Graeme Ferguson, filmmaker, co-inventor of the IMAX film format, and co-founder of Imax Corporation, died on May 8, 2021, at age 91, after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2020. Phyllis Ferguson, his wife of 42 years, died eight weeks earlier (see LF Examiner, April 2021).
In the late 1960s, Ferguson, along with fellow filmmaker Roman Kroitor, business manager Robert Kerr, and engineer William Shaw, invented the 15-perf, 70mm motion picture format, developed the cameras and projectors to capture and display it, and founded the company that would introduce it to the world as IMAX at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. Although other alternative giant film formats preceded it (e.g., Cinerama) and followed it (8/70), none was as successful or as widely adopted as 15/70. Nearly 450 15/70 projectors were installed between 1970 and 2011, and at its peak in 2008, 306 theaters were projecting 15/70 film.
But the accomplishments of Ferguson and Kroitor were not merely technical. They (and other filmmakers such as Roger Tilton, Greg MacGillivray, and George Casey) created a new art form, now known as giant-screen cinema, but for decades simply called IMAX. Recognizing that this new immersive format was unlike any previous form of cinema, Ferguson and the others developed new techniques that gave audiences an unprecedented and powerful you-are-there experience that remained unsurpassed for decades. Ferguson’s vision, influence, and contributions to the medium are arguably the greatest among all of the format’s leading filmmakers.
Ivan Graeme Ferguson was born in Toronto on Oct. 7, 1929, the oldest of four children. He became interested in photography at age 7, when his parents gave him a Baby Brownie still camera and a 25-cent weekly allowance that was just enough to buy one roll of film. (They agreed to pay for processing.) By the time he was 10 his parents had bought him a Keystone 8mm film camera.
The Fergusons lived in Galt, ON, about 60 miles west of Toronto, where Graeme attended the public schools in which he met Kerr, Shaw, and Shaw’s future wife, Barbara. He enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1948 to study political science and economics, but found himself much more interested in his extra-curricular activities with the school’s film society. It was during a summer program at the National Film Board that Ferguson first met Kroitor.
At university Ferguson also met avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, who urged him to become an artist rather than go into economics after graduating. As Ferguson told LF Examiner in 2002, the suggestion “changed my view of my life overnight.”
(In the 1940s, Deren had worked with and been married to Alexander Hammid, who would later produce the Oscar-winning multi-image film To Be Alive! with partner Francis Thompson for the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York, and the ground-breaking IMAX film, To Fly! in 1976.)
By the late 1950s, Ferguson was married and living in New York City, working as a freelance director, cinematographer, and editor. He was editor for the early ’60s TV series Silents Please, as well as for the 1960 short A Bowl of Cherries, and was cinematographer on the Oscar-nominated documentary Rooftops of New York (1961). He wrote and directed the documentary The Legend of Rudolph Valentino (1961) and directed the 1962 feature The Seducers. In 1965 he wrote and produced The Love Goddesses, a documentary about Hollywood’s portrayals of women and sex through the decades. In 1968, with comedian Severn Darden and other members of the Second City improv group, he wrote and directed his second conventional feature, a satire called The Virgin President.
Origins of IMAX
But before that Ferguson was asked to produce a film for the Man the Explorer pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, with the mandate that it be a multi-screen film, thanks to the popularity of To Be Alive! and other expanded-cinema presentations at the New York fair. Polar Life,a cinéma vérité look at the lives of northern peoples in Canada, Lapland, and Siberia, featured eleven 35mm screens and a continuously rotating audience platform divided in four sections so that two sections of the audience would see about three screens at once while the other two were loading and unloading.
Elsewhere in the Expo, Hammid and Thompson made the six-screen We Are Young! for the Canadian Pacific Railway pavilion, while Kroitor and Colin Low made Labyrinth, a signature attraction of the fair, featuring two unconventional multi-screen cinemas with a maze-like passage between them. Ferguson and Kroitor (who had married Graeme’s sister, Janet) saw each other’s works in progress, offered comments and suggestions, and shared their frustrations with the technologies they were using.
Maintaining the synchronization of multiple film projectors running continuously throughout the day posed serious technical challenges. In the summer of 1967, after the pavilions were up and running and most of the bugs had been worked out, the two filmmakers discussed better alternatives. As Ferguson told LFX in 2002:
“Roman and I were having a drink before dinner at his house, and we said to each other, there ought to be a way to make a cinema, like one of these pavilions with an expanded screen. It should have a very large screen, it should have a single projector, and the audience should sit as close to the screen as possible. The main thing is it should have a standardized projection system and film format so that the same show can be shown in multiple communities.
“In that first discussion, we saw [the new projection system] as a way of projecting multi-image films, and we quite soon called it Multivision. The first discussion was certainly under an hour, maybe about half an hour.
“The basic idea was to take Roman’s third chamber in Labyrinth, which had five 35mm screens in the shape of a cross, add in the other four [in the corners] so now you had a large screen that would look as if it was projected with nine 35mm projectors, three up and three across. If you know anything about film technology, you look at it and say you can put that on a piece of 70mm moving horizontally, and it will come out to be about 15 perfs across. We knew that in the first discussion.”
