Written by: Jeremy Witten
The importance of American filmmaker Roger Tilton in the history of IMAX Dome cinema is well documented, but his unique connection to Alberta and Albertan film history is less well-known.
In 1973, the San Diego Hall of Science premiered the world’s first IMAX Dome film Garden Isle, directed by Tilton. By this time, IMAX film had already existed for more than five years, but the concept of projecting that film onto a dome screen was new and it was in this arena that Roger Tilton was an innovator. Eight years later, Tilton traveled to Alberta with a vision for another dome film: Canadian bush pilots flying their planes to remote northern communities during the 1920s and 1930s. Since Edmonton was historically considered the “Gateway to the North,” Tilton wanted some of the film shot in the Edmonton area, with other scenes shot in northern Alberta and Northwest Territories. Albertan filming sites included St. Albert, Peace River and Fort Vermillion. The resulting film, Pilots North, premiered at Edmonton’s Klondike Days Exhibition in 1981.
It’s interesting that the film’s format inspired its content. Dome theatre screens occupy almost all of a filmgoer’s field of view, similar to laying on the ground and looking up at the sky. This common comparison of a dome theatre screen to the sky is what inspired Tilton to make a dome film about airplanes in the first place. One of the shoots took place at the former St. Albert Airport, northwest of Edmonton. Tilton wanted to depict what an Albertan airport might have looked like in the 1930s where bush pilots departed en route to northern settlements. Tilton realized that he needed to have antique cars in order to maintain historical accuracy in his scenes, so he contacted the Edmonton Antique Car Club.
In a 2021 interview, Lorne Schmidt, former president of the car club recalled the filming and his involvement:
I got a call one day from somebody who said “We’re doing this movie out there. Would you like to bring your car out?” and I said “Okay. What, where, why, how?”… When we went out it was 7 o’clock or 7:30 in the morning and everything was frozen. It was probably April or May. By the time they were finished it was 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon. They did dozens of takes. And the field was absolute slop mud, so we drove straight from there to the car wash and scraped the mud off.
Schmidt went on to say, “the Edmonton Antique Car Club was involved in a whole lot of things simply because we were a car club. I mean, where else are you going to get a bunch of old cars together at the same time? So there were several movies made with the car club.” All in all, Tilton enlisted five cars from the club: Schmidt’s 1932 Model 901 Packard, as well as a a 1926 Ford Model T Coupe, a 1929 Ford Model A Coupe, a 1929 Ford Model A Pickup and a 1934 Buick Sedan. The owners of these cars came from across Alberta: the Model T was owned by Bob Marsh from Drumheller, the Model A Coupe by Lloyd Johnson from Camrose, the pickup by Edmontonian Gerry Kuipers and the Buick by Ken Smith from Sexsmith.
Among those antique car owners, Gerry Kuipers is worth discussing further as Schmidt speculates that Kuipers may have been the initial connection between Roger Tilton and the car club. Kuipers was a well-connected businessman, and Schmidt explains that, “because of the business Gerry had, I think he may have been the guy who was actually first contacted and then he contacted the rest of the car club.” Although Kuipers had no experience as an actor, Schmidt explains that Kuipers actually ended up acting as the postman in the film. Tilton painted the text “Royal Mail” on the side of Kuipers’ antique pickup truck in an easily washable water-based paint. The film also starred Bob Bainborough as a pilot, who is perhaps best known for his role as Dalton Humphrey on The Red Green Show. In one important scene, Kuipers delivers the mail to Bainborough and Bainborough subsequently loads that mail onto his plane for delivery up north.
Today Alberta has dome theatres at Edmonton’s Telus World of Science and at Calgary’s Telus World of Science. But the dome theatre that Tilton used at Klondike Days predates both of these theatres. When Edmonton’s Margaret Zeidler Star Theatre opened in 1984, it was one of two IMAX theatres in Canada and the only IMAX Dome in the country, but it was built three years after the R.C.M.P. Dome Theatre had been dismantled at the 1981 Klondike Days Exhibition. So Pilots North is historically significant not only because its director created the world’s first IMAX Dome film in 1973, but also because it was projected on Alberta’s very first IMAX Dome screen in 1981.
The script of Pilots North and its attempts at social commentary are in many ways outdated and at times problematic. As one pilot visits an Inuit community, narrator Lanny Lee Hagan states, “even remote outposts in the high arctic are touched by wings; and now civilization is but a flight away” as if to imply that the Inuit community is not a civilization of its own and civilized on its own accord. Additionally, the Inuit communities of Tulita and Kugluktuk are referred to by the outdated Anglo-colonial names of Fort Norman and Coppermine. These details do not change the fact that Pilots North is technologically important in Alberta’s film history, but they do make it difficult to celebrate the film without making these critical caveats. Still, this video footage may be the only surviving film record of Umingmaktok, a now abandoned settlement located in Bathurst Inlet, Nunavut. If one ignores the commentary of the narrator, traditional Inuit throat singing can be heard at a lower volume in the soundtrack.
All things considered, Pilots North is an intriguing and anomalous blip in Albertan cinema that has long been forgotten despite its historical significance. As Lorne Schmidt recounts his experience at the film premiere, one can just imagine what it would have been like to sit in Alberta’ first dome theatre on a hot July day in 1981:
We got in, we sat down in our seats, the screen was up there, and there was total and absolute surround sound… We come in and we fly over a waterfall and go down about a half a mile, touch down on water skis and taxi up to the dock… But I could hear the waterfall behind me while I was sitting there, so I’m looking back. And then the really tough part starts: the pilot says “okay fellas, we’ll see you again next trip” and they give the plane a push into the river and he gets out there but the thing won’t start. And I can hear the waterfall behind me getting louder and louder because that’s the way the river flowed. Well it scared the pants off of me, sitting there with this bloody waterfall behind me and finally the plane took off. It was quite an experience to be there.