, throwing up all this fire and rock, burying man's world, yet creating a new one. It was a very emotional moment. I only had enough film for 15 minutes, and I edited it down to seven minutes. A 1,000-foot roll of IMAX film, which is like a small spare tire, lasts only as long as 100 feet of 16 mm. You can fill your pockets with 100-foot rolls of 16 mm, but you are absolutely stuck when it comes to IMAX.

The volcano
Volcano: "The volcano was bellowing and screaming like mad crying out to be filmed and I had no camera. It was two in the morning when we finally got going," Christopher Chapman csc

GP Before Toronto the Good and Volcano, you did a film for the Hudson's Bay Company, is that not correct? What was it called?

CC Impressions 1670-1970 [1970]. We were asked to make this film for the Hudson's Bay Company and they didn't have any plans whatsoever. They wanted it for their 300th anniversary party. There is no commentary, but I have quotations covering the whole 300 years, which I thought was a nice touch. I was amused to discover that [the famous British architect] Christopher Wren was on the committee of the original Hudson's Bay Company.

GP Were many of the ideas that you thought about for your Expo 67 film incorporated into your next film, Canada (1973), even though it wasn't a 70-mm split-screen film?

CC Canada fell together fairly rapidly. Again, it had to be done in a short time and it was a small budget. BP, who sponsored it, were saying, 'we are here in Canada' and they wanted to make a gesture; they wanted it in 35 mm mainly because in Europe everything is done in 35 mm, and it was going to be for European exhibition. In Canada, they would only distribute it in the provinces where BP operated, so it wasn't shown out West. I felt a little uncomfortable about this film because there wasn't much time to delve into the subject and do the kind of film I really feel about Canada. In that way, I know it didn't do justice to certain areas. I didn't want to highlight provinces, just Canada.

GP Two films that might be described as being outside your usual orbit are "Anthony Burgess' Rome," (1979), one of the John McGreevy's Cites series, and your first feature film, Kelly (1981), which also turned out to be Famous Players first and only feature film.

CC "Rome" might be described as my steppingstone to Kelly, although it was not a feature film. Anthony Burgess hardly needed any directing form the acting point of view because he just had to be Anthony Burgess. Once again, "Rome" was one of those projects where the director finds himself called upon to shoot a film within two weeks, without a script and with an individual he has never met before. We met Anthony at five o'clock one afternoon in Rome and we were scheduled to start shooting at seven the next morning. I thought the producer, who was with us, had been in touch with him and had gone over everything with him, but this turned out not to be the case. So Francis and I had to start from scratch and improvise everything over the two-week period - a very intense couple of weeks.

GP Who planned out what should be seen in Rome? Did you go where Burgess wanted to go?

CC That's right. And it had to be done in a literary sense with him because that was the way he thought, the way he approached everything. When it came to editing the film, I followed his pattern of development. It didn't make a film at all, but I found it highly interesting. I then had to forget the literary pattern and cut it as a film. I believe it said exactly what Burgess wanted to say, at least I hope it did.

GP It was a film so alive, vividly photographed and with an immediate sense of place. It was much better than the others in the series.

CC The images dictated to a certain extent which way the film was going, if you make allowances for and take into consideration what Burgess was talking about - not off-screen but on camera. We were tied to this course, and it became a difficulty. If one hasn't shot enough material, then you've nowhere to go in the editing. Fortunately, we did add bits of shooting when he was in the distance talking, so we could use it without worrying about lip-sync. I loved the idea of films about cities; once again I enjoyed the freedom to be the complete filmmaker.

George Clutesi and Twyla-Dawn Vokins in Christopher Chapman's Kelly, DOP Paul Van der Linden csc.
Volcano: "George Clutesi and Twyla-Dawn Vokins in Christopher Chapman's Kelly, DOP Paul Van der Linden csc.

GP The circumstances were not quite so favourable for Kelly.

CC That was a film that raised my spirits but dashed them just as often, and in the end it didn't work and I know why. At first I was ecstatic about being able to at last work with a big crew and with actors. I found it exciting that, with a dramatized feature, the director is more like an orchestra leader with all the talents tuned-up and ready to be formed into a whole. My previous films were all personal, but with a feature you start with a script and build your images and story from it. The sad thing about Kelly was that while the script idea was great, it was never right. I was under the impression there would be time to make changes, but as it turned out, there was no time at all. The difficulties were compounded by the writer being the star of the film, Robert Logan, who also wanted to direct it.

