Mason and Filmmaking
Outdoorsman Bill Mason
Bill Mason is a consummate filmmaker. Not only is he a respected craftsman in every facet of filmmaking, with a sure feeling for audience reaction, but he is true to himself in his selection and treatment of topics.
He approaches filmmaking as a painter does his canvas alone, and with conviction and vigor. He deals only with topics which he has either experienced or has thought through completely, and to which he is firmly committed.
In a craft where group activity is the norm, he works mostly alone. In all of his films, he has done the directing, editing, filming (except the scenes which he appears in), scripting and research. For his last five films he also wrote and read the commentary.
Nevertheless, he always makes a point of recognizing the contributions, to his career and his films, of people like his lifelong friend and fellow filmmaker, Blake James, composer Larry Crosley, and cameraman Ken Buck, among others. Mason insists that the success of his first three films is due in large part to James who appeared in them as the principal or sole actor. He also acknowledges the support from his family, especially the role of his wife who is his business manager, keeping the day-to-day affairs away from his filmmaking. Also he admits, "she is my toughest and most constructive critic:' At first the family's involvement was a passive acceptance of his extended filming expeditions. But in the last few years it has included everything from nursemaiding a pack of wolves to appearing in his films, adding a warm human element to them.
Mason's long experience as a cartoonist, layout artist and maker of commercials shows in his live-action filmmaking. Before shooting a single foot of film, he writes a very tight script and then draws an extremely detailed storyboard. In it he depicts exactly how he intends to film every scene or action sequence.
Once satisfied with his plans, he heads off in his battered car to film in a no-frills style of working alone, or with a crew of one. To further stretch his production budget and to be there to capture a sudden change in lighting or mood, he stays in the wilderness during the shooting, sleeping in a tent or under his canoe. To many people, living alone
in the wilderness for long periods of time would be a hardship, but Mason loves it.
Once there, he is a perfectionist who tirelessly searches out the ideal location, sets up and then waits for exactly the right lighting or action. When that moment arrives, Mason springs into a frenzy of activity — "a human dynamo" is how colleague Blake James terms it. It is so intense that the filmmaker sometimes doesn't hear when someone speaks to him. Often he keeps up that pace for 18 hours a day, days on end.
Almost nothing deters Mason from getting the footage he wants. He scales glaciers for a single shot, swims rapids with a camera on his head, creates ingenious filming aids by employing the materials at hand, or hunts down NFB specialists like Bill Breitenbach to custom build devices to make certain shots possible.
Whenever an animated segment is needed for one of his films, Mason loves to do it himself as he enjoys the challenges and creative possibilities that animation offers.
Once he is satisfied that he has the shots he needs, the self confessed "work addict" pores over the footage in a tiny studio near his home, editing and re-editing. He then screens the rough-cut film with his family and friends, closely watching their reactions and listening to all comments before committing himself to the final version of the film.
Although not musically inclined him-self (though he will try to convince you of his prowess on the harmonica), Mason is keenly aware of the role music plays in his films. With his composer Larry Crosley, he usually begins working out what type of musical effect he wants early in production. The types of music he has employed range from simple folk ballads sung by a person accompanying himself on the guitar, through to complex musical scores involving several groups of musicians.
The most minute detail of the post-production of each film is scrutinized, nothing is left to chance. It can't be, for Mason sees filmmaking not as a job, but as an extension of his way of life.
Mason wearing camera headgear
The creator of some of Canada's most popular short films, and one internationally successful feature, became a filmmaker almost by accident.
Born in Winnipeg in 1929, Bill Mason began his career as a painter after receiving his Diploma in Fine Arts from the University of Manitoba in 1951. In the next ten years he not only became a layout artist whose talents were in great demand, but he also taught himself the techniques of film animation. When the fledgling Winnipeg television station began to require commercials for local advertisers, Mason helped to produce animated commercials which were among the first made in Canada.
During this time his love for canoeing and camping sparked trips into the Manitoba wilderness where he roamed alone with his sketching pad and camera, sometimes for months at a time. Wanting to share the beauty of some of the more remote wilderness spots with his family and friends, the young wilderness traveler taught himself the art of photography. He then produced a series of 35 mm slide sound presentations which became popular with local service clubs and organizations.
The turn in his career from commercial artist to live-action filmmaker started in 1958 when he was an actor-canoeist in Chris Chapman's film Quetico. Mason was so impressed by Chapman's camera artistry that he welcomed the chance to direct, film and edit a 20-minute promotional film, Wilderness Treasure, for the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship the following year. It was during the making of that film that he realized that, as he puts it, "live-action filmmaking would best allow me to share my thoughts about the land, its creatures and the Creator."
In 1960, Mason and his bride whom he had taken on a three month canoeing and filming honeymoon and 17 cans of recently shot film, as she recalls moved to Ottawa. While still editing Wilderness Treasure he began work as an animator for Crawley Films where he worked on over 120 segments of a television series of The Wizard of Oz and an animated feature film of the same name. But his formidable reputation as a layout artist followed him and, while freelancing in animation and filmmaking in the nation's capital, he was also the art director for a Winnipeg advertising agency.
When the National Film Board viewed some spectacularly photographed sequences which Mason had filmed using his own money, he was hired to finish the children's film Paddle to the Sea. Its instant success brought a series of freelance contracts with the Board, and in the next twelve years he created seven very popular and critically ac-claimed films. One of the films, the feature length Cry of the Wild, is among Canada's most successful features to date, grossing over one million dollars in its first week in New York City.
In 1975 he joined the Board as a full-time filmmaker. Since then, he has completed five films and designed a detailed booklet on canoeing.
His interests, other than filmmaking and his family, include sketching and painting, contemplating by a campfire, sharing his concerns with audiences, and hurling about his 135-pound body in fiercely competitive hockey scrimmages with friends.
Bill Mason lives in the Gatineau Hills near Ottawa with his wife, Joyce, and their children Paul and Becky.
Mason on filmmaking
"The medium of film is for me a means of expressing my love and enjoyment of the natural world, and of sharing my concern for what's happening to it with anybody who looks and listens.
"I am not particularly in love with the medium itself. It is a cumbersome, complicated, technologically oriented art. But as a means of sharing some-thing, there is no other medium to equal it.
"The making of films enables me to go where I want to go, doing the things I want to do. That has to be the ultimate way to make a living!"
Written by Tom Shoebridge in 1979.
Bill Mason His camera: the land and its creatures
Written by Tom Shoebridge
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, 1979
The red canoe has become synonymous with the Mason family. It started with Bill Mason, the author, artist, Academy Award nominated film maker and canoeing fanatic. Bill loved his red canoes and was rarely seen in anything else. His children share this love, so when it came time to create a family website it seemed natural to name it redcanoes. We hope that you enjoy the visual art, videos, canoeing lessons and all the related information here.