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December / 2010

The Man Who Invented IMAX:
An Interview with Graeme Ferguson csc

by Wyndham Wise

Graeme Ferugson csc
Graeme Ferugson csc
The IMAX story is one of inventiveness, experimentation and ultimate success. Conceived by freelance cinematographer Graeme Ferguson csc and NFB producer and director Roman Kroitor in the fall of 1967, their goal was to create the world’s most sophisticated film-projection system. As of November 2010, there are nearly 500 IMAX theatres in 45 countries. This level of corporate success has been a long time coming and what started out as a very clever idea to revolutionize film projection became a decades-long struggle to attain financial security. With the advent of digital projectors it’s just a matter of time before IMAX theatres will be found in every major market worldwide, just as Ferguson and Kroitor dreamed some 40 years ago.

Ferguson not only co-founded IMAX, he has also been responsible for producing, directing or executive producing some of its most successful films, including North of Superior, Man Belongs to Earth, Ocean, Hail Columbia!, The Dream Is Alive, Blue Planet, Destiny in Space, Deep Sea 3D and Hubble 3D. Space Station 3D, a film produced and directed by Toni Myers, Ferguson’s long-time collaborator at Imax Corporation, grossed over $80 million worldwide.

In 1993, Graeme Ferguson was made a Member of the Order of Canada and in 1997 IMAX was awarded an Oscar for Scientific and Technical Achievement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Large Format Cinema Association awarded him The Kodak Vision Award in 2005. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bradford (U.K.) and a Doctorate of Sacred Letters from Victoria University (U. of T.).

Other awards include The Royal Canadian Academy of Arts Medal, the Canadian Government Environmental Achievement Award (for Blue Planet) and a Special Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to the Canadian Film Industry from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in 1986. He was awarded an Aviation Week Laurel, as well as the NASA astronauts’ personal award, the “Silver Snoopy,” for his continuing support to the space program. Ferguson has also received the IMAX Founders’ Award and is an honorary lifetime member of the CSC. He is a patron of the Toronto Film Society, a member of the DGA and the International Cinematographers Guild. In 2010 he was given the lifetime achievement award at the first Muskoka International Film Festival.

WW When and where were you born?

GF October 1929, in Toronto.

WW What got you interested in filmmaking? Was there any one film that influenced or inspired you?

GF Before entering University of Toronto, I had mainly seen Hollywood movies, but I had read Roger Manvell’s Film and I was eager to join the University film society to see some of the classics. There I saw Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928], which brilliantly demonstrated film’s ability to tell a story through images. I also saw Maya Deren’s At Land [1944], and assisted her on a production. It was Maya who persuaded me to become a filmmaker.

When I was a student, there were essentially very few ways of learning filmmaking. The NFB established a very good program. It went across the country each year and chose about a dozen students in Canadian universities to work at the Film Board for the summer. I was at U. of T. and I was chosen as a summer student in 1951. I was assigned to the camera department. One of the other summer students in the department was Michel Brault and in the production department the summer students included Roman Kroitor, who later became my brother in law.

The re-launch of the Hubble telescope in 2009. IMAX’s Hubble 3D was released by Warner Bros. in 2010. Produced and directed by Toni Myers, Graeme Ferguson csc was the executive producer.
The re-launch of the Hubble telescope in 2009. IMAX’s Hubble 3D was released by Warner Bros. in 2010. Produced and directed by Toni Myers, Graeme Ferguson csc was the executive producer.

WW You landed in New York in the 1960s as a freelance cameraman and worked on Robert McCarty’s Rooftops of New York (1961), which received an Academy Award nomination for best short. How did you come to work on Polar Life for Expo 67?

GF Roman had asked me to consult for a day or two on Labyrinth when he was first conceiving it. I had done a fair amount of filming in the Arctic and Alaska, so it wasn’t a startling idea, but I had nothing in particular to show the committee. I showed them The Love Goddesses, which couldn’t have been more remote from what they were asking me to do. But they said okay, ‘We’ll hire you to go and wander around the Arctic, but give us a film on polar life.’ I hadn’t worked in 3D, but I thought it would be kind of nice to do the Arctic in 3D for Expo. They were designing Expo 67 at the same time that the New York World’s Fair was going on, and it had some wonderful examples of multi-image and multi-screen. Of course, there was a whole tradition of that going back through the Expos in Europe and the American exhibit in Moscow. A lot of people had been working on this idea. It really goes back to the beginning of cinema.