I will never forget that first moment of 'Action!' The cast and crew watched to see how this 'first-timer' was going about things. It was terrifying, but I dared not show it. I had to be calm. With film you are constantly being forced to make decisions, and if you're right, well and good, if you are wrong, you've got to accept responsibility. But it was a welcome change after working on my own to have a marvellous crew. You didn't have to do absolutely everything and worry about every detail. I had a very good director of photography in Paul Van Der Linden [csc], but the biggest drawback was not being able to see the rushes until two weeks after they were shot, and that, for a feature film, was a disaster. I never got caught up. Then in the middle, there was some talk of the film not getting off the ground for what appeared to be political and corporate tax problems. Added to this was the difficulty of filming with aircraft, flying and weather delays, and the use of animals and children. Although I accepted the film knowing that it was one of many Canadian films that wasn't going to be Canadian in story, characters and setting, it didn't give me any satisfaction in passing off the beautiful scenery in Alberta as Alaska. In the end, everything came together, it was distributed by Paramount Pictures and shown in some cinemas and I'm glad I did it.

GP There was a film I saw at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, Pyramid of Roses, shot in 35 mm with stereo sound.

CC I like that film. Pyramid of Roses was interesting because it was something completely different for me - it was not technical wizardry. It was Gordon MacLennan who suggested I see Harold Town's exhibition of paintings called The Vale Variations. Florence Vale had done a small drawing and apparently it had sat around for six years. Town saw it, and be became so electrified by it that he did a whole series of paintings - I think he did over 300 eventually - all based upon this little Vale drawing. When I saw the first exhibition, which I think was about 60 paintings, it suddenly looked to me like an animation film, even though I wasn't an animator. It took years to get bits of money together, and then I shot and made this little film. It took a long time in the making, but I enjoyed it.

It's Town paintings that are so extraordinary. I don't remember how many I actually used in the film, probably around 100. It had an exciting track with music by Harry Freedman. It's never had any distribution and I believe Gordon, who was going to look after distribution, made a 70-mm print. It isn't available in 16 mm. What bothers me in film is that one doesn't know what kind of format to work in any more. In order to prevent Harold Town's paintings from being butchered, I artificially built into the film space that can be cut off, so that, except only very occasionally, it wouldn't get cropped. It's kind of a novelty and it certainly will become more historical - as a part of a Harold Town moment, his life, his work. It was all slides, but it did need quite a bit of movement. I charted these on the optical printer, but it was a different kind of charting.

GP Let's now turn to your 3D film for the Sudbury Science Centre called The Wilderness (1984).

CC We established a pleasant relationship with the Science Centre. They gave me the freedom I find so essential to my work. The brain will accept certain things and reject others, resulting in an entire exercise in 3D that I found fascinating. Brian Holmes joined us as technical coordinator, and he became valuable to us. He had a lot of books on 3D, and he was good at tying in the projection systems with our camera systems and doing certain calculations. But the original calculations were done by Francis, who was the producer. There were frustrating days. It would take quite a few hours to get one shot, and being a nature film, we were dependent on natural light and shadow and animals, and if you miss it, you haven't got a shot. But I must say, what thrilled me about the film was its slow pace; it holds a certain fascination. I was delighted to receive letters from children, some quite young, who really were ecstatic over the film. When you discover that kids who like today's blood-and-thunder, fast car chases, and all kinds of horror, are genuinely moved by it, this really means a lot to me. Again, in this film there are no words. The music is classical in feeling but not overt. Somebody asked me if it bothered me to have gone the circle and made another film like The Seasons. I said, 'No, it doesn't bother me, I don't think that way.' It was a happening - we were exploring different ways and subjects, and this seemed to be probably the most exciting thing to do with a very limited budget for such an undertaking.

When you show something even as simple as nature, audiences also see something about themselves in it. It may be that 3D was a means to make them stop and see the very ordinary things they had taken for granted or paid no attention to - such as the stream of rushing water - it all perhaps took on a new significance, in other words, a new life for them. Many of my films are conservation films, but I don't like to say why we should be preserving this or that because the subject can so easily become negative. I want to give people a love of their surroundings, and they have their own reasons for saying, 'Let's not harm it.' We have reached a point where we are saturated with all the awful things that are going on, but if we can think positively about some of the wonderful creations around us, then we make life much more worthwhile.

GP You made a film for the U.S. pavilion at Expo 86, which was held in Vancouver. How did that come about?

CC I didn't expect to get into EXPO 86 because Francis and I were still working on the Sudbury film, and it seemed to pass by. Then we had a request to make a presentation to the company building the U.S. pavilion. The United States Information Agency, the sponsor, wanted a short history of the American space program, made from their 16-mm archive holdings. Francis and I decided to enlarge this to 35 mm and place the images side-by-side on 70-mm film, alternating them in a pattern of development. Their first reaction was - well, it's multi-image, it's old, it was done in1967. We ended up making a modest film about taking off in a shuttle and going to a space station. Part of the pavilion was the history of space exploration. The film takes you in a shuttle to a space station, you dock and come out into the station, which is the rest of the pavilion. So it became an integrated film. It was never a separate film like the others, and it was made for very little money compared to most of them, but it worked very well for the Americans. It's didn't get any publicity, but it filled the pavilion, which is what we set out to do.

