There were no film schools back in the late 1940s when Kroitor was growing up in Winnipeg. Aspiring filmmakers looked to the Ottawa-based NFB with its documentary and animation units and its summer intern program as a cinematic mecca. The Scottish documentary maker John Grierson, founding commissioner of the NFB, had been dismissed in 1945 for suspected Communist sympathies in those chilly post-war days, but other legendary filmmakers he recruited, including Tom Daly (Studio B) and Norman McLaren (Studio A), headed up key units at the NFB. Kroitor, with a connection from a teacher, arrived in 1949 for the first of two summer stints as an intern. He directed Rescue Party, his first film, that summer.
Two years later, after graduating with an MA in philosophy from the University of Manitoba, he went back to Ottawa as a production assistant and film editor on the staff of the NFB. Among his early credits was Universe, a film he made with another stellar filmmaker, Colin Low. A black-and-white documentary, Universe showcased astronomer Donald MacRae and took viewers, with the help of models and animation, on a voyage into space. The bracketing concept was simple – a night in the life of an astronomer – but the film introduced the solar system to a generation of students and caught Stanley Kubrick’s attention. Kubrick tried to enlist Kroitor and Low, among others at the NFB, to work on his 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. They declined because they were already immersed in another project, In the Labyrinth, the landmark film from Expo 67.
The NFB, under the supervision of Tom Daley, provided the bedrock and the creative loam for Labyrinth. The overarching theme of Expo 67 was Man and His World – women had yet to be invented. It dovetailed with the exuberant nationalism of Canada’s Centennial celebrations. Expo 67 was the place to be. Showcase architecture – Moshe Safdie’s cubist Habitat, Arthur Erickson’s inverted pyramid for the Canadian pavilion, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome for the U.S. pavilion – strutted its sharp angles and spatial dynamics. But it was innovative film technology with its split screens, multiple projectors, juxtaposed images and mind-boggling leaps to the outer edges of the universe and the inner recesses of the human spirit that dazzled, provoked and intrigued audiences.
Nobody fused film and architecture like Kroitor, the philosopher, and his colleagues Low and Hugh O’Connor. Their purpose-built cinema was itself a labyrinth beckoning visitors – people lined up for hours – into three darkened chambers, ostensibly to confront the monster of ancient mythology, but inevitably to stare into their own psyches.
Titles describing ancient and personal labyrinths interspersed with graphics of traditional mazes asked, “What in us could be the ‘monster?’ And what in us could overcome it?” What followed was a beautifully cut cascade of images flowing onto five screens arranged in a cruciform, juxtaposing the exotic – a camel train crossing the desert – with the commonplace – a crocodile of commuters trudging through Montreal streets on a blustery winter morning. Today, it might verge on solipsism, but back in the mid-1960s, during the summer of love, it was heady stuff.
The images were stupendous, but the technology was clunky. Before computerized screening equipment, five screens required five separate and manually operated projectors – a frustrating and expensive business. As Expo wound down, Kroitor and Ferguson began talking about creating a new kind of theatre and projection system for the multidimensional films they wanted to make. Ferguson had experienced his own difficulties with Polar Life, an 18-minute multiscreen film for the Man and the Polar Regions pavilion that allowed audiences to see images on two screens simultaneously – both coming and going – from their seats on a revolving turntable.