The Birth of IMAX
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The 70mm Newsletter
|Written by: Diane
Big Frame, Spring 1994. Diane Disse, former editor of The Big Frame, teaches writing and is the
student media advisor at Western Oregon State College near Salem. Reprinted with written permission from
Kelly Germain, Giant Screen Cinema
The Imax technology was born at Expo '70, where viewers rolled through the
theater on a rotating platform.|
What the Japanese delegation saw when it arrived in 1968 might have been an
foreshadowing of the future. In New York they visited a floor of offices
filled with people engaged in filmmaking. In Montreal they visited another
office, well furnished and looking very businesslike. When they got the
royal treatment on a tour of a Montreal office complex with experimental
filmmaking and the business of filmmaking impressively united, they were
Their hosts did not waste time explaining that the New York office was just
two rooms rented by Graeme Ferguson as a base for his independent
filmmaking. Nor did they note that the furnished office in Montreal had
been, just days before, a production room holding office furniture, and even
prints for the walls, that had been rented by Roman Kroitor. They also
failed to mention that the final tour was, in fact, of the National Film
Board of Canada's (NFB) facilities, where Kroitor had worked for years.
When members of the Japanese delegation left, they were satisfied that the
funds and prestige of Fuji Bank and its associated businesses were in good
hands. They were right,
but there were fewer hands than the bankers thought. The enterprising hands
they were placing themselves in were those of Ferguson and Kroitor plus
Robert Kerr, and, later, Bill Shaw.
The promise these 30-something men made was to produce a film for Expo '70
in Osaka, Japan—and, along the way, to develop a new camera to shoot images
on a film frame 10 times larger than a 35mm format, new equipment to project
those larger frame
images onto a six-story-high screen, and other little things—new lenses,
sound equipment, lighting, and seating arrangements.
In addition to being risk takers, they shared most other characteristics of
successful entrepreneurs. They had skills and knowledge specific to their
task. They were willing
to postpone financial success. They were persistent. They could approach a
problem from various angles. They shared interests and skills but also had
well developed specializations.
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The Passing of Bill Shaw
Bill Shaw about
The Work of Jan Jacobsen
Jan Jacobsen Story
Just Enough Experience
"Tiger Child" was the first Imax format film, created for Expo '70 in Osaka.
The idea for the format struck Graeme Ferguson at the Expo '67 in Montreal
as he watched a complicated system using multiple projectors.|
"We had just enough experience to give us some confidence. We were very
naive - which probably saved us."
Ferguson, Shaw, and Kerr went to school together in Gait, Ontario. Ferguson
and Kerr's first venture together was starting a school newspaper when they attended Gait Collegiate Institute. Ferguson began making films when he
was a student at the University of Toronto and was selected one summer to
intern at the NFB. He became an independent filmmaker, eventually working
out of New York. In 1965 Ferguson was asked by the Canadian Expo Corporation
to do a film for Expo '67 in Montreal, but it had to be done by a Canadian
Kerr was serving as mayor of Gait and still managing the printing company he
had sold. Ferguson approached him about setting up a company to co-produce.
Kerr agreed. "At that age you think the world's your oyster," he says. "We
had just enough experience to give us some confidence, and if it didn't go,
we still could recover. We were very naive - which probably saved us." For
Kerr the venture was going to be part-time, looking after the business end.
They produced the film Polar Life for Expo '67 in Montreal.
Kroitor too had been a summer intern at NFB and went to work full-time there
when he finished university. In 1965, he suggested the Board form a
committee to produce a multiple-image, experimental film for the Montreal
Expo. Kroitor's concept was selected, and he produced "Labyrinth".
Click the image to see enlargement
The Montreal Expo turned out to be a showcase for big-screen films shown
with multiple projectors. Other forerunners in big-screen production were
there, including Colin Low, Kroitor's codirector on "Labyrinth", Christopher
Chapman, Francis Thomson,
Alexander Hammid. Ferguson remembers calling on these people for advice as
Imax developed. The audience reaction was great, according to Kroitor, but
the process was technically complicated and the images never seamless. He
remembers Ferguson saying they "ought to be looking for a way to make these
films without multiple projectors."
