Graeme Ferguson, Filmmaker Who Helped Create Imax, Dies at 91

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Graeme Ferguson, a Canadian documentarian who cocreated Imax, the panoramic cinema experience that immerses audiences into movies, and was the chief creative force of the company for years, died on May 8 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 was making 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 Arctic and Antarctic for Expo 67, a world’s fair in Montreal. He traveled for a year filming the movie, which also included footage of Inuit life and the aurora borealis.

The documentary, “Polar Life,” was screened with an immersive theater configuration: Audiences sat on a rotating turntable as the movie played on a panorama of 11 fixed screens. The experience was a hit. Another movie at Expo 67 that similarly used multiple screens, “In the Labyrinth,” was directed by Roman Kroitor, who was Mr. Ferguson’s brother-in-law. Soon, the two men had a vision.

“We asked each other, wouldn’t it be better to have had or been able to have a single, large-format projector filling a large screen?” Mr. Ferguson told Take One, a Canadian film magazine, in 1997. “Obviously the next step was to have a large film format, larger than anything that had ever been done.”

“We said, ‘Let’s invent this new medium,’” he continued.

But despite Imax’s stunning technology, Mr. Ferguson struggled for decades to get investors to embrace his vision. In a tale of innovation, setbacks and adversity, his company nearly went under several times and it took years for Imax to become fully realized into the cinematic marvel it is today.

“People kept telling us nobody would sit still for 90 minutes and watch an Imax film,” Mr. Ferguson told Take One. “We were told that endlessly.”

Mr. Ferguson had already asked Robert Kerr, a high school friend who had become a successful businessman, to be their partner, and he next enlisted William Shaw, a high school buddy who had become an engineer, to help conceive Imax’s technology. They soon developed prototypes for the camera and large-format projector needed to film and screen Imax movies.

The group was eager to debut their technology at the 1970 Osaka Expo, so they made an overture to Fuji Bank for funding. They showed the Japanese bank’s delegates their Imax offices in New York and Montreal filled with industrious employees. Impressed by what they saw, Fuji Bank signed off on 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 were production rooms Mr. Kroitor had rented out just days earlier.

The first Imax movie, “Tiger Child,” premiered at Expo 70 in Osaka not long after. Though it was successful, the company continued to struggle with financing.

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Back in Toronto, Mr. Ferguson heard that a new amusement park called Ontario Place was planning to build a large-screen theater. He approached its team with his pitch and they agreed to purchase an Imax projector. In 1971, Ontario Place began screening “North of Superior,” an Imax documentary directed by Mr. Ferguson about Northern Ontario’s wilderness. The venue became Imax’s first permanent theater and the model for future Imax cinemas.

Imax thrust viewers into unexpected realms throughout the 1970s: “Circus World” was a documentary about the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus; “To Fly!” chronicled the wonders of flight; and “Ocean” was about underwater life.

In the 1980s, Mr. Ferguson approached NASA with an idea to put moviegoers in space by training astronauts to use Imax cameras on spacecraft. The collaboration resulted in several successful documentaries that firmly established the Imax brand.

Mr. Ferguson and his fellow founders sold the company in 1994, when they were in their 60s, to two American businessmen, Richard Gelfond and Bradley Wechsler, who acquired Imax in a leveraged buyout and took the brand public. In the Take One interview, Mr. Ferguson admitted his surprise at how challenging it was to find a buyer, even with the company’s established success.

“The reaction time to anything new is always longer than the inventor can ever imagine,” he said. “You think you might have built the better mousetrap and the world will come to your door the next morning, but they will beat the way to your door about five years later. That’s really how the world works.”

After Imax was sold Mr. Ferguson remained involved with the company. He worked as a consultant and produced films like “L5: First City in Space” (1996), “Hubble 3-D” (2010) and “A Beautiful Planet” (2016), which was narrated by Jennifer Lawrence.

Ivan Graeme Ferguson was born on Oct. 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 schoolteacher. His parents gave him a Brownie camera when he was 7 and he used it to photograph steamships on Lake Rosseau.

In 1948, he enrolled at the University of Toronto to study political science and economics. The avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren taught a workshop at the university one semester and he became her lighting assistant. She encouraged him to abandon economics and make movies instead.

In the 1960s, Mr. Ferguson worked as a cameraman in New York and collaborated with filmmakers associated with the cinéma vérité movement, like D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles. He worked for Adolfas Mekas and shot 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 movies with him. She died 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 sprawling stone cottage on Lake of Bays that he bought after the Imax sale. Mr. Kerr and Mr. Shaw also lived in homes on the lake and the men often worked on their boats together. After Mr. Kroitor died in 2012, Mr. Ferguson became the last living Imax founder.

Throughout the pandemic, Mr. Ferguson read bleak reports about the state of Hollywood and the shift in viewing habits, with streaming video luring audiences from theaters. But he wasn’t worried about the fate of Imax.

“He was completely convinced it would flourish even if the rest of the exhibition industry was going to do much worse,” his son said, “because he believed that if you’re going to leave your house, you might as well go see something amazing.”