WW When and where was the idea for IMAX hatched?

GF It was right after Expo. I was up in Montreal in August, and Expo had been very popular. It was obvious to us that there was a big audience for large-format films. It wasn’t just because it was multi-screen. It was because the screens were bigger; because we had more projectors to fill the screens. I was at Roman’s house one afternoon, and he and I were discussing the fact this was a very successful but very cumbersome way to project films. We asked each other, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to have a single, large-format projector to fill a large screen? Obviously the next step was to have a larger film format, larger than anything that had been tried. We talked for about an hour, and within that hour we had sketched out the screen size that could be used and the film format that would be capable of filling it. The idea of a horizontal, 65-mm film format with 15- or 16-perf pull across was really worked out in the first few minutes. We said to ourselves, ‘Let’s invent this new medium.’

To do that, we needed a company. When I made Polar Life, I chose a very experienced businessman, an old high school colleague named Robert Kerr. He printed all the reserve seat tickets for the Maple Leaf Gardens in those days. He was also the mayor of Galt. I asked Robert to be my business partner. He had never made films before, but Polar Life was not only a very popular film, we actually made it for less than the budget. So we made a bit of money from it. I called Robert, and we met in my office in New York one evening. The three of us decided to set up a company. Robert lived in Galt, Roman lived in Montreal and I was in New York. We didn’t even have a headquarters. We started out with three people in three different locations. I think if you look at the incorporation date, it would be September, 1967. We did that all within a few weeks.

WW Where does the name IMAX come from?

GF It came a year or two later. We first called the company Multiscreen Corporation, because that was what people knew us as. After about a year, our attorney informed us that we could never copyright or trademark Multivision. It was too generic. The words that you can copyright are words like Kleenex or Xerox or Coca Cola. We were sitting at lunch one day in a Hungarian restaurant in Montreal and we worked out a name on a placemat. We kept working with the idea of maximum image. We turned it around and came up with IMAX.

WW How did you transform your idea into a working model?

Graeme Ferguson’s The Dream Is Alive
Graeme Ferguson’s The Dream Is Alive
GF Neither Roman, Robert or I were engineers or even very technically oriented or skilled, but we knew what technology we would need. One of the things we knew was that you couldn’t take a standard movie projector and just scale the whole thing up and run a big film. So we knew that we would need to find a new projector movement. Roman and I had gone out to Los Angeles to look at a movement that was being used in some high-speed printers. One evening we were at dinner with an old friend, Jean-Philippe Carson. Jean-Philippe and I had worked together in film in my freelance days and now he was running the Eclair Corporation of America. He said he had just read a little, one-paragraph extract in a publication that described a new film movement that had been invented in Australia. We said this looks interesting, why don’t we find out about it?

Jean-Philippe and Robert called on the inventor, Ron James, in Brisbane. I think Ron was essentially a man who serviced projectors; a very bright man. Jean-Philippe and Robert flew to Australia and acquired the patent rights to his invention. We didn’t have much money, so we paid for it over time. He had a set amount he wanted. I don’t remember the exact amount, but it was a rather odd number. We asked, ‘Why do you want that?’ He said, ‘I want to build a little house up in the hills and that is the amount it will cost me to build it.’ He was in his sixties and he wanted to retire. So we paid him the amount over time and then for the rest of his life he continued to consult with us, helping us develop his invention, which he called a Rolling Loop.

WW Now you had the idea and a patent, but how did you actually build the projector with its Rolling Loop?

GF Not being terribly smart, we thought we would just find somebody to build the projector for us. After thinking about it for a couple of weeks, we became more astute and we came to the conclusion we would need an engineer. And who was the best engineer? That was Bill Shaw. Bill had been in the same high school as Robert and myself in Galt and was now the chief engineer at CCM, which in those days was the principle builder of sports equipment in Canada. Robert and I went to see Bill and asked him to quit his job and come to work for us. We had no money, but we had an idea for the world’s most sophisticated motion picture projector and the most sophisticated camera. This was the challenge.

Bill quit his job at CCM and came over to us in 1968. The interesting thing is that we were all in our forties and it has been said since then that we would never have done this earlier or later in life, because each of us had had a successful career up to that point and we were confident in our abilities. When someone is in their forties, it’s a very good time to try some thing new. For us, it was a very good moment.

