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A Movie Camera is a Time Machine

Leaving Home (2021 version)

This post is adapted from an article I wrote for the Royal BC Museum’s online publication Curious, no. 3 (Summer 2014).

Music: “Mi Bolero,” composed and performed by Maarten Schellekens.

Motion picture film provides a record of passing time, rendered as a series of still pictures on a length of film stock. After the advent of sound, commercial movies ran at a constant speed, dividing a second of movement into exactly 24 frames.  But this was not always the case.  In the silent film era, cinematographers hand-cranked their cameras in a personal rhythm, often cranking slower or faster to adjust for lighting conditions.  When these films are shown at sound speed today, the speed mismatch often produces the inadvertently comic “jerkiness” that many viewers associate with old movies.  The “correct” speed for such footage has to be determined through trial and error.

Film is also an artifact of time—often a fragile one, whose blemishes, splices, technical imperfections and signs of wear reflect its age and history of use.  The first Comox scenes in the clip featured above show the ravages of nitrate decomposition:  a chemical process that affects the nitrocellulose base of the film stock, damaging and eventually destroying the image itself.  In another shot from the clip (at 2:29 – 2:39), static electricity (acting on the film stock before it was processed) has left dancing white lines within the image, creating an effect that looks like rainfall.

The renowned film historian Kevin Brownlow has written that documentary films “can be transformed by the passage of time into priceless relics that recapture our past in an astonishingly vivid manner.”  That is certainly the case with the footage shown here.

This clip is a video montage, compiled from film footage shot over a century ago.  It was one of four such montages in the video presentation Answering the Call, which were part of a 2014 Royal BC Museum display commemorating the Great War.  The presentation drew on almost an hour of rare film footage shot in BC during the First World War.  This material shows troops in training at Comox, Vancouver, and Victoria, Comox, before their departure for eastern Canada, England, and the battlefields of Europe.

Eight of the ten source reels used in the presentation depict events in Victoria.  This material exists as raw, unedited footage, with few details about dates, events or units depicted.  It owes its survival to Allan D. Taylor (1916-1999), a Victoria film enthusiast, who donated his unique collection of BC footage to Library and Archives Canada in 1973.

More details are known about the other two source reels.  The Comox and Vancouver items were both shot by pioneering BC filmmaker A.D. “Cowboy” Kean (1882-1961).  Kean attempted to document every unit that left the province to serve in the Great War.  In February 1916, he screened a four-reel compilation of this material in Vancouver, under the title BC for the Empire.  Like most of Kean’s film productions, however, this early documentary has vanished.  The extant examples of his military newsreels show two specific BC units:  the 102nd (North British Columbians) Battalion at Goose Spit near Comox, and “D” Company of the 196th (Western Universities) Battalion in Vancouver.

The men of the 102nd are shown in camp at the beginning of this clip, then marching along the beach and through Comox. (0:10-1:26) This is followed by footage of “D” Company of the 196th, marching down a ramp (from Cordova Street?) and onto the platform of the CPR station on the Vancouver waterfront. (1:26-2:06) The remainder of the clip comprises scenes from Victoria, intercut with another piece of the Vancouver footage.

One problem with the Victoria films is that they have no particular order or structure.  Some shots are much too brief, and some run on at great length; some are repeated, and some are truncated before the action shown is completed.  In creating the video presentation, the challenge has been to emphasize the most interesting footage, and to construct a meaningful visual story.  Where possible, image flaws were edited out or adjusted, and obvious speed issues were corrected.

The selected images have a remarkable quality of immediacy—even more so than still photographs.  We watch these BC recruits as they prepare to go to war; we can see them marching, drilling, standing at attention, and relaxing in camp.  They come to life on the screen.

This footage provides valuable visual evidence of a critical time in British Columbia’s history. It is also a poignant record of young men who saw the Great War as a great adventure. Their moving forms are an eloquent reminder of their youth, service, and sacrifice.

Waving their hats jubilantly, a group of recruits (from “D” Company of the 196th Battalion) offers up three cheers. In a column of men marching along Victoria’s Belleville Street, one figure is shadowed by a small child who clings to his hand. On the pier gangway, a soldier pauses to shake hands with the military cadets standing guard. As a steamship eases out into the Inner Harbour, its deck and rigging are crowded with uniformed men, all waving farewell to the crowd on the dock.  The footage may be silent, but their faces, turned towards the camera, still speak volumes—even a century later.