GP You were telling me about a new machine you used in the making of this film, which gave you problems in Toronto, a new computer?

CC Yes, Trickett Productions in Toronto had a 50-foot tracking computerized camera, and this made it possible for us to film our model of the space station. We had a model of a space station built that was seven-feet across, and looking exactly like the real thing. We were all set to film the first space station - the mode was completed - and then NASA called and said it was the wrong design. They had changed it, and we had to start from the beginning again. Then we had a great deal of difficulty with the model itself because the space station is designed for zero gravity, and to make it look delicate, as it would look in space, the model was also very delicate and it kept collapsing. In shooting with the Trickett system, I could chart out the way I wanted the camera to move toward the space station, and go underneath and dock, and then the computer would fill in all the spaces in between my points. We had a huge problem making this model look like the real thing. As soon as we came in very close, our depth of field dropped away, and the only way to get the depth of field correct was to have a time exposure. This was fine, except the equipment broke down constantly, giving us immense problems. Finally we did get a shot that worked and it's the only piece of original shooting, although we had to do a lot of optical work on the other part of the film.

GP You must of gone through miles of archival material.

CC We went through all the archival material collected since the space program began including all the film that was put together immediately after every launch, and then we would order certain shots from that; but we wanted full-length shots. They would never let us have the original film, of course, and we always had to work from dupes, which gave us a quality problem. There are two bases in NASA, and one is Cape Kennedy where the shuttle launching takes place. The moment the craft leaves Earth, it switches over to Houston, which is responsible for everything after lift-off. We discovered that Kennedy used 16 mm reversal and some 35 mm negative for its studies of lift-off, and they have about 30 locations around the lift-off equipped with what they call engineering cameras. Those shots were highly dramatic, and we were able to get them.

Rockets going up look pretty much all the same, except for those engineering shots, because they are close in on the detail - impressive and interesting. The stuff from Houston tended to be repetitious, but at the same time, we had to look at everything to try to find scenes that were reasonably shot. After all, astronauts were not cameramen. There was a German space lab going up, and we had six months to arrange to get a 35-mm camera up there. The Germans were very pleased that Arriflexes could go up in their shuttle mission, but NASA said it would take more than six months to do the paper work to permit this. It's an extraordinary bureaucracy. Yet one can't help be impressed by the way it works. Of course, when the Challenger disaster occurred the real problems began. Everything to do with the Challenger had to come out of the film.

I knew I didn't have control over the shooting, but in a sense it was an interesting challenge because it was so different. The Americans had to be very sure that their show was international. They wanted people to feel that other countries were participating in space, so the Anik reference was quite natural. Then I tried to put in other events. The last shot with a man who is coming down after the docking is a Mexican. A very short moment of Marc Garneau is there. The Canadian, Japanese and European flags are on the station. NASA never said no. They were very pleased to be international. Francis kept us within the budget of less than half-a-million and for all the work that went into it, it was a very cheap film. It took a year to produce.

GP Bring me up to date, and your thoughts on the future.

CC The most recent production that Francis and I did was a 3D film for the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and its newly opened Henry Crown Space Centre and OMNIMAX Theater (1986). As I mentioned, we are fascinated by 3D when it's used to explore the medium rather then the medium being forced upon an inappropriate subject. The challenge in the Crown project was to make a model of a space station look massive. In 3D, models look like models. Francis had some original thoughts on this that have been fruitful.

It will be exciting when technology simplifies 3D through 3D holography and brings it to perfection for large-format screens. At the moment, IMAX 3D is the ultimate 3D presentation and will no doubt be the centre of attraction at expositions from now on, as was Colin Low's film at Expo 86 (Transitions). However, like the IMAX screen itself, I hope the sheer size and technical wonder will not overshadow the content. We as filmmakers should not be lulled into thinking our own work is great when often it is the technical wizardry that dazzles. IMAX is a remarkable and exciting medium, demanding a great responsibility from the filmmakers if it is to become the creative achievement that it could be.