Bill had never been in a projection booth when we hired him, so the first thing he did was study conventional projectors. He had no preconceived notions of how a projector should work. Bill knew that McMaster University [in Hamilton, Ontario] had a program to support private industry. If a company wanted to develop something new, it could be done at McMaster in conjunction with its engineering faculty. They took us under their wing and gave us a lab and a supervising professor. The first projector was built at McMaster. It was the one that went to Osaka for the World’s Fair in 1970 and later shipped back to Ontario Place.

WW Ontario Place, with its geodesic dome and large-screen theatre, was built on the Toronto waterfront directly after Expo.

Stephen Low’s Titanica
Blue Planet The Space Shuttle flight STS-29, 1989 “Some time in the 1980s we got interested in taking the cameras into space… to try and do different things with the medium,” Graeme Ferguson csc
Photo credit: IMAX, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute/Lockheed Corp.

GF We had money from Fujifilm for the World’s Fair, which helped build the projector. We also received a small amount of money from the federal government, but we were very short of money. We could see that we would have difficulty in meeting the company payroll very soon. I went to Chris Chapman [the Toronto filmmaker who had made the Oscar-winning, large-screen multi-image A Place to Stand for the Ontario pavilion at Expo] and told him we were in trouble and might go under. He said, ‘There’s something going on that you may not know about, and it might be helpful. The Ontario government is building Ontario Place. There will be a large-screen theatre and the architect is Ed Ziedler. They haven’t figured out exactly what they are going to show, but they do want a large-screen theatre.’ Chris set up a meeting with James Ramsay, who was the civil servant who oversaw the building of the Ontario pavilion at Expo and he was now overseeing the building of Ontario Place. We would bring the projector back from Japan and have a wide-angle lens designed for it.

That theatre would become the prototype for all IMAX theatres today, with its deep-slopped seats and surround sound. Not only did Ramsay buy the projector from us, but he commissioned the first IMAX film for Ontario Place. He was commissioning films from Ontario filmmakers to cover various parts of the province. He divided up the province, and each filmmaker was given a section. He said, ‘You can have from Wawa to the Manitoba border and up to, but not including, the shoreline of Hudson’s Bay,’ because he had given that to another filmmaker. I had never been given a film with less detailed instructions, which is great for a filmmaker because the less detail you get, the more freedom you have.

WW That film was North of Superior, which was basically your film, wasn’t it?

GF I produced, directed, shot and edited it.

WW It set a standard, creating a new way of experiencing cinema, and it was hugely popular with the audiences. The motion of swooping over the cliff, everyone remembers that. The audience would experience a sudden drop, like a rollercoaster ride.

GF In the days of Cinerama that was called a Kinesthetic effect. I knew that I had that tool, because Robert Gaffney, who I had gone to for advice on the camera, had done extremely successful work on Fortress of Peace [1964] and Sky over Holland [1967]. He had taken a 70-mm camera and put it in the nose of an airplane and made people airsick. So we knew we had a tool that we could use.

However, the reaction time to anything is always rather longer than the inventor can ever imagine. You think you have built a better mouse trap and the world will come to your door the next morning. In fact, they will beat the way to your door about five years later. That’s how it really works. There are many inventions, like Xerography, which took many, many years between the invention and its widespread use. What happened is that the film industry did not go to Osaka. Once we got to Ontario Place, however, exhibitors, producers and directors began to come to see what we had and determine whether they could use it. We had many discussions with studios and filmmakers. Most were initially promising, but it would always bog down over the time it would take to build enough theatres to make our invention practical.

WW If Ontario Place was beginning to look like a one-shot thing and you didn’t have the capital to pop these theatres across the countryside, what kept you in business?

GF It was a deep searching look into ourselves. Within a couple of years, a few people came along and said they wanted to use IMAX. One of the first was the U.S. government, who put it into Expo 74 in Spokane, Washington, and Roman and I produced a film that I directed called Man Belongs to Earth with Chief Dan George. Again, it was successful.

Roman had previously made Lonely Boy, and Paul Anka’s manager had subsequently become the owner of the Ringling Bros. Barnham and Bailey Circus. Roman persuaded him to put an IMAX theatre in the Circus World theme park [located in Polk County, Florida], and he commissioned Roman to make a film called Circus World in 1974. So we had a couple of things that kept us going, but the money kept getting thinner and thinner and we finally had to face the fact we had failed in our efforts to attract a big financier. In the spring of 1974 we decided to change the company’s strategy and find customers one by one, customers who could put our projectors in theatres such as Ontario Place and Circus World. Places that didn’t rely on a chain. The second thing we tried to do was to make films that explored the medium. For example, some time in the 1980s we got interested in taking the cameras into space.

