This article was originally published in 2012
Colin Low had just finished high school and a summer session at the Banff School of Fine Arts when the National Film Board came knocking and plucked him out of his rural Alberta home.
“My teacher suggested that I send some of my material to the NFB,” says Low of his decision to apply to the film board. “I didn’t know anything about the NFB. I had heard the name, but I didn’t really know that I had seen anything from it.”
At the time, he thought little of it, but just a few weeks later, Low found himself in Ottawa for a summer training session, working under his mentor and fellow Playback Film and TV Hall of Fame member, Norman McLaren, in the NFB’s budding animation department.
And so began Low’s illustrious career at the film board – a career that spans five decades and continues to this day with his filmmaker sons.
Following a brief period of study in Sweden, Low returned to the NFB’s animation department and, after being appointed head of the department by Tom Daly in 1950, quickly established himself as a man deeply dedicated to the board.
“He was not only able to sustain the life of the animation department for the better part of two decades, but was also, by his own example, an amazing filmmaker,” recalls Low’s former board colleague, Rob Verrall.
Low’s first major success came with the animated short, The Romance of Transportation in Canada (pictured), which won a Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes, and also earned an Oscar nomination.
Despite his beginnings in animation, Low soon found himself channeling his rural Alberta roots to also create docs, including Corral with long-time colleague Wolf Koenig, and Circle of the Sun.
Apart from his public reputation as a filmmaker, Low also inspired a generation of the profession’s young up-and-comers. “[Low] had an ethic with regard to filmmaking that became rooted in us,” says former NFB colleague, Tony Ianuzielo. “Young filmmakers came and left, but what happened was that the country was being seeded from coast to coast with filmmakers, and the NFB was the genesis of all that.”
Among those he inspired was 2001: A Space Odyssey director, Stanley Kubrick, who reportedly based some of the ideas for his sci-fi masterpiece off of the realistic animation in Low’s Universe.
Low also became known as an innovator and champion of the precursor to IMAX 3D film – a process he began work on with Roman Kroitor for the multi-screen film, In the Labyrinth at Expo ’67, and completed with Transitions at Expo ’86.
Yet to his colleagues, one of his crowning achievements will always be his work on the Challenge for Change, an NFB initiative to assist the struggling people of Fogo Island, Nfld., which saw Low produce 27 films.
“It was a place that had a big problem because its fishery was diminishing, and they had been on Fogo for 300 years,” recalls Low. “The government was about to kick them off the island, but the fishermen knew there were lots fish out there.”
Thanks to the initiative, the government arranged for the people of Fogo Island to have better boats, and the Challenge for Change program would spawn requests for similar social advocacy initiatives in other countries.
Verrall attributes much of his own success in the industry to Low’s constant willingness to help others in the industry.
“I survived because of his support, and there are quite a few of us who would say the same thing,” he says. “He might have been preoccupied with his own endeavours, but not so much so that he didn’t have time for people who he was in charge of, or saw a reason to help.”