‘We’re All Framed:’ Behind the scenes with Ed Burtynsky as he prepares to edit his immersive and scathing new film, In The Wake of Progress

Ship Breaking #23, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000.© Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

The boy on the screen leans on his metal tools in Chittagong, Bangladesh, to the tune of a distorted orchestra. He is dwarfed by the blackened hull of a ship looming behind him. It’s no longer covered by insurance, so someone, somewhere has to take it apart. He got the job.

The hazardous working conditions he endures are endorsed by the same developed countries where his picture can be seen, as Western shipowners often outsource shipbreaking to Asian countries like Bangladesh, exploiting cheap labor and lack of regulation. in the workplace.

“I think of humanity as a great ship in the ocean,” said Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky. “This is what we left behind.”

the chittagong photography is one of the most memorable In the wake of progressBurtynsky’s new immersive cinematic experience that premiered at Yonge and Dundas Square in Toronto on June 11. This was the first time in the plaza’s history that its two dozen outdoor screens functioned as one.

The 22-minute film opens June 25 as an installation for a three-week run at the Canadian Opera Company Theatre. The audience will be surrounded on three sides by Burtynsky’s iconic aerial photos and videos, projected on 30-foot screens and set to a monumental soundtrack.

The film forces the audience to consider the effects of industry, both on earth and on people far away, from resource extraction to refining, manufacturing and shipping, waste and finally the return of nature. Those familiar with Burtynsky’s work will recognize his iconic scenes of nature devastated by human intervention.

“We are all framed,” Burtynsky said during an interview at his Toronto studio. “No one is out of this.”

Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky in his Toronto studio.

Eduardo Lima/The Globe and the Mail

Nickel Tailings #34, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996.

© Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

The project began more than two years ago, Burtynsky said, when the Luminato Festival asked him to create a retrospective film highlighting his 40-year career. His team quickly got to work. But when the pandemic started in 2020, it became clear that a large-scale launch would have to wait. Over the next two years, Burtynsky and his team gradually molded the 850 photographs pinned to a whiteboard into a narrative combining still and video images.

The configuration of the screens was a conscious choice. They’re essential to mimicking the world around us, said Bob Ezrin, a Canadian Music Hall of Fame producer who helped shape the project. “I wish we had an even bigger screen,” Ezrin said.

At one point in the film, the audience is surrounded by the circular pivot irrigation seals, where 200-foot spray arms have circled a central axis and left rings amidst a dusty landscape, hundreds of feet long. Wide. When viewed in 2-D, the circles look like modern art. But when they rise up to frame the audience, they become dazzling eyes with pinpoint pupils.

Ed Burtynsky in his studio, standing in front of a screening of his latest work, ‘In the Wake of Progress’.Eduardo Lima/The Globe and the Mail

Pile of Oxford #5 tires, Westley, California, 1999.© Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Burtynsky recalls a moment last summer after the crew finished a late-night test of the film for the Dundas Square premiere. His shots of lush, mossy forests were replaced, one by one, by the fashion ads that usually cover the square. “He went from the poetic to the profane. All these models and catwalks,” Burtynsky recalled. “It was grotesque.”

The project was later expanded to include the interior installation at the Opera Company, and Toronto sound designer Phil Strong was hired to create custom music to accompany the film. At one point during composition, Strong asked for a list of locations for all the footage included in the film, but in the end, he said, he decided to keep the audio free of cultural references, opting instead for a ‘universal’ set with string instruments. and synthetic sounds.

This also allowed Strong to fit the music to the visuals. Audiences will recognize the film’s climax, backed by a wailing crescendo: a scowling pot of molten metal, part of the metal-making process. It bubbles and flames, surrounded by darkness. “It’s a bit like being in hell,” Strong said.

The wordless voices provide a transcendent backdrop to the film’s narrative, many sung by waseskwan iskwew, known professionally as iskwē, who is a Cree Métis from Treaty One Territory, born and raised in Winnipeg. He said that his voice reflects the feelings she herself had while watching the film: chaos, fear, anxiety and a sense of dread.

But at other points, he said, the music expresses hope. At the beginning of the film, their traditional hand drum song bounces through the trees on screen, a testament to the universal human connection to nature. At the end of the film, iskwē’s atmospheric voices swim among the rivers that rush over the deltas, shimmering tendrils of turquoise and sea blue like the mountains painted by Lawren Harris.

“Water heals itself,” Burtynsky said. “And biodiversity is still with us, we still have it among us. But it’s not guaranteed.”

The indoor facility is open Thursday through Sunday from June 25 through July 17.


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