WW You directed and produced, or served as a consulting producer, on a series of IMAX films focusing on the NASA space program, including Hail Columbia! (1982), The Dream Is Alive (1985), Blue Planet (1990), Destiny in Space (1994) and Space Station 3D (2002).

GF It’s just about exploring what the medium can do. If you look at Roman’s films and my films, you’ll see that it’s a common thread to try and do different things with the medium. People kept telling us nobody would sit still for 90 minutes and watch an IMAX film. We were told this endlessly. Our original concept was to make feature films. So we made feature-length films, if not traditional features. One was Rolling Stones at the Max [1991] and the other was Titanica [1995], both 90-minute films. One was a concert film and the other a docudrama directed by Stephen Low.

WW I want to talk about selling your business to U.S. interest. Was this your only choice?

Stephen Low’s Titanica
Stephen Low’s Titanica
GF If you go back to 1967, we understood from the beginning that we must make films that would appeal to audiences worldwide. So from day one, it was never our intent to make the medium for Canada alone. We always saw ourselves as an international company. By the late 1980s, we still had no significant financing. We were still the owners and we were all turning 60 at that point. We said we’ve got to turn the company over to the new generation of management, and ideally an owner/manager. We set up a serious search to move the company into its next phase. We explored options in Canada, Japan and the U.S.

Brad Wechsler and Richard Gelfond were different from the others we looked at. They were quite a bit younger. They had some motion picture background. Brad was on the board of MGM, but their main background was in finance. They worked on Wall Street and they brought the enthusiasm of youth. They had the drive, maybe the original drive we had ourselves. It worked out with Brad and Rich and with Douglas Trumble [the special-effects wizard]. Within weeks they had secured major debt financing, so for the first time there was money in the bank. They took the company public on NASDAQ and the Toronto Stock Exchange, all within six or seven months. When people ask me if I made the right decision, I say if I had to make it over again today, I would make the same decision.

WW What do you see for the future of the process you set in motion nearly 45 years ago?

Rolling Stones at the Max
Rolling Stones at the Max
GF It was only when Stephen Low, Colin’s son, made The Last Buffalo for Expo 90 that it really dawned on us that IMAX 3D was a major element in our future. With that one film, theatres began to convert to 3D. I was quite surprised how fast they converted, and to this day we are building more 3D theatres than 2D and the trajectory in that direction. One of the challenges for the company right now is to get more 3D films into production, so we can supply films for those theatres.

WW In the early part of this decade you switched from a producing role to that of an executive producer on Deep Sea, Under the Sea 3D and Hubble 3D. Would you briefly describe this role change and your involvement with these films?

GF Shortly after we sold the company, I turned over the leadership of my film unit to Toni Myers who had started with me as assistant editor on Polar Life. She has directed and produced all the unit’s recent films, and I have helped her out, most recently on Hubble 3D.

WW With the success of such blockbusters as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night and James Cameron’s Avatar 3D, both of which incorporate the IMAX process, do you now feel IMAX has now reached its full potential?

GF As soon as we can get enough bandwidth, you’ll see IMAX 3D in every living room and eventually an IMAX 3D camera in every smart phone.

CREDITS INCLUDE: Rooftops of New York 1961 (ph); The Legend of Rudolph Valentino 1961 (d/co-sc); Love Goddesses 1965 (co-p/co-sc); Polar Life 3D 1967 (co-p/d/ph); The Virgin President 1969 (d/co-sc); North of Superior 1971 (co-p/d/ph/ed); Circus World 1974 (ph); Snow Job 1974 (p/d); Man Belongs to Earth 1974 (co-p/d); Ocean 1977 (p/d/ph); Hail Columbia! 1983 (p/d/ph); The Dream Is Alive 1985 (p/d); Blue Planet 1990 (p); Journey to the Planets 1993 (p); Destiny in Space 1994 (p); Into the Deep 1994 (p); L5: First City in Space 1995 (co-p); Mission to Mir 1997 (p); Space Station 3D 2002 (consulting producer); Deep Sea 2006 (exp); Under the Sea 3D 2009 (exp); Hubble 3D 2010 (exp).

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