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Roman Kroiter co-invented IMAX and continued to play a key role in IMAX technology. He passed away in Oct. 2012 at the age of 85.
Roman Kroiter co-invented IMAX and continued to play a key role in IMAX technology. He passed away in Oct. 2012 at the age of 85.

Roman Kroitor, 85, revolutionized the film world Add to ...

"Can you do the kiss again," an off-camera voice asks in Lonely Boy, Roman Kroitor’s 1962 documentary about Paul Anka, the Ottawa-born heartthrob. The scene, shot with a hand-held camera by the great cinematographer Wolf Koenig, takes place in the Copacabana in New York. Anka, back for a return engagement after a hugely successful debut, has just presented Jules Podell, the mob-linked owner of the nightclub, with an autographed picture of himself. Forgetting the camera’s watchful eye, the cigar-chomping Podell clasps Anka in a beefy embrace and plants a smacker on the young man’s cheek. That’s when the voice asks for a second take, as though they are actors playing themselves.

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Anka doesn’t miss a beat. He glances at the camera, laughs and then leans over and kisses a bewildered Podell on his flabby cheek. That exchange could have been edited in many ways – including cutting the first kiss. Kroitor’s genius was to show it all. By slyly inviting us to observe the camera as hunter and the singer as quarry, he gives us an intimate portrait of a rock star on the hustle and an insight into the process of making a documentary. He doesn’t tell us what to think. We see and decide for ourselves.

Kroitor, a legendary cinema verité pioneer, whose National Film Board film credits include Glenn Gould: On and Off the Record and Stravinsky, died of a heart attack at 85 on Sept. 17. His great gift was editing and sound mixing, according to filmmaker Graeme Ferguson, a friend and colleague since the two met at the NFB as summer interns in the early 1950s. They went on to become co-founders and inventors of IMAX, the camera and projection system that revolutionized the experience of making and watching movies.

“A lot of us who came up as cameramen didn’t much care what the film was about,” Ferguson confessed. “We liked taking interesting pictures and figured they get stuck together in a useful way.”

Kroitor came from a different perspective. “Roman got really interested in a film about the moment that the footage arrived in the editing room. He was really good at conceiving a film and figuring out what it was about philosophically,” said Ferguson. “He was interested in exploring the human spirit and finding out what was going on inside human beings.”

The best early example of that approach is  Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman, a black-and-white documentary. It has a simple story-line – a day in the life of an immigrant worker who sweeps the snow and salts the ice on the tracks. But the lighting, the close-ups and the juxtaposed images of commuters impatiently waiting for the trolley make the film work as a profile of one man and as a larger narrative about the human condition.

“It is an extraordinary film,” said filmmaker Peter Raymont, who saw it for the first time as a student at Queen’s University in the late 1960s. “Beautifully shot . . . [the movie] is the heart of Canada, the heart of the human being, which is really what Roman did all of his life.”

That early cinema verité film taught Raymont that “people can tell their own stories; you don’t need a narrator to get between the subject and the viewer,” and that simple, if done well, can be profound. Essentially, Paul Tomkowicz, a “voice-over and gorgeous” images, “is the type of film anybody could make with a camera and a tape recorder” about the local diner, or a neighbourhood character.

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.

They formed a small company called Multi-Screen Corporation (later IMAX) with Robert Kerr, Ferguson’s high school pal from Galt, Ont., and at the time that city’s mayor and the owner of a printing company. Kerr, who died in 2010, supplied the financial acumen and the credibility as the owner of a successful company. Needing technical expertise, they enlisted another high school crony from Galt, engineer Bill Shaw, as a partner the next year. Shaw, who died in 2002, developed the projection system and camera.

Meanwhile, Fuji, wowed by In the Labyrinth, had asked Kroitor to make a film for its pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. Kroitor invited Ferguson and Kerr to join him as producers on Donald Brittain’s Tiger Child, which became the first IMAX film.

“Roman was as much an inventor as a filmmaker,” said Ferguson, the only surviving member of the original IMAX team. “He was always interested in doing something new. He never had a rear-view mirror.” That was true until the end of his life. Kroitor was involved in several IMAX breakthroughs including 3-Dome and SANDDE, a hand-held wand for stereoscopic animation.

After heading up the drama department of the NFB in the 1970s, Kroitor left to make more IMAX films, including Hail Columbia, about the maiden voyage of the first space shuttle, and Rolling Stones: At the Max, the first IMAX feature film. Reviewing At the Max in 1991, the late Globe film critic Jay Scott described it as “an embarrassment of dazzlingly variegated unique riches.” As producer, Kroitor hadn’t got much satisfaction from making the film, later telling a reporter from the Winnipeg Free Press that it represented “one of the low points” of his career because he had “no interest” in the Rolling Stones and found Mick Jagger difficult. “I had the feeling he’d been swallowed by his own myth.”

Kubrick was far from the only filmmaker to borrow from Kroitor. Star Wars director George Lucas first heard about “the force” in a conversation between Kroitor and Warren McCulloch, an artificial intelligence guru, in 21-87, a 1963 collage film made by the NFB’s Arthur Lipsett. Disagreeing with McCulloch’s assertion that humans are nothing more than highly complex machines, Kroitor argued,: “Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us, and they call it God.”

He was not a religious man, but his large and humane spirit was the force that imbued all of his projects, both the films he made himself and those he nurtured for others.

Roman Boghdan Kroitor was born in Yorkton, Sask., on Dec. 12, 1926. His father, Peter, a teacher who had emigrated from Ukraine, died when Roman was four or five. His smart, determined and resourceful mother, Tatiana (nee Shewchuk) taught in one-room schools to support her family, moving him and his older sister from one community to another across the Prairies before settling in Winnipeg when he was of high school age.

The film board, which was such a continuing presence in his life, was also a matchmaking catalyst. Through his NFB friends, he met his wife, Janet (Ferguson’s sister), in Ottawa, where she was working at the National Design Centre. They were married in December, 1955, and had five children, a son and four daughters, and nine grandchildren.

Editor's Note: Wolf Koenig was not the cameraman on the film Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman, which was directed by Roman Boghdan Kroitor. Incorrect information appeared in the original print version and an earlier online version of this article. This online version has been corrected.

 

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