Behind the Silver Screen
The story of how a man with an idea built a flourishing motion picture industry
E. L. CHICANOT
AGREAT deal has been heard of late of Canada’s dependence upon the United States for motion picture entertainment and of the various methods suggested to relieve this situation. As far as the average fan can judge from his side of the screen, little if anything has been done about it. Comparatively few people in the Dominion are aware that the feature productions they view are not as American as they used to be. In fact, almost all the feature films shown in Canada now are printed in this country by an entirely new Canadian industry, which has come unobtrusively and unheralded into existence.
Again, what many inveterate movie-goers consider the cream of the entertainment is the news reel, which shows everything from a football match in England to a native celebration in Afghanistan, as well as scenes of tropical events from one end of the Dominion to the other. Seldom, however, do they wonder how these are collected, or speculate whether the inhabitants of Austria, England, Switzerland or Afghanistan similarly have glimpses of Canadian life sandwiched in their movie programmes.
These are some of the things which are revealed when one is curious enough to get back of the silver screen and visit a plant in Montreal which has a major part in furnishing Canada’s movie fare. It is unique among Dominion enterprises, and the story of its meteoric rise from obscure beginnings to the largest and most comprehensive organization of its kind in the British Empire is a romance of Canadian initiative and achievement.
Two Men and a Camera
IN 1921, an organization known as the Associated Screen News of Canada came into existence in the Canadian metropolis consisting of two men and a movie camera. It believed there was a broad opportunity for service to Canada, Canadian business interests and the general public in the motion picture. Practically pioneering a new field, it found the way was anything but clear and the guiding spirit of the enterprise, Bernard E. Norrish, who is still the general manager, smiles to-day in recollection of the time when he could scarcely see a week’s work ahead of him. It was not long before this stage was passed, however, as-it became increasingly demonstrated that the wide possibilities of the utilization of the motion picture in Canadian industrial life had been correctly gauged.
The first and sole idea was to produce motion picture films for Canadian industry. This was comparatively new and unexploited territory, but rapidly the unique value of actual picturization for matters of record, advertising, and other purposes was established until there were few major industrial enterprises in the Dominion which were not making more or less use of the motion picture in connection with some phase of their activities. To-day the clientele of the company reads like the investors’ column of a financial journal where the soundly outstanding Canadian corporations are enumerated. This work, ever expanding, placed the enterprise firmly on its feet and inspired a self-confidence which sought wider scope.
Purely industrial films became extended to scenic, travel, adventure and other subject. Canadian camera men began to stray farther afield in their work. They surprised farmers in their wheat fields, appeared with the orthodox peak-reversed cap at the Calgary Stampede packed in their cameras on ponies to shoot trail riders in the Rockies, and climbed to dizzy heights in the wake of members of the Alpine Club. Carrying out assignments for transportation companies and tourist agencies took them ever more frequently abroad until they were as at home grinding out the pyramids of Egypt, shooting the Taj Mahal, or snapping Mrs. Ted Johnson, of Stones Corners, Wisconsin, as she set out for a camel ride on the fringe of the Arabian desert, or filming the marathon swim at the Toronto Exhibition. To-day, not only does the library of the plant at Montreal contain films of every conceivable phase of Canadian life, but it is difficult to mention any place of travel interest the world over which—allowing for a few moments’ reference to files—cannot be thrown on the screen.
When a European notable visited Canada and a record of his tour was required, a camera man of the Associated Screen News went along to accompany him everywhere and grind out so many feet of the celebrity every day. Thus, one of them dogged the footsteps of the indefatigable Prince of Wales on his first official tour of Canada, and was almost a physical and nervous wreck by the time he got his last picture from the wharf at Quebec. Others lugged their cameras after Mr. Stanley Baldwin, Mr. Lloyd George, and the late Earl Haig on their trips across Canada, making accurate and imperishable records of their journeyings.
Tracy Matheson, who accompanied the Prince of Wales, naturally became a familiar figure to the royal visitor, but he little suspected how fixed he had become in the prince’s remarkable memory. A couple of years later when across the Atlantic on a piece of work, he took a day off in England to attend the races at Ascot. The prince was there, too, and passing the stand he recognized Tracy in the crowd and called him out. He chatted with him awhile, recalling incidents of his Canadian visit, and then, noticing he carried a camera, had him take Princess Mary’s photograph.
