by Dennis J. Duffy
Present-day film production in British Columbia has attracted a lot of attention. Local filmmaking is not a new phenomenon, however, but the continuation of an activity which has gone on in the province since the early part of this century. The west coast has had an eventful filmmaking heritage — perhaps more so than any other English-speaking region in Canada. This heritage has been largely ignored until recent years, when the revitalization of the Canadian film industry has sparked interest in our new cinema and in its historical precedents.
The early development of filmmaking in British Columbia took place largely in isolation from the rest of Canada. Cameramen first came to film the province for the sake of its novel and photogenic landscapes, and to promote immigration and tourism. The first incursion of Hollywood film crews, in the 1920s, was also drawn primarily by the varied scenery available for outdoor adventure pictures. In the 1930s, they set up a branch plant here and made features of dubious quality, taking advantage of Canada’s membership in the British Empire to exploit the British quota restriction on imported films.
Meanwhile, domestic film production developed separately, usually growing from existing photographic or advertising concerns. British Columbia’s first locallybased commercial cinematographer was A.D. “Cowboy” Kean, who got his start in movies filming the Vancouver Exhibition and the departure of troops for Europe during World War I. Later, he shot wildlife and industrial films, as well as an original feature. Kean’s ambitious and indefatigable efforts to sustain himself as an independent producer, even financing feature production through his commercial work, are suggestive of the conditions still faced by today’s filmmakers.
There was also considerable interest in amateur filmmaking, arising from Kodak’s introduction of the 16mm film format for non-professional use in 1923. People embraced home movies as eagerly as they had snapshot photography, recording the special and commonplace events of their domestic and working lives. Where such footage has survived, it often provides a rich and intimate viewpoint on life in British Columbia in the early decades of this century. The advent of the 16mm format also paved the way for the broader promotional use of film; it made the medium cheap enough for companies to commission short movies about their products or services. Government agencies and other public institutions found 16mm film effective for nontheatrical distribution and exhibition.
During the years 1941 through 1965, films about B.C. were generated by a variety of institutions and producers. Agencies of the British Columbia government made promotional and educational films, largely dealing with the province’s scenic and recreational attractions and industrial versatility. The federal government’s National Film Board documented the history, economy, rural life and cultural heritage of the province, as well as preparing recreation and travel shorts. Commercial filmmakers such as Leon Shelly and Lew Parry were commissioned by local and national firms to record and promote a wide range of industries, particularly their rapid postwar development. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, through its television film unit at CBUT Vancouver, created an important body of uniquely regional social
documentaries and dramatic films. A few theatrical features were shot locally by American companies and by fledgling domestic concerns.
The history of filmmaking in British Columbia revolves almost exclusively around production based on the coast, usually in Vancouver. By 1941 the earlier prominence of Victoria as a film centre had clearly been eclipsed by the larger city. There were exceptions, of course: some Vancouver filmmakers went into other regions of the province for their subjects; National Film Board crews came in from the east; and the provincial government’s operations remained based in Victoria. Nevertheless, the clear majority of films were conceived and assembled in Vancouver.
The west coast — particularly Vancouver — has emerged since World War I as a gathering place for people interested in the arts. Due to its relative isolation, the cultural life that has developed in B.C. has done so separately from, but in parallel to, that of eastern Canada. By the 1940s, the region had made noteworthy contributions to Canadian painting, literature, music, theatre, photography and broadcasting. This is sometimes attributed to a cultured English presence in the form of well-educated British immigrants, or to a cosmopolitan aspect that developed as Vancouver became a crossroads for trade to the Pacific Rim. Whatever brought it about, this cultural milieu engendered many Canadian talents; it was only natural that a film community should develop as well.
The two decades following World War II saw the emergence of such a community, fostered in part by the industrial growth that characterized the period. The proximity of Hollywood was another key factor, for it proved an invaluable source of technical expertise. Filmmakers were inspired by the work of American and British producers. They served their apprenticeships at local studios, gaining valuable experience through work on industrial films. Some would later find a more personal voice through work for the CBC or the NFB. This would lead to a growing stream of independent filmmaking, one of the most important legacies of the period. The best films owed their quality to a small group of talented directors, cinematographers and editors. It was these individuals that made all the difference to filmmaking in Vancouver; yet it was the limitations of Vancouver that ultimately forced many to leave in search of better creative conditions. This was another legacy of the period.