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Video: Travel back to school life in 1980 Burnaby through this vintage 'time capsule'

It’s known as "Celine Dion High" in one universe. Step into history through this unearthed vintage video of a day in the life of a high school student in Burnaby in 1980.

September means it’s back-to-school season, but what about going back in time to a Burnaby high school in 1980?

A new “time capsule” of a video is out on YouTube after sitting in an archive for more than 40 years.

The recently digitized video features life as a student in 1980: throngs of students with ubiquitous Adidas bags and feathered hair at the old Burnaby South Secondary School at 6626 Kingsway, the city’s first high school.

The film was created as a senior year passion project by Burnaby born-and-raised filmmaker Ian James Corlett.

Corlett began making student films when he was 13, entering – and eventually winning – local and provincial student film festivals.

He told the NOW he had a “brainwave” at the time: why not make a promotional film to entice students, who had their pick of local high schools to attend, to come to South?

“You know, just to sort of show the world – our tiny world of Burnaby – what the school was known for,” Corlett said.

“And what a great place to go.”

Corlett said he was “absolutely flabbergasted” the film, which he left with the school to show prospective students, was kept in its original condition for 40 years.

“I mean, it’s a time capsule.”

The video is 18 minutes and 40 seconds of nostalgia.

“The thing that’s going to jump right out is – look at the hair,” Corlett said. “And then anytime there’s a car, or what people are wearing.”

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The star of the promotional film, Alan, mixes chemicals in science class. By Ian James Corlett

Burnaby South on film

After selling his guidance counsellor on the project and getting some sweet student council cash, Corlett and his best friend, Alan McConnell, set to work on what Corlett described as a two-pronged scheme: it would promote the school and get him out of class, increasing his profile in the high school hierarchy.

“I had kind of carte blanche to run around the school,” he said.

The film “basically plays like a silent movie,” which Corlett said was by design.

The hapless “Alan” stars in the film, as he runs late to class, knocks over maps in geography class, spills unknown liquids on himself in chemistry and falls asleep to his English teacher reading Jonathan Swift (the English teacher, of course, drops a book on Alan’s head).

Alan attempts to flirt with a girl in home economics, forgetting a mop behind him drips onto an open pot of boiling water. Corlett called the humour Chaplinesque.

The penultimate scene of the film has Alan walk off the field, Breakfast Club-style, but the final scene was a Corlett special, a “weird nod” to his actual film style: a guy sitting on train tracks in a lawn chair covered with an umbrella playing the harmonica.

“That was my style, I did a lot of weird comedy stuff.”

“My other films always had something – they were mostly weird. And I thought, well, this one I’ve played absolutely straight and done the best job that I could. But I got to, you know, tag it with a little signature of something like what I was really kind of known for.”

He agreed with calling his style “Canadian absurdism.”

Corlett estimated it cost “a few hundred bucks” to pay for the film – but the kicker is, Corlett isn’t sure if the school ever showed it to any prospective students.

“I really don’t know what kind of impact or effect it had.”

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The last shot of Corlett's promotional film for Burnaby South harks back to the rest of his 'Canadian absurdist' style of film. By Ian James Corlett

Putting Burnaby on film

The filmmaking process at the time wasn’t as easy as today’s point-and-shoot TikToks.

“It was laborious, for sure,” Corlett said.

When he rewatched the film after 40 years, he said to himself: “Oh my god, Ian, it’s so slow.”

“But first of all, it’s on film,” he said.

“You had to physically cut strips of film, glue them together. Some of the effects, like a fade-out, I didn’t have an optical lab to send it to and just make the scene fade out. It was a camera effect. You had to push the button and then hope that it was working to fade out. … You didn’t know until you got the film back from Kodak; we’d get them processed up in North Vancouver.”

It was a two- or three-day turnaround if you drove. If you mailed it, it’d be at least a week.

“There was not a lot of retakes. Basically, it was what you shot was what you got.”

The music had to be laid on top of the existing film strip: the one-millimetre edge of the eight-millimetre Super 8 film strip is magnetic, like cassette tape. He had a special editing system that let him lay background music over existing dialogue.

“But it’s not like you could move it or change – once you were recording that music over and on the final film, it was done. No second chance.”

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Alan surveys the campus of Burnaby South in 1980. Ian James Corlett

A Burnaby filmmaker

After high school, Corlett spent some time working in the family business at Burnaby’s old Musicman Piano store on Kingsway.

But the call to the film world was strong, and he began work in voice acting – voicing some of the ’90s biggest animated TV characters.

Corlett was the first English voice for Dragonball Z’s Goku. He voiced Mega Man in Mega Man and Cheetor in Beast Wars: Transformers, among many others.

Then he got into writing, co-creating YTV children’s hit Yvon of the Yukon.

But Corlett said the pinnacle was creating the animated series Being Ian, based on his life growing up with his brothers in Burnaby.

The characters went to a high school based on Burnaby South.

“We did change the name of the high school, though. It would be kind of boring to just say Burnaby High School, so we changed it to Celine Dion High.”

Why did Burnaby stick with him, to the point of including it in his TV show?

“Born and raised, I mean, it’s as simple as that. It’s where I grew up.”


lvanderdeen@burnabynow.com
twitter.com/lauvande