The Ultimate Railway Adventure

by Inga Yandell

From 11 February 2016, IMAX Darling Harbour will propel audiences on a steam train journey through the breathtaking Canadian Rockies in Rocky Mountains Express.

Rocky Mountain Express

Following the original 19th Century route of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Rocky Mountains Express highlights the adventure of building this nearly impossible transcontinental railway, one of the greatest engineering feats of all time, constructed by thousands of engineers and labourers from around the world. Spanning thousands of miles and some of the world’s greatest natural barriers, the Canadian Pacific Railway drew together communities isolated in the wilderness, shaped a new nation and changed the face of the North American continent forever. In Rocky Mountains Express, audiences are invited to ride the rails along deep river canyons and over high mountain passes to discover some of the most beautiful and rugged landscapes on earth and join in the human drama and epic engineering that shaped a continent.

The film weaves together spectacular IMAX aerial cinematography, archival photographs and maps, as well as the potent energy and rhythms of a live steam locomotive to immerse audiences in this remarkable story.

Rocky Mountain Express was filmed with the world’s largest film format, guaranteeing spectacular image quality on the massive IMAX screen. Sound is also a vital part of the experience, as the film has carefully captured the remarkable symphony of the sonic moods produced by a locomotive and matched this with an original musical score by celebrated composer, Michel Cusson.

I caught-up with the award-winning Canadian filmmaker Stephen Low, to learn more about this grand-scale ‘docu-venture’…

When did your love of locomotives start?

It started at pretty much from zero. I travelled with my family every summer across Canada the first twenty or so years of my life.  There were steam locomotives for the first ten of those years. My dad also took me to the local round house where they serviced steam engines. Having a small boy in those days was a ticket into places like that. No one ever said no to a kid that loved trains, although I always worried that they might. He lifted me up and put me in hot simmering cabs to see the coal fires which to me was both intoxicating and scary. I never got over it.

Why did you choose to tell the story of Rocky Mountains Express over other railways?

It is one of the greatest railroad stories in the world. Canada was a vast wilderness with few people. Canadians were struggling to tie the country together against near impossible odds and keep the west from falling into American hands. They chose a very difficult route through southern British Columbia. If it had failed economically it might have brought the country down as well, and it was a close call especially in both Rogers Pass with the avalanches and the steep climb through Kicking Horse pass. It’s still challenging to this day for modern railroaders.

What are the historical highlights you find most fascinating?

As a filmmaker I’m always looking for simplicity because that’s what people respond to, what kids remember and what inspires them. Where is the weakest point in the system? If the railroad was going to fail and take the country with it, where exactly would that be? I would like to stand on that spot and think about it. In the winter it was in Roger’s Pass where avalanches regularly buried trains, crews and long stretches of track. They eventually dug long tunnels (5 miles and 9 miles) to lessen the grades and escape from the avalanches. But the great stone pillars of the original line can still be seen in the forest. Some of them have been knocked down by avalanches since the line was closed roughly a hundred years ago. 

The other place was the steep grade in the Rockies at Kicking Horse pass. There was about eight miles on a 4.5% grade, which is very steep for a railroad. They built special heavy locomotives (2-8-0 consolidations) for this route. Sometimes five or six engines were needed for even modest sized trains, for this stretch. Going downhill was of course very dangerous, and it must have been borderline economically for many years. 

Rocky Mountain Express Aerial   
Can you describe the technologies and techniques used to create the film?

This film was shot on film (1570 IMAX). It is one of the very few true IMAX films shot in recent years as most are now blow-ups. Some might regard this as older technology but it’s far higher quality than the modern digital cameras—about ten times higher quality—and it’s very expensive compared to digital. The latest film stocks from Kodak are very high tech, something lost on the digital dudes. We used a very sophisticated gyro-stabilized helicopter system called Spacecam but it’s not particularly new.

What were the biggest challenges in filming and how did you overcome these?

The steam train operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) only did a few trips a year so it took nearly four years to do the shooting. We had some control of the train on some occasions but most of the time we did not. IMAX cameras use a thousand feet of 70 mm film every three minutes. After shooting a roll we had to land to reload the camera and then chase off after the train again. Before doing a shot we scouted the line to make sure there were no dangers ahead, like wires over the track, and we never broke that rule for obvious reasons. Every three rolls or so we had to find our fuel truck which was chasing us on the highway. It was very exciting work to say the least.

Did you use drones to film any of the aerial shots?

We do not yet use drones because of the size and weight of the camera. The best digital cameras used on drones are only about 10% of the quality of 1570 negative (real IMAX).

How would you define this film, as a documentary or does it signify a new genre?

Yes it’s classic documentary I would say. The origins of this kind of film started with the famous National Film Board of Canada film “City of Gold” directed by my father, Colin Low, and Roman Kroiter. They used huge glass plate negatives from the nineteenth century intercut with contemporary live action to tell the story. They did camera moves on the stills using an animation stand that were quite complex in those days. Now we just use fluid heads and zoom lenses. In any case that was the beginning of this style of film that is now commonly used in many documentaries. If you Google National Film Board you can view “City of Gold” online.  

How will this help engage new generations in historical exploration?

Emotion drives the human spirit. A moment of inspiration can transform someone’s life—especially a kid. “Wow I want to get involved in the world around and the sooner the better.” And this film seems to do that for a lot of people. We get letters every day from around the world.  

What is the experience you want audiences to walk away with?

It’s a beautiful world. We once used our courage and ingenuity to modify or subdue nature, so to speak—we are facing the opposite challenge now.

It’s time to subdue ourselves and protect nature. We still have the courage and ingenuity, but will we use it?

Rocky Mountains Express is a culmination of Stephen Low’s remarkable 30-year career. Low’s love of high-fidelity cinema and his fascination with the steam locomotive have come together in this giant screen experience that brings alive the magic and drama of the steam age for audiences of all ages.

Australians can ride the rails with the Rocky Mountain Express this February.

Film Duration: 45 minutes
Where: IMAX Darling Harbour, 31 Wheat Rd, Darling Harbour
Bookings: Via the Box Office, online at or PH: (02) 9213 1600
Tickets: Adult $23 / Child $17 / Conc $19.50 / Family Pass (2 Adults and 2 Children) $68

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
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