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Meet alumnus Graeme Ferguson, a creator of IMAX

Graeme Ferguson preparing to film a space shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center in the 1980s (photo courtesy of Graeme Ferguson)

He is a renowned filmmaker and co-inventor of IMAX, a concept that came out of Expo ’67 in Montreal and has grown into a network of more than 660 IMAX theatres in 52 countries.

He is a member of the Order of Canada and holder of: The Royal Canadian Academy of Arts Medal; the Canadian Government Environmental Achievement Award; a Special Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to the Canadian film industry from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television; and the NASA astronauts’ personal award, the Silver Snoopy, for his continuing support to the space program.

Yet today, Faculty of Arts & Science alumnus Graeme Ferguson still finds time to visit the University of Toronto to lend support to student inventors and entrepreneurs.

Writer Jessica Lewis of the Faculty of Arts & Science spoke with Ferguson about his career, his memories of U of T and his advice for students.

Tell us about your time at the University of Toronto.
I was in Victoria College at the U of T from 1948 to 1952, studying political science and economics. I am glad that I went to a large university because I met so many interesting people, both in my own field and in other faculties.

What are some of the defining moments from your time at U of T?
The head of the economics department was Harold Innis, a brilliant thinker. At that point, he was interested in communications, which was central to my subsequent career. Another influential professor was Northrop Frye, who addressed the mythic basis of the stories in the Bible. That too was useful to a budding storyteller. I never had Marshall McLuhan as a professor, but went over and spent an evening in his living room talking about Innis’ ideas, and his own. In addition, there were many visiting lecturers. One of the most memorable was  Buckminster Fuller, who spoke to the architecture students at Convocation Hall. Nothing could have been more useful to a future inventor than learning what was going on in Bucky’s mind.

There was no film school in Canada in those days, but there was a film society at U of T.  The society decided to make a film and I got to be the cameraman, and as a result was able to spend a summer at the National Film Board in an apprenticeship program. 

I was elected as one of the Victoria College representatives to the Students’ Administrative Council (now the University of Toronto Students’ Union), which perhaps explains why I was subsequently selected to go to a World University Service international seminar. These seminars are a unique Canadian innovation, and they enhance the university experience by adding an international dimension. After  I graduated, I was appointed national secretary of World University Service, and the first thing I did was organize a similar seminar in India. To my delight I found that one of the professors, Jim Ham, later head of the U of T Engineering faculty, was interested in communication theory, and brought a perspective that differed from that of Innis or McLuhan.

Do you have any advice for today's students?
You don’t have to plan your whole life right now. It’s not a bad idea to change careers once or more. When we invented IMAX, the four founders were all about 40-years-old and were enjoying successful careers. Had IMAX failed, we could easily have gone back to what we were doing before.                                                    

Do you have any advice specifically for budding entrepreneurs?
It is extremely important to put together the right team.  Figure out your own strengths and weaknesses, and then choose partners who can provide the skills you don’t have. You will usually have to raise money, which is difficult because investors are wary of anything that doesn’t already exist. If you can’t persuade them of the merits of your invention, you will need a plan B. That happened to us. We could not raise the capital to build a chain of IMAX theatres, so we were forced to spend 20 years building the theatres one by one until we had about 100. Only then did we have the critical mass to support the release of IMAX feature films.

How did you come to create the IMAX Movie Projection System?
I made a film for the Polar Regions pavilion at Expo 67, and my brother-in-law Roman Kroitor was the leader of the team that made In the Labyrinth, so each of us had experience in making a film for a large screen, which we did by using multiple projectors. Our pavilions were so successful that we came up with the idea of creating a movie theatre with a larger-than-normal screen, but using a single projector. To do this we needed a new film format, ten times the size of the conventional 35mm frame, and new cameras and very powerful projectors.

How were you able to build the company and your career in film?
Roman and I were both filmmakers, and didn’t know much about business, so we recruited a high school friend of mine, Robert Kerr, a successful business man. Then we needed an engineer, so we brought in Bill Shaw, who had also been in our high school class and was a U of T grad. By then he was head of engineering for CCM and had co-invented the first hockey helmet. Although he had never been in a projection room Bill was a brilliant engineer – just the man to design a revolutionary projector.

Even though our first permanent theatre – at Ontario Place – was extremely popular, sceptical financiers pointed out that because admission to that theatre was free, we hadn’t yet proven that people would pay for the experience. We then built a theatre in the Smithsonian Institution that broke box office records, but next we were told that IMAX features would be impossible because nobody could stand the intensity of the medium for 90 minutes. In order to answer that, we made successful feature films on the Rolling Stones and the Titanic. The financiers were unconvinced; we still hadn’t demonstrated that IMAX was suitable for drama. The company then invented a method of converting Hollywood features, like Harry Potter, to the resolution demanded for IMAX, and that enabled the installation of many more theatres. However, it was only the enormous success of Avatar in IMAX 3D that finally silenced the doubters, and now a great many major features play in our theatres. All this took many years.

What do you think of IMAX now? What kind of movies work best for it?
IMAX works well for both drama and documentary, and for 3D it has a significant advantage over conventional cinema, which is proven by the ability of exhibitors to charge a substantial premium on the ticket price.

What are you up to these days?
For several years I’ve been writing a book about inventing, but am still working on the first draft with pencil and eraser, so don’t hold your breath. I’m learning a great deal about the minds of inventors, a most intriguing subject.