Reporters of the Screen
THE next great development was the securing of a contract to supply a Canadian section of the Pathe News, which was an achievement of some national moment. Due to the energy of the company’s personnel, all young Canadian photographic experts, this steadily grew into an important phase of activity. To-day, staff camera men are located at Saint John, Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria. They are the reporters of the silver screen, securing the visual news of the Dominion. They act almost entirely on their own initiative, and screen fans, noting the comprehensiveness and absorbing interest of the news reel, will agree they do their work well.
But this news is not gathered for Dominion audiences alone, for these news photographs with their supreme publicity value circulate throughout the world into the farthest corners where the motion picture has penetrated. Canadian news scenes, shot by the company’s camera men from coast to coast, are sent to Montreal for editing, assembly and distribution, and here those likely to be of international interest are selected and despatched to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe, and from these countries there is a further circulation. Canada is thus kept continually before the movie audiences of the world.
One day a man walked into the plant at Montreal and asked to have a mystery explained. He had been at Quebec at the time of the dog Derby and had noted a camera man grinding out his stuff with the lens apparently focussed upon the dog team near which he was standing. The same winter he went on a world cruise and at Cairo entered a motion picture theatre. In the course of the programme he saw himself on the screen beside the dog team. He wanted to know how it happened. Which goes to show how effective the Canadian Pathe News is in advertising Canada.
The general Canadian public has come to be familiar with the news camera man who in some m.raculous manner always seems to be on the spot when something out-of-the-way is happening, who is never abashed or discountenanced, but carries on unperturbed with all the world looking on. He has, in fact, to have the reporter’s scent for news and his zeal in securing it at any cost, as well as a more than ordinary physique to drag around everywhere his hundred pounds of camera, which is to him as the newspaperman’s notebook.
Taking news photographs is very like reporting. A good deal of their value depends upon their exclusiveness and the speed with which they can be put into circulation. These screen reporters have to be enterprising and resourceful, willing to go anywhere and tackle anything. Often in competition with foreign news camera men the securing of a scoop is as important and triumphant an event as on a big daily. To this end, these men who have also a technical mastery of all other phases of motion picture production and may be engaged upon any of a dozen laboratory tasks, are on duty twentyfour hours a day. They are liable to be called upon at any moment to travel long distances in any manner they can contrive, cope with innumerable difficulties, to get somewhere, to shoot something, which will occupy them perhaps only a minute or two. And the result may be merely a few feet of film by the time it reaches the screen. By the same token they are not noticeably niggardly over expenditure when it is a matter of getting important news photographs to movie audiences while they are still hot.
HPHE company has many scoops over foreign news agencies to its credit. It was the first to reach the screen with pictures of the great forest fire in Northern Ontario, an event which drew camera men from all news services. Similarly, it scooped American newsmen with pictures of the lost American balloonists, penetrating into the wilderness of Northern Ontario to meet them. When the German trans-Atlantic flyers landed on Greenley Island, the Associated Screen News, failing in its efforts to hire a machine at Montreal where they had all been preempted, sent a camera man down to Vermont to get one. He was flown directly to the location of the ice-field flyers, then back to Montreal, and the company had pictures on the screen in New York twelve hours ahead of any American company.
These Canadian camera men use every possible device to get their news films through to Montreal as speedily as possible. The mail and express are utilized extensively, and often, where time is to be gained by so doing, the few feet of celluloid may be rushed to a transcontinental train at the nearest convenient point and perhaps an accommodating passenger is pressed into service to deliver it at Montreal. The aeroplane is not infrequently used to expedite despatch. Anything to get the pictures on the screen while they are still alive.
One example of such expeditious work was the making of the comprehensive film that marked the Diamond Jubilee of Canadian Confederation, and which showed the celebrations staged from coast to coast. Though these took place on a Friday, the complete film was shown at Montreal on the following Sunday night, the festivities at no major Canadian centre being omitted. The few feet of film likely to hold up assembling and completion was that depicting the celebrations at Vancouver and Victoria. This was immediately despatched to Pasca, Washington, and put on the air mail for Chicago. At Chicago a special plane was hired which flew the little package of celluloid to Montreal. When movie audiences viewed the completed film, probably none gave any special thought to the few scenes toward the end showing the Pacific coast’s part in the Dominion-wide Confederation Jubilee celebration.
