Pioneering Spirit: Saluting Canada’s rich history of innovation

Cinemas Features

In the early days of Kodak, George Eastman—whose motion picture film became the basis for the entertainment industry—had difficulty finding funding for his young company in Rochester, New York. When U.S. bankers turned him down, Canadian investors came to his rescue. To return the support, Eastman favored hiring employees from Canada.

When Eastman was still running the company, my grandfather was a young man looking for a job and he heard the Eastman story. One weekend he took a train from Rochester to Toronto; when he returned, he went directly to the Kodak employment office. “Where are you from?” the interviewer asked. “I came from Canada,” Grandpa answered. He worked at Kodak for the next 21 years.

Grandpa’s Canadian background was bogus; for so many others in our industry, it’s real. Here are just a few of Canada’s remarkable pioneers.

The Sweetheart: In 1899, seven-year-old Toronto-born Gladys Louise Smith had her first small stage roles—one as a girl, the other as a boy—but she was hooked. By the time she was 18, Smith had been on Broadway, had moved to Los Angeles, and was working with D.W. Griffith in Biograph Pictures.

As one of the first actresses to have her name above the title and produce many of her own films, Smith would star in 52 features, receiving a Best Actress Oscar for Coquette in 1929. But unable to transition to more sophisticated roles in the “talkies,” she retired from acting in 1933. Along with Griffith, Chaplin and Fairbanks, she formed United Artists, was one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and conceived the Motion Picture Relief Fund.

Her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks made her an American citizen. But at the end of her life, she regained her Canadian citizenship because “America’s Sweetheart” wished to "die as a Canadian.” She did, in 1979. By then, the world knew Gladys Smith only by the stage name she adopted seventy years before: Mary Pickford.

The Wordsmith.: From an early age, John Grierson was attracted to film. Born in Scotland in 1898, he befriended American filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who made Nanook of the North; applying Flaherty’s techniques, Grierson’s own film The Drifters in 1929 revolutionized the portrayal of working people in the cinema.

In 1938, the Canadian government invited him to counsel them on the use of film; based on his recommendations, the National Film Board was created and Grierson was appointed its first commissioner. During World War II, he was also general manager of Canada’s Wartime Information Board. Grierson’s belief that “art is not a mirror, it’s a hammer” has had an indelible influence on Canadian film.

But we remember Grierson today not for the beliefs he held or the filmmakers he befriended, but for one word he introduced to the industry. In a 1926 review, he used a new term to describe a film that dramatized the life of everyday people. He called it…a documentary.

The Engineer. Wilson Markle is a 79-year-old Canadian engineer whose invention is among the most controversial in the entertainment industry. It’s pitted film directors against studios and other copyright owners. Critics have called it “bastardization”; the Writers Guild of America described it as “cultural vandalism.”

It all started as a project for NASA. Back in the days of the Apollo missions, Markle was hired to sharpen up some images that were abysmal in quality. His company, Image Transform, had developed a machine to convert the footage for broadcast television.

But, if the image could be sharpened, what else could be done? Markle had another idea to add new life to old movies and was granted two patents for the process. Although it created an uproar in Hollywood, younger generations might never have seen older movies without his invention…called colorization.

The Secretary. Arthur William McCurdy, born in Truro, Nova Scotia in 1856, had many accomplishments in his 67-year life. After serving as a law clerk, he ran the family meat-cutting business and edited a local newspaper. He invented a portable tank for developing film and a method of printing statistical maps.

McCurdy was president of the Natural History Society of British Columbia, wrote about Victoria’s climate for National Geographic magazineandlost a seat in British Columbia’s legislature by two votes. He was a photographer and an astronomer, but his most unusual position was working for a stranger who, in 1885, fixed his store’s malfunctioning telephone.

They developed a friendship and the stranger invited McCurdy to become his private secretary. McCurdy once wrote strong criticism of his boss’ work habits: “1. You must not put off office work until three or four o’clock in the afternoon. 2. Don’t take letters away from the office and expect me to find them. 3. Don’t take unanswered letters away and expect me to answer them.”

The “stranger” he criticized was also one of Canada’s adopted pioneers—the man who invented the telephone he once repaired…Alexander Graham Bell.

The Big Thinkers. Canadians Graeme Ferguson and his brother-in-law Roman Kroiter each made films for Expo ’67 pavilions in Montreal. When the pavilions were successful, they had an idea to bring the “expo experience” to movie theatres: a giant screen, surround sound, and high-angle seating for better viewing.

To bring their idea to reality, they recruited two high-school friends, Robert Kerr, a successful businessman, and Bill Shaw, co-inventor of the first hockey helmet who had never been in a projection room. Tiger Child for Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan was the first film produced in the new format—but skeptics were relentless.