Within weeks they had brought in Kerr as business manager and each of them invested $700 to form the company, first called Multiscreen Corp., to develop the new system. “We had two filmmakers, which was one too many, one businessman, which was right, and we were one short in the engineering department. We said to each other, ‘Who’s the best engineer we could hire?’ And it took us about one tenth of a second to say, ‘Bill Shaw.’”
Over the next two-and-a-half years, Ferguson, Kroitor, Kerr, and Shaw would invent the 15/70 film format, commission the first 15/70 camera, build the first 15/70 rolling loop projector, produce the first giant-screen film, and open the world’s first IMAX theater at Expo ’70 in Osaka.
Although it was technically the first IMAX theater, the Fuji Pavilion was not typical of what the creators had envisioned for the format. The screen was relatively small — 40×60 feet (12×18 meters) — at one end of a large air-supported structure, on the walls of which slides were projected. The audience entered and stood on a rotating ring watching the imagery that surrounded them. The non-linear, 16-minute multi-image film, Tiger Child (directed by Donald Brittain) ran continuously, with several prints spliced together on the platter; the slide show continued during the time it took to rewind every hour.
The founders had been constrained by the requirements of their Expo ’70 sponsor, but they still wanted to build a theater that embodied the design elements they had outlined in the summer of 1967. After the Expo, with the fate of their small company in jeopardy, they learned that the province of Ontario was planning a large park on the lakeshore in Toronto that was to include a multi-media theater in a distinctive geodesic dome. They reached a deal with park officials to buy the Osaka 15/70 projector, which projected onto a large flat screen — dome screens would come later — and Ferguson was commissioned to make North of Superior, which opened at Ontario Place’s 800-seat Cinesphere on May 22, 1971.
Unlike Tiger Child, which was almost entirely multi-image, with only a few full-frame shots, North of Superior was the reverse: almost entirely full-frame; one of the only panel shots was the memorable opening in which a small window flying over a lake dramatically expands to fill the giant screen. Despite Ferguson’s interest in multi-image cinema, the tight production schedule and limited budget precluded the extensive use of opticals.
At first, Cinesphere’s programming alternated between IMAX and other conventional films that had been made for the park, but North of Superior’s popularity soon pushed the other shows off the schedule. In a 2004 interview with LFX, Ferguson admitted that it was unfair to those films, which he said were “pretty good,” but “people lined up for hours to see North of Superior.”
The Cinesphere provided the showcase for the format that the founders had been seeking. Recognizing that they needed a significant number of theaters in place to make producing films viable, they hoped to find a visionary investor who would put up $100 million to start doing both. They began bringing Hollywood filmmakers, studio executives, and theater operators to Toronto to experience IMAX. All were thrilled, especially the filmmakers.
Director William Friedkin, coming off his successes with The French Connection and The Exorcist, told Ferguson that Universal would let him do anything he wanted, including making a film in a revolutionary new format; producer Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno) also thought he might have enough clout for such a move. But in the end, studios wouldn’t fund an IMAX feature without at least 20 screens in major markets, and they were prevented by a 1948 court ruling from building and operating theaters themselves. Conversely, theater chains needed to be assured of a continuous flow of films. It was the classic “chicken-and-egg” problem.
Ferguson hoped that Disney might include an IMAX theater at EPCOT, then under construction in Florida, but the company declined. Disney’s Ub Iwerks (whose son, Don Iwerks, would later found Iwerks Entertainmewnt, a competitor to Imax Corp.) told him that if Walt Disney had still been alive, he would “have grabbed the deal.”
IMAX in museums
While trying to make deals with Hollywood, Ferguson was approached by Preston “Sandy” Fleet, who had founded the Fotomat chain of photo processing kiosks, and was then helping found the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego (named for his father, an aviation pioneer). The center was to have a planetarium, and he asked Imax to adapt its projection system to show movies on the dome to augment star shows. Although Ferguson, Kroitor, and Shaw had imagined such a system for the Cinesphere, they hadn’t had the time or resources to implement it. With a client ready and willing to support it, OMNIMAX, as Fleet dubbed it, became a reality and the first institutional IMAX theater opened on March 10, 1973.
But the young company was still in trouble; a new theater every other year wasn’t enough to support it, so Kroitor returned to the National Film Board, and Kerr left to run for mayor of Cambridge, ON. With part-time assistance from Peter Crane and Michael Sullivan, Fergusonfocused on marketing the system to clients who could make their own films and run them indefinitely, principally museums and theme parks. Over the next few years, theaters opened at the Circus World theme park in Florida and Ohio’s Cedar Point Amusement Park, as well at the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane, WA.
Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins was the first director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, then being planned for the national mall in Washington, DC. He expressed interest when Ferguson pitched the idea of an IMAX theater for the new building, but wouldn’t commit without seeing it. Collins wasn’t allowed to accept a free ticket to Toronto from Imax, but was set to give a speech at the Spokane fair. So Ferguson sent Shaw to Spokane with instructions to make sure Collins saw Man Belongs to the Earth, the IMAX film Ferguson had made for the United States Pavilion. Shaw and Collins, both engineers, got along very well, and Collins agreed to install IMAX in the museum.