Soldiers of the 48th Battalion (CEF) marching along Government Street in front of the Empress Hotel, Victoria, 1915. (BC Archives I-60880)


The music featured in the above video clip is “Mi Bolero,” composed and performed by Maarten Schellekens. It has been shortened to fit the video. It is licensed through FreeMusicArchive under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Haida Carver (NFB, 1964)

Haida Carver is a short documentary looking at the Haida tradition of argillite carving. A young carver from Masset (the teenaged Robert Davidson) is shown collecting carving stone at Slatechuck Mountain [Haida name: Kaagan] on Graham Island, Haida Gwaii. He takes the stone home to work on it. His grandfather, Robert Davidson Sr. (1880-1969), is also seen at work on a carving. (His grandmother, artist Florence Edenshaw Davidson, is also seen briefly.) A selection of completed argillite pieces is shown.

Frame capture from Haida Carver
Frame capture from Haida Carver

“Gateway to Asia” (NFB, 1945)

View Gateway to Asia on NFB.ca site (10 minutes)

An interesting documentary snapshot of British Columbia at the end of the Second World War, Gateway to Asia also considers the province’s diverse population and the ways in which the war impacted them. It includes a segment on the wartime internment of Japanese-Canadians, and the confiscation of their property.  The contributions of other Asian-Canadian groups are also mentioned.  In addition, there is good archival footage of Vancouver, Victoria, and various critical B.C. industries.  The stentorian tones of narrator Lorne Greene (later Pa Cartwright on TV’s Bonanza) help put the message across.

“This short film highlights the province of British Columbia and its position after World War II. Located on the Pacific Coast, it is the gateway for those travelling to Asia and Russia and a vital link between the rest of Canada and its neighbours in the Far East. The film looks at British Columbia’s population, natural resources and industries along with some of its social issues.” (NFB online description)

This Week in History: A. D. Kean, “The Cowboy Cameraman”

NOTE: This continues a thread from to my blog posts Vancouver 1914: A. D. Kean and “Range Days” and Dominion Day Sports in Lillooet (1914 or 1915).

Vancouver filmmaker A. D. “Cowboy” Kean (1882-1961) was the first British Columbian to make a feature film.  Ninety-seven years ago, on May 7, 1924, he shot the opening scene in downtown Vancouver.  His historical epic Policing the Plains was three and a half years in the making, plagued by financial and technical difficulties.  Sequences were shot around Vancouver, in the Cariboo, and at several locations in southern Alberta.  The film finally had its Toronto premiere in December 1927 — but it never went into general distribution, and is now considered lost.


The RCMP’s “E” Division, grouped in front of the Vancouver Courthouse for the opening scene of Policing the Plains, 7 May 1924 (BC Archives H-01266)


Margaret Lougheed as the symbolic figure “Britannia” (BC Archives H-01225)

“The Home Town Paper” (NFB, 1948)

Home Town Paper_title_frame_crop 2021-09-14_edit

View The Home Town Paper at the NFB.ca site

This thoughtful and interesting vintage documentary examines the role of a weekly newspaper in a small town, and its relationship with the community that it serves. The paper in question is The Vernon News, and the town depicted is Vernon, in BC’s Okanagan Valley. The film shows how the newspaper’s contents are fashioned from the atmosphere, daily life, incidents, and concerns of a small town. 22 minutes.

“Following the weekly editor of one such hometown paper for a day, the film tracks the local events that will be news tomorrow. In town, we meet the people whose names are scattered through the pages: the mayor and his hope of a new city hall, the local angler who breaks a record, and even the lacrosse team, sharing spectators with the band concert in the park.” (from the NFB’s online catalogue description)

“Still Gold in Them Thar Hills” (NFB, 1951)


View Eye Witness No. 30 at the NFB.ca site

This 1951 NFB newsreel is entitled Eye Witness No. 30.  The first item on the reel, “Still Gold in Them Thar Hills,” shows how—90 years after the Cariboo Gold Rush—the precious metal is still being extracted from historic gold fields in and around Williams Creek, B.C.  The item highlights the tools and techniques of mechanized and hydraulic placer mining. (Duration: 2:17.)

Here’s the NFB description of the complete newsreel:  “These vignettes from 1951 covered various aspects of life in Canada and were shown in theatres across the country. Subjects included here are British Columbia’s Cariboo Trail, once the scene of a great gold rush and which still pays off for the placer miner and occasional prospector; Canada’s new state residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, a redesigned old stone mansion destined to become Canada’s No. 10 Downing Street; a unique ceremony in remote Chesterfield Inlet as an Inuit girl receives the veil of the Grey Nuns; Great Lakes conservationists outsmart the eel-like bloodsucker that preys on fish; and the new blue model uniforms designed for the Women’s Division of the Air Force.”

“Eye Witness No. 54” (NFB, 1953)


View Eye Witness No. 54 at the NFB.ca site

This newsreel contains three vignettes covering various aspects of Canadian life.  The first and third items are about British Columbia, and here are the NFB descriptions:

Ball Stars Start Young [first item in the above clip]: In Vancouver’s Little League, baseball players, diamond and equipment are junior size, but not the boys’ coaches or the eagerness of teams and fans.”

