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"RCA" 2006 Obituary


RCA o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2006-03-22 published
John Creighton DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS, Engineer: (1924-2006)
Unsung hero of Canada's Imax success story knew how to make the big-screen technology work
By M.J. STONE, Special to The Globe and Mail, Page S9
Montreal -- He was the man in the engine room of the good ship Imax. John Creighton DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS was an engineering guru, a genius at tinkering who was the brains behind making the Imax corporation's giant-screen technology work as well as it did. Years before, he was the wizard who helped keep Expo 67's Labyrinth film project going. And when it was all over, Mr. DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS went back to his first love -- the humble train.
In the meantime, his other passion remained electronics. As a teenager during the Depression, Mr. DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS's future in telecommunications was foreshadowed when he plied his talent for radio repair in the small town of Sutton in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Neighbours and customers paid 25 cents to have their wonky Radiolas, RCA Victors and Silvertones tinkered back into working order.
At 18, poor eyesight disqualified him from serving in any of the Canadian armed forces during the Second World War. At the suggestion of doctors who advised he spend less time in libraries with his head buried in books, he worked for a year with the Canadian Pacific Railroad and then enrolled at McGill University.
It was while earning his degree in science that he met his wife, Althea McCOY, a likeminded student who became his life-long collaborator. They were both involved in the McGill drama department. Mr. DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS was in charge of lighting and his future wife was the costume co-ordinator. Their initial collaboration at the McGill Red and White Revue revealed a symbiotic relationship that would often find the couple working side by side."The smartest thing I ever did was to marry him," said writer and archivist Althea DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS. "Creighton was my favourite proof reader and copy editor."
The couple married in 1948 and the following year he departed for a career in the Quebec wilderness repairing radio transmitters for Canadian Marconi. He later travelled to England, sent by Marconi, to study the emerging world of television.
When the couple returned to Canada, Mr. DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS began demonstrating the principles of television at trade fairs. With both of them operating a camera, the duo wowed Toronto audiences at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1950. Althea DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS recalled how aiming the camera at the crowds delighted visitors, who, through closed-circuit monitors, discovered themselves on television for the first time. Commercial television was still a few years away and she lays claim that the experience at the Canadian National Exhibition made her Canada's first female operator of a television camera.
Mr. DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS's cutting-edge knowledge of the new medium resulted in work as a consultant with the Canadian Broadcasting Company when it first went on the air in 1952. Later, he returned to Canadian Marconi as the engineering manager for Montreal's CFCF radio and in 1961, he supervised the construction of a television transmission tower. Erected at the top of Mount Royal, it broadcast the first television signals when CFCF-television at last went on the air.
Regarded as a technical genius, Mr. DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS was the go-to person hired by the National Film Board of Canada to orchestrate the Labyrinth project for the 1967 world's fair in Montreal. A multiscreen film, In the Labyrinth, was a smash hit at Expo and is considered the precursor to today's large-format films. Using a complicated projection system with three synchronized viewing chambers, it featured stereo sound and a mirrored maze.
Colin Low, the National Film Board of Canada's former head of animation, said that Mr. DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS possessed the right mix of flexibility and vigour necessary to handle the madness that In the Labyrinth inspired. "A lot of things, we had never tried before. Creighton was intrigued by it. He made it work. Labyrinth was one of the starting points for Imax technology."
Imax was a revolution in the movie industry. What made it arrestingly different was the sheer size and crispness of the projected image, combined with resonant, multitrack sound systems. No matter what the subject, watching can be viscerally intense -- a fact that directors have exploited with roller-coaster intensity ever since the first Imax title, North of Superior, lit up the media. The format uses the largest film frame in movie history, 10 times the size of conventional 35-mm film. The screens, too, were oversized, as tall as eight storeys.
The system was the brainchild of five Canadian visionaries who toiled for more than a quarter of a century to make Imax Corp. a household word in entertainment. Graeme FERGUSON, Robert KERR, Roman KROITOR, Bill SHAW and Bill BREUKELMAN founded Imax and pioneered the giant-screen, large-format film medium before selling the technology in 1994 to a group of American investors for about $100-million (U.S.).
All the same, few knew the system better than Mr. DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS. In 1981, Mr. DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS found himself in France supervising the installation of a new generation of Imax screens. His final Imax project was to co-ordinate the installation of the company's theatre at the Museum of Civilization.
In retirement, he returned to the much less complicated technology of locomotives, and the tracks they travelled down. His interest also left its mark on his marriage, for his wife possessed railway roots of her own ("My father worked for the Canadian National Railway," she said), and together they co-wrote Canadian Railway Records: A Guide for Genealogists, a resource for families with rail connections going back about 150 years.
The DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS manual, composed for family historians, offers tips and resources for recovering historical records of family members via ticket sales and the vast network of railway payrolls, journals, magazines and subsidiary companies. In the introduction, the couple wrote, "this book has been a joint effort but we each have our own areas of expertise. Creighton wrote much of the material on the railway way of life, working conditions and so on. Althea did the archival work checking documents and bibliographical data and wrote about libraries and archives so, inevitably, on occasion we wrote in the first person singular and at other times in the first person plural."
Mr. DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS also added a consumer warning: "The railway offers such a variety of intriguing information and experience that there is some aspect that will intrigue almost everyone." In other words, railways are highly addictive and can absorb all your free time and available money.
John Creighton DOUGLAS/DOUGLASS was born on August 15, 1924, in Cowansville, Quebec He died of a congestive heart failure on February 6, 2006 in Ottawa. He is survived by his wife.

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