Skip to main content

Film producer Christopher Chapman, pictured in this photo taken Nov. 1, 1973, was perhaps best known for the film A Place to Stand, which he made for the Ontario government to showcase the splendours of his native province. It was screened at Expo 67 in Montreal on a massive screen, a precursor to Imax technology.

Franz Maier/The Globe and Mail

Ontario is Canada's most populous region, covering an area bigger than France and Great Britain combined, but when IMAX was introduced at Expo 67, Christopher Chapman fit the province into just 18 minutes.

He made some 40 films for television, the National Film Board, movie theatres, tourism organizations, science centres and international expositions. But none proved as unforgettable or as influential as A Place to Stand, which he made without a script for the Ontario government to showcase the splendours of his native province. At Expo 67, in Montreal, it was projected in 70 mm on a screen measuring 20 metres by 9 metres, using nine synchronized projectors – the beginning of Imax technology.

Every part of the giant screen was alive with moving images of the landmarks, industry, waterways, wildlife, culture and people of the province, seen through what appeared to be shifting windows of varying sizes against a black background. Mr. Chapman, who died in a long-term care facility in Uxbridge, Ont., on Oct. 24, called his technique multiple dynamic imaging.

Story continues below advertisement

At Expo, where it was screened continuously, A Place to Stand was seen by two million viewers; after the fair, the film ran in the United States, Europe and in other Canadian cities, seen by 100 million people. Today it is being rediscovered by a new generation on YouTube.

People of a certain age can still sing its earworm title song, composed by Dolores Claman with lyrics by Richard Morris:

Give us a place to stand

And a place to grow

And call this land

Ontario,

Story continues below advertisement

A place to stand!

A place to grow!

Ontari-ari-ari-o

The film collected dozens of awards, including the 1968 Academy Award for best live-action short subject, and an Etrog, the equivalent Canadian prize.

Fame never went to Mr. Chapman's head; he said all he had wanted was to make people feel good. Visitors to his Uxbridge home in later years report seeing his Oscar statuette used as a doorstop.

"As a young filmmaker, I was inspired by Christopher Chapman," says Michael Hirsh, who went on to co-found the Toronto animation company Nelvana and is now vice-chairman of DHX Media. "He was a great visual storyteller and made excellent use of the screen. Many of my friends at the time were also inspired by him to enter the film industry."

Story continues below advertisement

He points out that Mr. Chapman was not a true documentarian but a maker of "very successful promotional films" using nature, comparable to the uplifting mountain films of 1930s German director Leni Riefenstahl.

Christopher Martin Chapman was born into a tumultuous household in Toronto on Jan. 24, 1927, along with his fraternal twin, Francis. Their mother, Doris Chapman, was a concert pianist and their father, Alfred Chapman, an architect who designed the city's central public library at the corner of Beverley and College streets, now part of the University of Toronto. The twins were preceded by four elder siblings, Philippa, Howard, Robert and Sally. Another brother, named Julian, did not survive infancy.

The twins wanted only to be together, but Francis was soon judged to have a brilliant intellect and put into a special class, then sent to the elite University of Toronto Schools; eventually he studied at the Sorbonne. Christopher's giftedness was harder to classify and he ended up in a vocational stream that did not lead to university. He learned paper engineering, a craft that produces paper models used for advertising and pop-up books.

Always interested in cars, he approached several automobile manufacturers when he was in his early 20s, with ideas for improving their products. He landed a job with the Ford Motor Co. in England, where he spent a year on headlight design. After returning to Toronto, he purchased a movie camera and taught himself to use it. His family owned land on Lake Simcoe and he moved to an unwinterized cabin there, getting his drinking water from the frozen lake, while filming the changes around him. The result was The Seasons (1954), a wordless short that won an award as film of the year and launched his true career.

More films about the wilderness followed, including Quetico (1958) about the provincial park and Saguenay (1962) made for Alcan. For the National Film Board he made Magic Molecule (1964) and The Persistent Seed (1964) before submitting a proposal for a technically daring film to be seen at Expo, initially at the Bell pavilion. It was rejected.