When their first permanent installation—at Ontario Place in Toronto—became popular, critics pointed out that admission was free. When they built a highly successful theatre at the Smithsonian in Washington, naysayers claimed their concept only worked for short films. When they produced movies on The Rolling Stones and the Titanic, many said their idea was unsuitable for drama. Then Avatar changed everything.

Today, they have more than 1,300 theatres in 79 countries; more than 1,200 are in commercial complexes where moviegoers enjoy an experience like no other…called IMAX.


The Mogul.By 1897, twelve-year old Lazar Meir had quit school and was collecting scrap metal in St. John, New Brunswick. Becoming fascinated with the entertainment business and with an insatiable work ethic, he moved to the U.S. Within a few years, he was a partner in the largest theatre chain in New England, a film distribution agency in Boston and a talent-booking agency in New York City.

After moving to Los Angeles, he was hired as head of studio operations for what became MGM. With Meir’s business skills—and Irving Thalberg’s production ability—they built it into the most successful studio in Hollywood. Meir was the first person in America to earn a million-dollar annual salary.

He helped to create the “star system” and to found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but he never forgot his Canadian roots. In 1943, when Mary Pickford brought a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot to the studio, Meir gave him a personal tour and told him: “When this war is over, I’ll find a job for you.”

Many feared him; others considered him a father figure. But long before he died in 1957, Meir had Anglicized his name. He was always known professionally… as Louis B. Mayer.

The Guru.Since 1931, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has presented Scientific and Technical Awards to engineers and inventors who’ve created innovations that have had a lasting influence on the art of filmmaking. For 2018, they presented one to Mark Elendt (seen on the right in above photo) and SideFX of Toronto for the creation and development of the Houdini visual effects and animation system. It was Elendt’s fourth Oscar.

Elendt’s work on Houdini has contributed to a long list of films, including this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. For The Shape of Water, Houdini was used to create realistic bubbles, track the changing light as the bubbles and creature move, and enable the creature’s skin to move differently inside the water and out.

A graduate of Queen's University in Ontario and apioneer in visual effects and rendering, Elendt has more than 25 years of experience in computer graphics. And yet, in a SIGGRAPH profile, this “technical guru” made a surprising confession…he doesn’t even own a cellphone.

The Founders. Bill Marshall and Henk Van der Kolk were Canadian film producers who met while working on the set of Frankenstein on Campus—and became lifelong friends. Together, they helped to create the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television and co-produced a number of films through their Film Consortium of Canada.

But in the mid-’70s the partners invited lawyer “Dusty” Cohl to join them in a new project: an event to screen the best-regarded films from festivals around the world. That first year—1976—35,000 filmgoers watched 127 films from 30 countries. Many Hollywood studios withdrew their submissions, believing Toronto audiences would be too parochial for their products.

Marshall and Cohl have passed away; only Van der Kolk survives as the last member of the team that founded that small event 42 years ago. Today, it’s one of the largest in the world, showing more than 400 films from 80+ countries on 28 screens to nearly half-a-million attendees who know it as…the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Filmmaker.  Born in Toronto, he displayed an early aptitude for performing and theatre. At the University of Toronto, he was involved in writing, directing and acting and after graduation he worked as a scriptwriter for a children's show and bit-part actor for the BBC in London. He returned to Toronto as a production trainee and when CBC Television went on the air in 1952, he was an assistant director.

He’d go on to direct dozens of feature films and be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director three times in three separate decades. He would win accolades around the world, including the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for “a body of work that reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production."

But his most enduring contribution to filmmaking is the establishment of a place that opened its doors in 1988, where the “mission is to invest in and inspire the next generation of world-class Canadian content creators and entrepreneurs in the screen-based entertainment industry.” More than 1,700 alumni have since graduated from that place that he—Norman Jewison—established…The Canadian Film Centre.

The Ghostwriter. Charles Leslie McFarlane was raised in Haileybury, Ontario and became a freelance writer who worked as a newspaper reporter in Toronto and in the U.S. Later in life, he’d return to Canada to work for the National Film Board of Canada.He would directdocumentaries and short dramas including one nominated for an Academy Award.

He would write over 70 television shows and dozens of radio programs, but his real legacy comes from an ad he answered in 1926 from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, publisher of “books for juveniles.” They were looking for an “experienced fiction writer” for a new series that would pay a flat rate of $125 per book. McFarlane sent writing samples; they were judged “satisfactory.”

And so, for the next 20 years, the Syndicate would send him an outline and as soon as a week or two later, he’d send back a fully written book. He had no further rights; he received no additional royalties. He’d end up writing 19 of the first 25 books in the series. He never read them afterwards; he considered them a necessary “nuisance” to pay his bills.

But young boys who developed a love of reading mostly developed it from what he had written—because working on a manual typewriter in a cabin in northern Ontario, Charles Leslie McFarlane wrote under the pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon. He was the ghostwriter of…The Hardy Boys.