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In Memoriam: Tom Daly

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Tom Daly

In the screening room of the world, a feature-length documentary film winds to a halt, and the overhead lights are abruptly switched on. We blink and wince. Thus we mark the passing of Tom Daly, one of the world’s finest directors of documentary cinema. Tom died at the age of ninety-three in Montreal on Sept. 18, 2011, following a lengthy illness.

In his public life, Tom was one of the mainstays of the National Film Board of Canada. The rudiments of the art and craft of motion-picture production and editing were taught to him by none other than John Grierson, the filmmaker who coined the term “documentary” and who founded the Board in Ottawa in 1939, then and now the world’s largest, government-owned producer of documentary films.

In various capacities over forty-four years, Tom left his mark on hundreds of the Board’s short and feature films, including those created by Norman McLaren (the Glenn Gould of film animation) and his own Unit B productions which introduced innovative techniques and ideas to the nation’s screens. In the 1950s and 1960s it was mandated that an NFB “short” had to be exhibited along with the other “short features” (cartoons, coming attractions) and the American feature film when it was publicly exhibited in a movie theatre in the country. So his productions reached immense national audiences. Often they struck the only note of “reality” on the screen.

I was especially moved in 1960 by his documentary film “Universe” which focused on the night in the life of a Toronto astronomer. We were invited to behold a “cosmic zoom” … an astronomical visualization which parallels the Ray of Creation aka the Great Chain of Being. It was done with spectacular effects and a feeling for the marvels of creation which Stanley Kubrick subsequently acknowledged to be influences on his own feature film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Tom was also a mainstay of the work in Canada. He was born into a socially prominent family in Toronto on April 25, 1918, and a graduate of the University of Toronto. Through his mother he met the De Hartmanns who were then temporary residents in Quebec’s Eastern Townships (awaiting papers to settle in the United States). Madame de Hartmann was encouraged to visit Toronto where she established what is now known as the Toronto group. Tom was active in the group until Board work required him to move first to Ottawa and then to Montreal where he led the work there. He married and raised a family and to the members of his family go the commiserations of the present writer (who was personally introduced to the work by Tom and his friend Peter Colgrove).

Tom was a gentleman of the Anglo-Saxon variety and a scholar manqué. I write manqué not in an attempt to circumscribe his talent but with the wish to extend it because he himself saw his art as coextensive with his life and with the work. Readers interested in how he did this are encouraged to read the biographical study The Best Butler in the Business: Tom Daly of the National Film Board of Canad (University of Toronto Press) by the academic D.B. Jones. According to Jones, Tom dealt with a problem the way a lumberjack walks across a log-boom: Step onto the first log, and before it sinks step onto the second log, and before it sinks step onto the third log ….

 

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Tom Daly

I knew him slightly but admired him greatly. He inspired a great many men and women of his generation, not only film-makers but also creative people in many disciplines. There is an expression that is used in the film business (and only in the film business) that applies to him. That expression is “the dailies.” It refers to the “rushes” of the day’s shooting that are available for viewing and reviewing the following day. Tom lived his life from day to day, never failing to reflect on the fine qualities of “the dailies.”

J.R.C., 18 Sept. 2011

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One Response

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  1. Very simple and heartfelt assessment of a good man. We all wish for Tom now, may he truly rest in peace.

    Barbara WrightGeorge

    September 30, 2011 at 7:25 pm


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