Graeme Ferguson, a Canadian documentary filmmaker who helped create Imax, the panoramic cinematic experience that immerses audiences in movies, and who was the company’s primary creative force for years, died on May 8th at his home in Lake of Bays, Ontario. He was 91.
His son Munro Ferguson said the cause was cancer.
In the 1960s, Mr. Ferguson made a name for himself as a young cameraman known for his Cinéma Vérité-style work and was asked to make a documentary about the Arctic and Antarctic for Expo 67, a world exhibition in Montreal. He traveled for a year to make the film, which included footage of Inuit life and the aurora borealis.
The documentary “Polar Life” was shown with an immersive theater configuration: the audience sat on a rotating turntable while the film was played on a panorama of 11 fixed screens. The experience was a hit. Another film at Expo 67 that similarly used multiple canvases, “In the Labyrinth”, was directed by Roman Kroitor, Mr. Ferguson’s brother-in-law. Soon the two men had a vision.
“We were wondering if it would not be better to have a single large format projector or to have one that fills a large screen?” Mr. Ferguson told Take One, a Canadian film magazine, in 1997. “The next step, of course, was to have a large film format, larger than anything that has ever been done before.”
“We said, ‘let’s invent this new medium,'” he continued.
But despite Imax’s formidable technology, Mr. Ferguson struggled for decades to get investors to realize his vision. In a history of innovation, setbacks and adversity, his company almost went under several times, and it took Imax years to achieve the cinematic marvel it is today.
“People kept telling us that nobody would sit still for 90 minutes and watch an Imax movie,” Ferguson told Take One. “We have been told endlessly.”
Mr. Ferguson had already asked Robert Kerr, a high school friend who had become a successful businessman, to become their partner, and his next move was to hire William Shaw, a high school buddy who had become an engineer to help design Imax technology. They soon developed prototypes for the camera and large format projector that were needed for filming and showing Imax films.
The group was eager to showcase their technology at the 1970 Osaka Expo, so they did an overture at Fuji Bank for funding. They showed the delegates of the Japanese bank their Imax offices in New York and Montreal with hard-working employees. Impressed by what they saw, Fuji Bank agreed to the project.
What the delegates did not know was that the New York office they saw was Mr Ferguson’s freelance studio and the Montreal headquarters they were visiting was production space that Mr Kroitor had rented a few days earlier.
The first Imax film, “Tiger Child”, premiered shortly afterwards at Expo 70 in Osaka. Though successful, the company continued to struggle with funding.
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Back in Toronto, Mr. Ferguson learned that a new amusement park called Ontario Place was planning to build a large-screen theater. He reached out to the team with his pitch and they agreed to buy an Imax projector. In 1971, Ontario Place began showing North of Superior, an Imax documentary directed by Mr. Ferguson about the wilderness of northern Ontario. The venue became Imax’s first permanent theater and the model for future Imax cinemas.
In the 1970s, Imax transported viewers into unexpected realms: “Circus World” was a documentary about the Ringling Brothers and the Barnum & Bailey Circus; “To fly!” recorded the wonders of flight; and “Ocean” was about marine life.
In the 1980s, Mr. Ferguson approached NASA with the idea of getting moviegoers into space by training astronauts to use Imax cameras on spaceships. The collaboration resulted in several successful documentaries that firmly established the Imax brand.
Mr. Ferguson and his co-founders sold the company in 1994 when they were over 60 to two American businessmen, Richard Gelfond and Bradley Wechsler, who leveraged Imax and brought the brand to the public. In the Take One interview, Mr. Ferguson admitted that he was surprised at how difficult it was to find a buyer despite the company’s established success.
“The reaction time to new things is always longer than the inventor can ever imagine,” he says. “You think you might have built the better mousetrap and the world will be at your door the next morning, but they will be at your door about five years later. This is how the world really works. “
After the sale of Imax, Mr. Ferguson remained loyal to the company. He worked as a consultant and produced films such as “L5: First City in Space” (1996), “Hubble 3-D” (2010) and “A Beautiful Planet” (2016), narrated by Jennifer Lawrence.
Ivan Graeme Ferguson was born on October 7, 1929 in Toronto and grew up in nearby Galt. His father Frank was an English teacher. His mother, Grace (Warner) Ferguson, was an elementary school teacher. When he was 7, his parents gave him a brownie camera that he used to photograph steamboats on Lake Rosseau.
In 1948 he enrolled at the University of Toronto to study politics and economics. Avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren taught a workshop at the university for a semester and he became her lighting assistant. She encouraged him to give up the economy and make films instead.
In the 1960s, Mr. Ferguson was a cameraman in New York, working with filmmakers from the Cinéma Vérité movement such as DA Pennebaker and Albert Maysles. He worked for Adolfas Mekas and made footage for an Oscar-nominated documentary called “Rooftops of New York” (1961).
He married Betty Ramsaur in 1959 and they had two children, Munro and Allison; they divorced in 1974. In 1982 he married Phyllis Wilson, a filmmaker who became his creative collaborator and produced several Imax films with him. She died in March.
In addition to his son and daughter, Mr. Ferguson leaves behind two sisters, Janet Kroitor and Mary Hooper; a brother, Bill Ferguson; four grandchildren; and a great grandson.
In his late 60s, Mr. Ferguson and his wife settled in a sprawling stone house on the Lake of Bays that he bought after the Imax sale. Mr. Kerr and Mr. Shaw also lived in lakeside houses and the men often worked together on their boats. After Mr. Kroitor’s death in 2012, Mr. Ferguson became the last living Imax founder.
During the pandemic, Mr Ferguson read dismal reports on the state of Hollywood and changing viewing habits, with streaming videos drawing audiences out of theaters. But he wasn’t worried about Imax’s fate.
“He was absolutely convinced that it would thrive even if the rest of the exhibition industry were to do much worse,” said his son, “because he believed that when you leave your house you can just as easily see something great . “