A year later, when Ontario's bureaucrats discovered the province's Expo project had not moved forward, somebody remembered Mr. Chapman's proposal and invited him to adapt it for the province in the 18 months that remained till opening day – it was, he later said, a "technical nightmare."

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Chapman knew he wanted to use what are called travelling mattes. It was not a new technique – D.W. Griffith used it clumsily in his silent 1915 epic Birth of a Nation, and in France, Georges Méliès experimented with it – but no one had done it right.

The technique involves short lengths of film simultaneously running behind mattes, within the openings created by animators through masking the unused portions of the frame. As many as six tracks of film may be combined into a single frame.

Mr. Chapman criss-crossed the province with a 35 mm camera, shooting a total of 160,000 feet of film, from which he selected the most eloquent moments on two Moviola editing machines. (Some film was shot by David Mackay of TDF, the ad company the government had hired to stick-handle the project.) He then worked out the film's story board.

His sister-in-law Penny Grey, who later worked with him, recalls that he had a prodigious visual memory and could remember everything he had shot.

The film scholar Aimée Mitchell, who examined Mr. Chapman's 350-page editing book, writes in a recently published study, Reimagining Cinema: Film at Expo 67 (edited by Monika Kin Gagnon and Janine Marchessault) that he "laid out on the gridded pages … the positions of numbered images, the timing of their appearance and disappearance from view, and their movement within and across the frame. Each page is accompanied by notes and instructions." With his technical supervisor, Barry Gordon, he then took all the notes and pieces of film to the only place capable of doing the final assemblage: the Todd-AO studio in Hollywood.

There word spread fast about the unorthodox Canadian filmmaker. One of the people who shook his hand and congratulated him after an early in-house screening was the actor Steve McQueen, who became a friend.

His deadline was fast approaching, leaving only two weeks for Dolores Claman to write the music and have it performed and recorded by a symphony orchestra and choir. The song's theme had been suggested by David Mackay, based on a quote by the great ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes: "Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth."

If placed sequentially, the film clips in A Place to Stand would take 90 minutes to view, instead of 18 minutes. It is this condensation that gives the film its thrilling drive. Mr. Chapman's dynamic technique was immediately borrowed by director Norman Jewison for The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), starring Mr. McQueen; it was used in the opening sequence of the 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch; and it was used in The Boston Strangler (1968) and the disaster film Airport (1970). Today digital technology has made the effect much easier to accomplish.

After his Oscar, Mr. Chapman refused many invitations to work in Hollywood, according to his wife, Glen Chapman: "He was a very Canadian boy – he wanted to stay in Canada," she said in an interview.

After much persuasion, he agreed to work with Broadway producer Gower Champion on a backdrop film for the musical Happy Times, but it was not a success. The show's star, Robert Goulet, hated the film, which he felt upstaged him.

Among his later works were the Imax films Volcano, shot in Iceland, and Toronto the Good, both made in 1973; Saskatchewan: Land Alive (1980); Kelly (1981) made for Famous Players and his only feature film; and several 3-D films, one shown at Science North in Sudbury, another at the science museum in Chicago, another at Parc Astérix, near Paris – all made with his brother Francis, who became a CBC producer. Francis was particularly adept at calculating the correct camera positions for 3-D filming. The brothers also collaborated on A Sense of Humus (1976) for the NFB, a prescient film about organic farming.

In Mr. Chapman's later years, until he began to develop dementia a dozen years ago, he took up still photography, producing dramatic large images of reflections on a lake.

Mr. Chapman served as president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and of the Directors Guild of Canada. He won many film awards and medals, received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Ryerson, and was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 1987.

His first wife, Aljean Pert, whom he married in 1962, died of heart disease nine years later, leaving him to raise their young son, Julian. A year later he was introduced to Barbara Glen Kennedy, 18 years his junior, who then worked in public relations. They married in 1974 and lived and worked together until his death.

Mr. Chapman was predeceased by his elder siblings. Besides his wife, Glen, he leaves his twin brother, Francis; his son, Julian; and four grandchildren.

To submit an I Remember: obit@globeandmail.com. Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter