Graeme Ferguson, a Canadian documentarian who created Imax, the panoramic cinematic experience that immerses audiences in films, and was the company’s main creative force for many years, has passed away on May 8 at his home in Lake of Bays, Ontario. He was 91 years old.
His son, Munro Ferguson, said the cause was cancer.
By the 1960s, Ferguson had made a name for himself as a young cinematographer known for working in the cinéma Vérité style, and he was asked to direct a documentary about the North Pole and South Pole for Expo 67, a world fair in Montreal. He traveled for a year to shoot the film, which featured footage of Inuit life and the aurora borealis.
The documentary, “Polar Life,” is shown in an immersive theater configuration: The audience sits on a turntable as the film plays on a panorama of 11 fixed screens. Experience is a success. Another film at Expo 67 that used many of the same screens, “In the Labyrinth”, was directed by Roman Kroitor, Ferguson’s brother-in-law. Before long, the two had a vision.
“We asked each other, wouldn’t it be better to have or be able to have a single large format projector that fills a large screen?” Mr. Ferguson told Take One, a Canadian film magazine, in 1997. “Obviously the next step was to create a big movie format, bigger than anything that had ever been done.”
“We said, ‘Let’s invent this new medium,’” he continued.
But despite Imax’s brilliant technology, Ferguson struggled for decades to get investors to accept his vision. In a tale of innovation, failure, and adversity, his company nearly went downhill several times, and it took years for Imax to fully become the cinematic masterpiece it is today.
“People keep telling us that no one is going to sit still for 90 minutes and watch an Imax movie,” Ferguson told Take One. “We’ve been told that non-stop.”
Mr. Ferguson asked Robert Kerr, a high school friend who became a successful businessman, to be their partner, and next he invited William Shaw, a high school friend turned engineer. engineers, to help shape Imax’s technology. They soon developed prototypes for the large format cameras and projectors needed to shoot and project Imax movies.
The group was eager to showcase their technology at the 1970 Osaka Expo, so they reached out to Fuji Bank for funding. They showed delegates from the Bank of Japan their Imax offices in New York and Montreal filled with hardworking employees. Impressed with what they saw, Fuji Bank signed a contract with the project.
What the delegates didn’t know was that the New York office they saw was Mr. Ferguson’s freelance studio, and the Montreal headquarters they visited was the production studio Mr. Kroitor had rented just a few days earlier.
The first Imax film, “Tiger Child”, premiered at Expo 70 in Osaka not long after. Despite its success, the company continued to face financial difficulties.
Today in business
Back in Toronto, Mr. Ferguson heard that a new amusement park called Ontario Place was planning to build a big-screen theater. He approached his 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 Ferguson about the wilderness of Northern Ontario. This location became Imax’s first permanent theater and a model for future Imax cinemas.
Imax takes viewers into unexpected realms during the 1970s: “Circus World” is a documentary about the Ringling brothers and the Barnum & Bailey circus; “Fly!” record the wonders of flight; and “Ocean” is about life underwater.
In the 1980s, Ferguson approached NASA with the idea of sending moviegoers into space by training astronauts to use Imax cameras on spacecraft. This partnership has spawned a number of successful documentaries, helping to solidify the Imax brand.
Ferguson and his co-founders sold the company in 1994, when they were in their 60s, to two American entrepreneurs, Richard Gelfond and Bradley Wechsler, who acquired Imax in a leveraged acquisition. and bring the brand to the masses. In an interview with Take One, Mr. Ferguson admitted his surprise at how hard it was to find a buyer, even with the company’s already successful success.
“Reaction time to anything new is always longer than the inventor can imagine,” he said. “You think you could have made a better mousetrap and the world will come to your doorstep the next morning, but they will be banging their way to your door about five years later. That’s really how the world works.”
After Imax was sold, Mr. Ferguson remained with the company. He has 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 raised in nearby Galt. His father, Frank, is an English teacher. His mother, Grace (Warner) Ferguson, is an elementary school teacher. His parents gave him a Brownie camera when he was 7 years old, and he used it to photograph steamboats on Lake Rosseau.
In 1948, he enrolled at the University of Toronto to study political science and economics. Pioneering filmmaker Maya Deren taught a seminar at the university one semester, and he became her lighting assistant. She encouraged him to give up economics and make films instead.
In the 1960s, Ferguson worked as a cinematographer in New York and collaborated with filmmakers associated with the Vécrité movement, such as DA Pennebaker and Albert Maysles. He worked for Adolfas Mekas and shot scenes for the Oscar-nominated documentary “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 with whom he produced several Imax films. She passed away in March.
In addition to his son and daughter, Mr. Ferguson is survived by two sisters, Janet Kroitor and Mary Hooper; a brother, Bill Ferguson; four grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
In his late 60s, Mr. Ferguson settled with his wife in a small stone cottage on Gulf Lake that he bought after the Imax sale. Mr. Kerr and Mr. Shaw also lived in houses on the lake and the men often worked on their boats together. After Mr. Kroitor passed away in 2012, Mr. Ferguson became the last living Imax founder.
Throughout the pandemic, Ferguson has read bleak reports about the state of Hollywood and changing movie-watching habits, with video streaming drawing audiences from movie theaters. But he wasn’t worried about Imax’s fate.
“He absolutely believes it will thrive even if the rest of the show industry will be much worse,” said his son, “because he believes that if you are going to leave the house, you You might as well go see something amazing.”