A Railroad Goes to Sea [starting at 6:56 in the above clip]: Swapping steel rails for ocean waves is routine for British Columbia’s Pacific Great Eastern Railway, travelling the forty-mile leg between Vancouver and Squamish by railway barge.”

NOTE:  The rail barge journey shown in the third item was replaced by a train trip in 1956, when the PGE completed its rail line from North Vancouver to Squamish.

“The Water Dwellers” (NFB, 1963)

Still image from The Water Dwellers. (NFB photo)

View The Water Dwellers on the NFB.ca site

The Water Dwellers is another National Film Board documentary that I recall somewhat fondly from my childhood. I remember that it played as the short subject when my parents took my brothers and me to a show at the Kelowna Drive-in Theatre. (We were in the back seat, in our pyjamas, with blankets and pillows, just in case the movie was too long for us.) I think the feature presentation was either How the West Was Won (with Jimmy Stewart and Debbie Reynolds) or Billy Rose’s Jumbo (with Jimmy Durante). In any case, I remember this NFB short more clearly than that night’s feature.

Directed by pioneer Canadian filmmaker Gordon Sparling, Dwellers is a profile of the floating community in and around Simoom Sound on Gilford Island in the Central Coast region of British Columbia. Most of the local homes and businesses in this resource community are built on floats, so that they can be moved easily from one moorage to another, following the needs of the local forest industry. The film shows children traveling to school by motorboat; the arrival of the mail plane and the weekly freightboat (the M.V. Alaska Prince); and sawmill and logging operations, run by one or two people, respectively. The longest sequence follows a forest ranger on the BC Forest Service vessel Nesika as it patrols the area, and shows the critical work of forest fire prevention and control.

As a child, I was fascinated to learn that people lived and worked in a floating village, and that boats were their cars and trucks. The Water Dwellers is one in a fascinating group of NFB shorts from the mid-20th-century. These productions moved away from the depiction of cities to explore small towns, rural communities, and isolated settlements all over BC–especially on the coast and in the North. These films are valuable today because they record a way of life that was (and is) gradually disappearing.

“Arrow Lakes, B.C.: Veteran Steamer Ends Record Service” — the sternwheeler S.S. Minto (1954)

View Eye Witness No. 63 on the NFB.ca site

Eye Witness No. 63 (National Film Board of Canada, 1954):  This newsreel begins with a four-minute story on the final voyage of the Arrow Lakes sternwheeler Minto.  She is shown stopping at Robson West, Renata, and Halcyon Hot Springs.

Dominion Day Sports in Lillooet (1914 or 1915)

NOTE: This is a sequel to my blog post Vancouver 1914: A. D. Kean and “Range Days”.

On July 3, 1914, the Prospector newspaper of Lillooet, BC, described the two-day local celebrations marking Dominion Day, which had ended the day before. Among its reports on the various races and special events, the paper took particular note of an unusual visitor.

One feature that caused not a little favorable comment was the arrival in our midst of the first moving picture camera ever seen in these parts. The machine was operated by A. D. Kean, the well known Cowboy Photographer of BC, who is operating for the Capital Film Company of Victoria. This company is backed by millionaires, who are British Columbians, and is the first company to be formed for the manufacture of motion pictures of British Columbia’s many attractions.

Kean is highly pleased with the films he has obtained, among which is the first Kloochmans’ race ever secured on the American continent. The bucking contest was also a great success, one rider being “thrown” quite close to the camera, the horse continuing to buck. The films will be exhibited at all the local and provincial Industrial Exhibitions and Fairs.[1]

In the summers of 1914 and 1915, A. D. Kean travelled through the BC Interior to recruit riders and livestock for “Range Days,” the cowboy sports event he organized for the Vancouver Exhibition. He visited the Dominion Day celebrations at LIllooet both years, shooting footage for the Capital Feature Film and BC Weekly Company, an early newsreel outfit based in Victoria.

Unlike much of Kean’s work (which has been lost), footage from one of his Lillooet visits has survived, and the film is preserved at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. I’ve edited the above clip from the extant footage.

Dominion Day event on Lillooet Main Street [between 1912 and 1916] (Item 2020.08.38, Northern BC Archives and Special Collections, UNBC)

[1]       “Lillooet Loyally Celebrates Natal Day,” Prospector [Lillooet], July 3, 1914, 1. The phrase “Klootchmans’ race” refers to a horse race ridden by Indigenous women. This race appears at 0:55-1:14 in the video. The word “klootchman,” from the Chinook trading jargon, denotes an Aboriginal woman or wife. Some sources indicate that it is now considered an offensive or derogatory term.