Digital Download: Universe (1960)

March 13, 2014 | By


Universe_1960Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent/ Extras:  (none)

Label: NFB Online

Region:  n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Documentary / Astronomy

Synopsis: Oscar-Nominated short film about our solar system and what lies beyond.

Special Features:   (none)




Nominated for an Oscar (Best Documentary, Short Subjects) and winner of a BAFTA (Best Animated Film) and Canadian Film Award (Film of the Year), this highly influential documentary offers a moody voyage through our solar system, and a journey to the universe’s nether regions using then state of the art animation and a stunning modernistic score by Eldon Rathburn.

This doc may well have been forgotten had it not been for its connection to Stanley Kubrick’s own cinematic milestone, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick was undoubtedly captivated by the realistic movements around planets and moons, gazes from the surface of these mysterious orbs, and the passing stars, gaseous images and cloudy bodies, because 2001’s space imagery was built upon the views and movements within this NFB classic.

Directors Roman Kroitor and Colin Low begin the film with a distant, eerie view of the Earth, underscored by Rathburn’s striking chords and pulsing piano keys before a quick montage of busy street action in Toronto, circa 1960. After a jump to the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill – once the second largest in the world, and still the biggest in Canada – we follow astronomer Douglas MacRae as he sets up, aligns, and begins to track stars using the enormous telescope before the doc’s first section of striking images unravel.

Moving from orbiting positions to surface views (including some great tracking camera movements on bleak lunar and planetary surfaces), we head back to the observatory before one more leap to deep space and glance at distant galaxies, red dwarfs, and other beautiful creations before the sun rises, and MacRae journeys home from the observatory after a long work night.

There is a slight quaintness to the doc, but the imagery and sounds are so striking, it doesn’t take long to get snagged into the film’s oddly soothing tone. A big element is Douglas Rain’s voice – calmly, yet authoritatively explaining the where, the hows, and citing the still-unknowns to us – and it’s unsurprising Kubrick, impressed by the visuals, also sought Rain to be the voice of the HAL 9000 computer in his space opus.

In 1960 there were still many unknowns – Uranus and Neptune are given mere mention in place of any images, and Mars is cited as possibly having vegetation – but then there are the animations of the sun and its fiery surface expulsions, the magnetic field, and the gaseous tail of a passing comet which remain uncannily realistic.

The crew of this milestone in animation created images so haunting and flawless for the era that they’re still deeply affecting. Lacking fast montages and snappy close-ups, Kroitor and Low’s narrative glides, zooms, pans, and seeps through gaseous formations, and the NFB’s recent remastering of a decent print to 720p (downloadable from their website) brings out fine details that likely were hazy or soft in old VHS and TV broadcasts.

It’s a near-perfect film which would still impress if a 35mm print were projected on a big screen, and although it precedes the innovations which made 2001 such a benchmark, it’s proof of what research, accuracy, imagination, and innovation can achieve in filmmaking.

Roman Kroitor’s credits (often with Colin Low) include a diversity of documentary subjects, such as the Paul Anka classic Lonely Boy (1962), In the Labyrinth (1979), and the Rolling Stones concert film At the Max (1991). He also produced the IMAX film Hail Columbia! (1982).

Eldon Rathburn’s credits come close to nearly 200 films, but his best-known works are perhaps Universe (1960), the Buster Keaton classic The Railroader (1965), and the multi-image film In the Labyrinth for Kroitor and Low.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
IMDB  —  Composer Filmography
Vendor Search Links:
NFB Online

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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