When you think of documentaries, the operative word is “small.” These are generally small-budget films with few resources and often diminished theatrical exposure. But Canadian director Stephen Low doesn’t do small – his docs are made for the biggest screen possible: IMAX. The long-time large-format pioneer – whose father, Colin Low, helped develop the revolutionary medium – makes his way to Toronto’s Hot Docs with the festival’s first-ever IMAX offering, The Trolley. The Globe and Mail spoke with Low about the doc – which is part public-transportation polemic, part ode to the hugeness of the IMAX format – ahead of its world premiere May 5.
The film, which advocates heavily for the revitalization of the streetcar around the world, seems like it’s Doug Ford’s worst nightmare.
It was Rob Ford who was in power when I first pondered this thing, actually. He inspired me to make it because he was always going on and on about subways, and then I think Stephen Harper came to town and said he didn’t like streetcars because they got in his way. Well, dude, there are 100 people on that streetcar, and you’re getting in their way.
Do you have a car?
Yeah, I have a little Volkswagen. I’m a motor monkey, so I’m a bit of a hypocrite. But I live in the suburbs of Montreal, where there’s no great option.
The film mostly focuses on Toronto’s rail system. When did you first become intrigued by it?
When I was a kid, I worked at the Canadian Railway Museum, so the passion was there from way back. But I was mostly interested in the wisdom of Toronto when, compared with virtually everywhere else in the Western world, streetcar tracks were being destroyed. Toronto was one of the few cities that kept a big system, so I wanted to understand why.
Are you optimistic of the streetcar’s future, not only in Toronto but across the world?
It’s a battle, in every single jurisdiction. It’s a battle between people who want to save the world, and those who couldn’t care less or don’t do the math or are simply wedded to the automobile. The purpose of this film is to say, give people sharp tools to fight these battles because the car lobby will fight it.
Why was a documentary about streetcars, then, a good fit for IMAX?
Having travelled across the world and having seen how beautiful cities could be without cars, there’s this visceral, aesthetic sense to the rail system. Getting close to a rail system is even better than filming a car race, because we go so slowly that you get a terrific, kinetic point of view. If people could see that, and feel that, on a giant screen, I thought it would help sell the idea of streetcars.
What kind of challenges did you face shooting these massive machines on IMAX?
We used the latest digital equipment for this, mounting cameras on streetcars and leaving them running for long periods. We had cranes and dollies and helicopters, too, but we want to get as close as possible to achieve this high-depth visual look. We’re not running around with an iPhone, that’s for sure.
So what do you make, as a large-format film advocate, of someone such as Steven Soderbergh shooting his movie Unsane on an iPhone?
That’s sort of a Hollywood thing, and they’re weak compared to IMAX. Historically, IMAX has 10 times the resolution of what he’s doing with his iPhone. We practise the art of high-res.
Hollywood is investing in IMAX films a bit more, though, with something like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
It’s still very expensive to use, though. I don’t envy Chris. His daily costs are in the millions of dollars because you have hundreds of people standing around all day to wait for light – light is critical in IMAX. Hollywood can’t afford it. It’s never in the cards for Hollywood to widely use IMAX cameras.
Where is the future of the format going, then?
I hope there’s money for educational films – that’s what real IMAX was designed for: the science institutions and educational institutions. Seeing an IMAX film, it’s inspiring for kids to learn. But films like that, films like The Trolley, are very hard to fund. There’s no return on investment in IMAX. It needs sponsorship to make it work.
How did you fund The Trolley?
We funded a lot of it ourselves, and we went into hock, basically. This kind of work, it’s a work of passion.
The Trolley screens for free at the Cinesphere Ontario Place theatre in Toronto on May 5 (hotdocs.ca)
This interview has been condensed and edited