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Lakehead University Magazine Fall/Winter 2005

Super-Sized Success

A Profile on IMAX filmmaker Stephen Low

By Andrew J. Deman

Stephen LowFor an unparalleled career in bringing big ideas to the biggest screens in the world, this year’s recipient of the Lakehead University Alumni Honour Award is pioneering IMAX film director, Stephen Low (BA’74).

The job of directing an IMAX film is extremely demanding. Projected onto screens the size of an eight-story building, IMAX pictures use state-of-the-art cameras that consume a roll of film the length of an ocean liner in just three minutes at a cost of approximately $3,500 per roll. The end result is a unique visual experience of lush colors and intricately detailed images. “For most people,” says Stephen Low, “their first IMAX film is their favorite. It’s a bit like losing your virginity.”

Low spent four years at Lakehead in the early 1970s, earning his BA in Political Science. He looks back fondly on his time at Lakehead, saying, “The day I arrived in Thunder Bay, it really did huge things for my sense of well-being and confidence. It changed my life.”

Born in Ottawa, Low was primarily raised in Montreal, and spent his summers in southern Alberta. His father, Colin Low, is a multiple Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker with a strong background in the history of the IMAX format. Colin worked on the very first IMAX film, Tiger Child. Coincidentally, the second ever IMAX film was shot in Northwestern Ontario right about the time that Lakehead University first opened its doors. Colin also helped to develop the newer 3D IMAX technology while directing the first three-dimensional IMAX film in 1986.

Initially, however, Low did not anticipate following in his father’s footsteps. “I wasn’t interested in the film industry until I became interested in the world.” This interest came about during Low’s summer job working on the Canadian Pacific Railway in Thunder Bay and other parts of the region in order to pay for his tuition at Lakehead. Traveling about the North-West provided the young man with a new sense of perspective, vision, and ultimately, a philosophy of filmmaking.

“The minutia of filmmaking is boring, so it’s not an interest in cameras or of orchestrating the perfect shot that drives me. What is exciting is the true reward of filmmaking – communication, saying something to an audience.

I’ve known a lot of filmmakers who failed because they were too interested in the craft. Without an interest in the subject at hand, you’re screwed. What’s most important is to be curious and passionate about the world.”

Upon graduating from Lakehead in 1974, Low continued his travels, first working for a housing company constructing pre-fab homes throughout Northwestern Ontario and parts of Manitoba, then to Newfoundland where he found work making commercials. Here he also had a memorable early film experience working as the personal driver of Bo Derek on location shooting.

This began Low’s association with the mainstream movie industry, which led him to Alberta once again where he was hired to shoot production stills for the movie Days of Heaven, starring Richard Gere and Sam Shepard. Low quickly tired of the artificiality of Hollywood movies.

His desire to tell real stories with real subjects drove him in a different direction. “Hollywood plays with toys,” he says, “they never get close to the real thing.”

Stephen LowThe first real thing that Low approached was a documentary called Challenger: An Industrial Romance. With the help of the National Film Board, Low produced his first award-winning documentary. This led to a sequence of documentary film projects – all in the IMAX format – featuring a broad range of subject material such as the Titanic, Mark Twain, F1 Racing, Deep Sea Volcanoes, and even that most prominent of Canadian symbols: the beaver.

The film in question here is simply titled Beavers. To date, it is the most successful Canadian film ever made, and by a wide margin. Beavers cost a million dollars to create, and to date has earned over $80 million in return. Low recalls how the idea for this project “came out of the rivers of Thunder Bay.” It follows the everyday activities of beavers, with a tenacity that puts any television reality series to shame, tracing their every movement from below the ice to within the lodge.

Low’s most recent project is the 2004 release Fighter Pilot: The Battle of Red Flag, an in-depth and insightful look at United States’ Air Force jet pilot training, featuring spectacular air-to-air photography of the most advanced flying machines the world has ever known.

Looking toward the future, Low has a number of projects on the go, including a potential IMAX documentary on the Great Lakes which could once again bring IMAX filming to the region it first explored three decades ago. Beyond that, Low is considering pictures on thoroughbred racehorses, the Canadian Pacific Railway, and, potentially, a sequel to Fighter Pilot.
The Alumni Honour Award is awarded each year to a graduate who has helped to further the honor and prestige of Lakehead University and its Alumni Association. In receiving this award, Low simply wants everyone to know that he loves Thunder Bay, the culture of the town, the quality of the people, and the beauty of the land. “I think it’s a great honor,” says Low. “It’s fantastic to go back to a place where I had such great years.”

Although Low’s history and credentials are thoroughly chronicled on his website (www.stephenlow.com), perhaps the best representation of the merit behind this year’s Alumni Honour Award winner is best seen where so much of his life and work has been encapsulated – at a theatre near you.

J. Andrew Deman (HBA’01, MA’03) is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo.
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