I have mentioned Francis a number of times because he's been very close, particularly with the later projects, where, in film jargon, he was the producer. His wife, Penny Grey, has been production manager for 20 years at Christopher Chapman Limited. I have lived and worked in the country since I began making films, and my wife, Barbara-Glen, with son Julian, and I have created what some would term an 'idyllic' home and studio house on the edge of a valley. All this is only possible with Glen, who survives and supports the ups and downs of this artistic calling. On top of this, she loves and manages our colourful menagerie of dogs, cats, beavers, owls, sheep and swans.

GP All of this, then, the films, the family, the environment in which you live and work, becomes a part of the whole tapestry of your creative life?

CC Tapestry is a word I use frequently in devising my kinds of film. It is interesting that you use it to describe the entire aspect of my life and work. I am fortunate to have these varied surroundings, themes and topics, and looking back on it all gives me a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. But I have not finished, not by a long shot; there is much more remaining to be done and I intend to continue my filmmaking activities for a long time to come.

Reflected Images
Reflected Images
WW Will you fill me in with anything in terms of an update of your film activities since 1986.

CC I worked on the idea of Canadians in the American Civil war for two or three years, but the film never came to fruition. A number of years ago I retired from filmmaking but continue my love and exploration of still photography, especially of the natural world. Over 50 years ago I photographed a rocky shoreline and its reflection in still water that revealed a face when rotated. This led me to search for other images that 'on reflection' would conjure up thoughts about the origins of mythological figures, legends and totems - the stuff of the 'unconscious.'

Most of my recent pictures have been taken in the Pre-Cambrian Shield region of Northern Ontario; however, the images have universal appeal. I call them Reflected Images. It's fascinating to hear the various responses such images evoke in the minds of different viewers. Over the past few years these photographs have been exhibited at various art shows and galleries, including a European Tour with the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Many of the images have been enlarged to five, six and seven feet. Some are transferred onto canvas and look like tapestries. A number now hang in executive offices and private homes. I'm hoping to publish a book of Reflected Images. In another field I became one of 11 contributing authors in the book Too Young to Fight: Memories From Our Youth During WWII, released in 1999. I belong to the generation just arriving at "fighting age" when war came to an end. The book won the Bologna Ragazzi Non-Fiction Award for Young Adults, a worldwide competition.

WW Of all the films and projects you have been involved with, is there any one that stands out, the one that gave you the greatest satisfaction as a filmmaker?

CC Both The Seasons, my first film, and A Place to Stand have given the greatest satisfaction, in different ways.

A Place To Stand
Christopher Chapman
Pyramid of Roses

Selected Filmography
Christopher Chapman

The Seasons 1953 (p/d/ph/ed, CFA Film of the Year);
Canadian Wheat 1956 (ph for Crawley Films);
Quetico 1958 (p/d/ph/ed for the Quetico Foundation, CFA Travel and Recreation);
Saguenay 1962 (d/ph, CFA Honourable Mention);
The Enduring Wilderness 1963 (ph for National Parks Canada and the NFB);
Lewis Mumford on the City Parts 1-3 1963 (six-part series; collaborative effort for the NFB); Loring and Wyle 1963 (d/ph/ed for the CBC); Adventure in Newfoundland 1964 (ph for the NFB);
The Persistent Seed 1964 (d/ph/co-ed for the NFB);
The Magic Molecule 1964 (co-d/ph for the NFB);
Expedition Bluenose 1964 (co-ph for Taylor Television, CFA Best Colour Cinematography shared with Francis Chapman);
A Place to Stand 1967 (co-p/d/ph/ed for the Ontario government pavilion at Expo 67, with additional photography by Laszlo George csc, hsc and Josef Seckeresh csc, hsc;
Oscar for Live-Action Short and nominated for Best Short Documentary; CFA Film of the Year);
Festival 1970 (co-p/d/ph/ed for the Ontario government pavilion at Expo 70);
Impressions 1670-1970 1970 (p/d/ph/ed for HBC);
Canada 1973 (p/d/ph/ed for BP Oil);
Toronto the Good 1973 (p/d/ph/ed in IMAX for the Ontario Place Corp.);
Volcano 1974 (p/d/ph/ed in IMAX for the Ontario Place Corp.);
A Sense of Humus 1976 (d/ph/ed for the NFB);
Anthony Burgess' Rome 1979 (ph/ed for the CBC);
Saskatchewan: Land Alive 1980 (p/d/ph/ed for IMC Canada to mark the 75th anniversary of Saskatchewan);
Kelly 1981 (d, feature produced by Famous Players);
Pyramid of Roses 1982 (co-p/d/ph/ed for Christopher Chapman Ltd.);
The Wilderness 3D 1984 (d/ph/ed for the Sudbury Science Centre);
Expo 86 1986 (co-p/d/ph/ed for the American pavilion);
3D film for the Henry Crown Space Center1986 (d/co-ph/ed).

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