A photo-gathering organization has been built up in Canada in every respect equal to that of any other country. The peculiar conditions under which camera men pursue their vocation in Canada, in fact, make that calling broader, more comprehensive and educative than it is elsewhere. They must be the most travelled individuals in the Dominion, excepting those actually engaged in the conduct of trains. They have an intimate insight into and a good knowledge of all phases of Canadian life. In point of extensiveness of foreign travel they are among the most cosmopolitan of Canadian citizens. They go everywhere and know everyone. Their work is to get pictures and get them right.
They will go to any lengths to do this and Canadians have become familiar with the sergeant-major methods of a camera man bent on getting his picture the way he wants it. There are innumerable stories illustrating this, one of which, relating to a former lieutenant-governor of Quebec, is as good as any. The camera man at Quebec heard that the governor drove down to his office every morning and decided this would make a good subject for the news reel. He accordingly hied him out one morning with his camera and planted himself in a good spot. In due time the governor’s sleigh appeared and he started his cranking. As it came nearer, however, he was perturbed to notice that the governor was driving and the coachman sitting idly by. To him there was something incongruous about this, and he had to have his picture right. He ran out and stopped the sleigh, explaining to the first gentleman of Quebec what he wanted. His honor smiled, handed the reins over to his coachman, gave him instructions to turn back, and drove over the route again in a manner to suit the exacting camera man.
Printed in Canada
A LATER development of the organization is of absorbing interest to Canadians since it has given a distinct, if unsuspected, tinge to foreign films exhibited in the Dominion, and in so doing has brought into existence a new Canadian industry, which, in turn, has brought many and varied benefits in its wake. The consumption of American feature productions in Canada is, as the most unobservant can judge, large and constantly growing. Formerly, United States producing companies followed the very natural practice of sending positive prints to Canada for exhibition, several prints being distributed by a company over various centres. There is a high rate of duty upon the entry of positive prints into the Dominion and the Government was in receipt of a certain revenud, but this was the sole benefit Canada derived from the exhibition of the thousands of American feature productions throughout the land.
As the operations of the Associated Screen News expanded and the plant was able to handle a greater volume of work, it occurred to the managing director that quite a substantial industry of far reaching benefit could be built up if these prints were produced in Canada. Since this would result in a saving to American producing companies, negatives entering the country at a much lower rate, it should not be difficult to get the work if they could be convinced of the company’s ability to accomplish it properly. Producers were immediately interested in the general scheme, but it was difficult to persuade them that a Canadian organization had been developed to a point where it could do efficiently the highly specialized work involved. They were reluctant, even in the face of obvious advantages, to entrust to the young company negatives representing the outlay of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Finally, one producer was tempted to give the Canadian concern a trial, with most encouraging results. This was a commencement. Gradually, under demonstration of ability to give complete satisfaction, other companies turned over their work. To-day, the feature productions of all but one of the United States producing companies exhibiting in Canada are printed at the plant of the Associated Screen News at Montreal. Each week thousands upon thousands of feet of motion picture negative, product of the great studios of the world, and involving the expenditure of many millions of dollars, pass through the company’s laboratories in process of producing prints which serve the theatres of the Dominion. At all times the vaults are stocked with reels of film which in many cases are worth a good deal more than their weight in gold.
Just what this represents to Canada and Canadians it is not difficult to appreciate. American producers have gained some slight advantage, Dominion industry a substantial one. From eight to sixteen prints of each feature production shown in Canada are required and made in Montreal, the volume of work and its intricacy necessitating a twenty-four hour day operation. Last year the company printed 21,600,000 feet of film as compared with 17.000,000 feet the year before, and ninety-five per cent of this film was manufactured at a plant in Toronto. This represents an employment of Canadian labor and the utilization of Canadian raw materials which did not exist a few years ago. In all essentials a new Canadian industry has been created.
In remarkably brief time the organization has extended from its two men to a personnel of over a hundred, including the best available motion picture technicians in Canada, and its single camera to the completest set of technical equipment, which grows monthly with the development of motion picture science. Staff and equipment are to-day unsurpassed anywhere in the British Empire. The modest little couple of rooms, obscurely hidden away in Montreal, have grown to a spacious modern plant in a commanding position, with innumerable laboratories and studios devoted to the highly specialized processes of the motion picture art. It has become a national institution, serving the Dominion from coast to coast in a new way, and reaching out into the farthest corner of the globe to make Canada better known.