Francis Thompson was selected to make the signature film for NASM, but had also been commissioned to make a film for the IMAX theater at the Living History Theater in Philadelphia, PA, opening simultaneously with NASM in the bicentennial year. So he handed the Smithsonian project over to a young production company that had specialized in surfing movies and aerial cinematography. Thus MacGillivray Freeman Films made To Fly!, which opened in the Samuel P. Langley IMAX Theater on July 4, 1976.
NASM and To Fly! were successful beyond anyone’s expectations. The museum building had been designed to accommodate annual attendance of two million, but in its first year exceeded ten million, and would maintain that average for the next few decades.
After one year, To Fly! had been seen by more than 1.5 million in the 500-seat theater, and it would remain the only film on the schedule for nearly three years. The theater ran at full capacity most of the time, making To Fly! at NASM the first exposure to IMAX for millions of people from all over the world.
The tremendous success of the museum and the film changed everything for Imax Corporation. A new market opened up for the company, as museum directors flocked to Toronto, hoping to repeat NASM’s results. Although theme parks and world’s fairs would remain a significant portion of Imax’s theater business for the next few decades, by 1983 institutional IMAX theaters outnumbered the other segments; ten years later there were twice as many museum theaters as commercial.
As Imax became more financially secure, Ferguson, while remaining president of the company until 1990, had more time to focus on filmmaking. In 1982 he produced and directed Hail Columbia!, about the U.S. Space Shuttle program, beginning what would become a series of eight space films. Starting with The Dream Is Alive (1985), the Imax space team, including Ferguson, associate producer Phyllis Ferguson, editor Toni Myers, and cinematographer James Neihouse, would send 15/70 film cameras into space, training the astronauts not merely to operate them, but to be cinematographers and directors. Stunning and unprecedented footage shot on orbit would be featured in seven more films over the next three decades, with Ferguson credited as executive producer, producer, director, or writer.
Astronaut Susan Helms credits The Dream Is Alive for inspiring her to become an astronaut; years later she appeared in the Space Station 3D (2002)
Between 1994 and 2009, Ferguson also served as producer on three underwater films made with director Howard Hall.
Last year he was diagnosed with throat cancer and began radiation treatments in Toronto, making the two-hour drive from his home on the Lake of Bays in Muskoka, ON. In his typically stoic manner, he told LFX last fall that he enjoyed the opportunity to read on the daily trips.
Following the death of Phyllis in March, he was cared for in his last few weeks by his daughter, Allison, a nurse. As reported by the Toronto Globe and Mail, “He maintained his usual practical outlook and even a cheery disposition. ‘He felt that he’d lived such a long and productive life and done all the things he wanted to do,’ [son] Munro Ferguson said. ‘He could look back without regret.’”
Ferguson is survived by his children, Munro and Allison Ferguson, four grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and his siblings, Janet Kroitor, Mary Hooper, and Bill Ferguson.
Ferguson received numerous awards, including a Genie Special Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to the Canadian film industry in 1986 and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts Medal in 1990. He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1993 and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bradford (UK) in 1994. In 2005 he was the recipient of the Kodak Vision Award from the Large Format Cinema Association. In 2012, the Giant Screen Cinema Association presented its Special Recognition Award to the Ferguson and the IMAX Space Team, and in 2016 the GSCA presented him with its inaugural Outstanding Achievement Award. Also in 2016, the IMAX theater network inducted North of Superior into the IMAX Hall of Fame.
Ferguson’s last five films (the only ones for which box office data is publicly available) have grossed nearly $400 million, and it is safe to say that the other 14 on which he has official credits have earned hundreds of millions more.
But his impact is not best measured in dollars or “official credits,” but rather in the creativity, vision, encouragement, and inspiration he freely gave to the entire giant-screen industry over his 60-year career. Common threads in people’s remembrances include memorable scenes from his films, his generosity, and his willingness to help colleagues and newcomers to the business. Few filmmakers in the GS world would say they have not been influenced by Ferguson and his work, even those who never met him personally. Virtually everyone who did meet him will recall his intelligence and creativity, but also his unpretentiousness and modesty.
Beyond the effect he had on friends and colleagues in the GS business is the immeasurable impact the films he made have had on the millions of viewers, to say nothing of the millions more who have been entertained, educated, and inspired by the hundreds of other GS films made possible by the medium Ferguson and his collaborators gave the world 51 years ago.
North of Superior (1971): dir, prod, DP
Circus World (1974): DP
Man Belongs to the Earth (1974): dir, prod
Snow Job (1974): dir
Ocean (1977): dir, prod, DP
Hail Columbia! (1982): dir, prod, DP
The Dream Is Alive (1985): dir, prod
Blue Planet (1990): prod
Journey to the Planets (1993): prod
Destiny in Space (1994): prod
Into the Deep (1994): prod
L5: First City in Space (1996): prod
Mission to Mir (1997): prod
Space Station 3D (2002): prod
Deep Sea (2006): exec prod
Under the Sea 3D (2009): exec prod
Hubble 3D (2010): exec prod
A Beautiful Planet (2016): exec prod