IMAX co-inventor, filmmaker Roman Kroitor dies

Canadian film pioneer Roman Kroitor, who co-invented the IMAX film system and inspired directors from George Lucas to Guy Maddin, has died.

Influenced directors from Stanley Kubrick to George Lucas to Guy Maddin

NFB filmmaking pioneer Roman Kroitor's work influenced directors from Stanley Kubrick to George Lucas to Guy Maddin. (National Film Board of Canada)

Canadian film pioneer Roman Kroitor, who co-invented the IMAX film system and inspired directors from George Lucas to Guy Maddin, has died.

Yorkton, Sask.-born Kroitor died on Sunday at the age of 85, according to the National Film Board of Canada. He worked for the NFB during the 1950s, '60s and mid-'70s.

"Roman Kroitor was a remarkable man who has made out-sized contributions to cinema as a filmmaker, producer and creative and technical innovator," NFB chair Tom Perlmutter said in a statement.

"He was a legend whose relentless pace of inventiveness continued throughout a long and productive career. His death is a terrific loss to the NFB, Canada and the world of cinema."

After studying philosophy and psychology at the University of Manitoba, Kroitor became interested in cinema and joined the NFB, where he would eventually rise from production assistant to editor to filmmaker and technological innovator.

He made his directorial debut with the film Rescue Party. During the mid to late 1950s, he created the film Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman and worked on titles in the Candid Eye series. These entries are considered important examples of the Direct Cinema documentary genre, similar to cinema vérité in its emphasis on truthfully capturing reality and made possible by newly available lightweight cameras.

In other notable NFB projects, Kroitor partnered with fellow filmmakers Wolf Koenig and Colin Low to create influential non-fiction films, including:

  • Glenn Gould - On & Off the Record, a documentary about the legendary Canadian pianist.
  • Lonely Boy, a documentary short about former teen idol Paul Anka that was a highly influential early example of a "rockumentary."
  • Stravinsky, a portrait of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
  • Universe, which earned kudos from Stanley Kubrick, who translated techniques from the film into his own 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • In the Labyrinth, a multi-screen work that sparked major buzz at Expo '67 in Montreal.

He also helped produce fiction features such as Don Owen's Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964).

In 1967, Kroitor left the NFB to co-found the Multi-screen Corp., which later became IMAX Corp. Over the years, he produced or directed a host of films using the technology, including the inaugural IMAX film Tiger Child, the first feature-length IMAX film Rolling Stones: At the Max and 2000's IMAX 3D title CyberWorld.

Kroitor also teamed up with the NFB to develop IMAX Corp.'s SANDDE, a system that allows artists to create hand-drawn, 3D stereoscopic animations.

Influenced many

Aside from Kubrick, a wide range of filmmakers have been inspired by Kroitor's work.

Star Wars creator Lucas attributed his space epic's key thematic concept of The Force to a statement Kroitor made during a recorded conversation with artificial intelligence pioneer Warren S. McCulloch, as featured in NFB filmmaker Arthur Lipsett's short 21-87.

More recent directors, like Canadian Guy Maddin, have also been affected by Kroitor's movies. While poking around the NFB's archives in 2009, after he was commissioned to create a film marking the agency's anniversary, Maddin discovered Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman. The nine-minute short is a portrait of a Polish immigrant charged with keeping Winnipeg's streetcar tracks clean amid the freezing, muddy winter.

"I was struck by how well constructed and shot it was and I felt retroactively guilty about things I'd said as a kid about Canadian film," Maddin told CBC News at the time.

"I felt we were getting better and better with each passing decade. But this was made in 1953, and it looked better and stood on its own better than most Canadian films I'd seen."

Kroitor is survived by his wife, Janet, and their five children: Paul, Tanya, Lesia, Stephanie and Yvanna.