Their chance to do that came when the Fuji group asked Kroitor to do a film
for Expo '70 in Osaka. Kroitor proposed a new company to do it and invited
Ferguson and Kerr to join him. They sold the Fuji group on the idea and then
had to deliver not only a film but also a whole new system. Multiscreen
Corporation, now Imax Corporation, was in business, with Ferguson as
But they needed technical assistance. The camera turned out to be an easy
project for inventor Jan Jacobson, a Norwegian working in Copenhagen. In 2½ months he designed a new camera to use 65mm film horizontally.
The projector was a tougher
problem. The company had acquired a patent for a Rolling Loop projector from
Ronald Jones, a machine shop owner in Brisbane, Australia, but it needed
adapting for the larger size. Their old friend Bill Shaw came to mind.
The first Imax projector, showcased at Expo '70, is still in use at Ontario
Place's Cinesphere in Toronto, Canada. It was installed in 1971.|
After university, Shaw, who said there "was never any doubt I would be an
engineer, but I needed to make an effort to become more business oriented,"
had joined Ford Motor Company partly because of its management training
program. After a few years there, Shaw went looking for a smaller company
where he could be involved in more depth. He picked CCM, maker of sporting
goods and bicycles, and was product engineering manager there for nine
"One day Graeme and Robert showed up at my desk and said they had this
marvelous idea," says Shaw. But they needed someone who understood chain
drives—like those on bicycles. Shaw, then 39, said, "I figured if I didn't
do something adventurous then, I never would."
Shaw worked with Jones, usually via air mail, to develop prototypes for the
larger-format projector. Even though the concept of building up a loop
before each frame was projected seemed like
the ideal way to ease the big film through without tearing the perfs, the
prototypes continued to shred film when they ran at the necessary 24 frames
Meanwhile, Kroitor was producing the film so it could be shown with either
single or multiple projectors. From the summer of 1969 to the spring of 1970
when the Osaka Expo opened, Kroitor worked in Japan. His wife Janet
(Graeme Ferguson's sister) and five children, ages 3 to 13, were with him.
Working with him was the late Donald Brittain, one of Canada's foremost
directors, and Georges Dufaux, cameraman, who had been on NFB and returned
to head the technical services division of the Board.
Asuka Productions, co-producer of the film, provided facilities, assistance, and a new
piece of equipment to edit the film.
The convention that "married new technology and art"
was conceived at Expo '67. Today, in its third decade,
Imax enters a new era under new leadership.|
Raising funds was a constant problem. Ferguson and Kerr had acquired some
capital and loans, and they had advance money from Fuji, but it wouldn't
cover the cost of developing the projector. While Kroitor was in Japan, he
got a call from Kerr and Ferguson saying they couldn't continue work on the
projector unless they could get $100,000. Kroitor went to Fuji and got an
advance using the projector, not yet working, as collateral.
Kerr reports each of them was discouraged at times, but "I guess what saved
us was we weren't all discouraged at the same time." Shaw admits to being
discouraged "maybe once a week" at first, but then he'd go to sleep and wake
up ready to try a new idea.
A year before Expo '70 was to open they still weren't sure the projector
would work, but Shaw was able to show mathematically that a new prototype
would work. In three months the new machine was built, and at 1:30 on a
Sunday morning in June it ran for the first time. Ten minutes later, it had
successfully passed its tests, and a few months later it was being installed
The projector was installed in the Fuji pavilion, and the film "Tiger Child"
was shown on the big screen while the audience was carried through the theater continuously on a large rotating platform, each one viewing the
endless film from a different starting point. During the six months of Expo
'70, the system was inoperative on only one day.
Shaw notes the important role Expo's have played in developing new
technology. "The sponsor usually has a good
budget," he says, and those developing the technology and art "can take
risks because you only have to keep it running for six months."
Around the World
As remarkable as the accomplishment for Expo '70 was, it was not the goal of
the small company. That goal, as Ferguson expressed it, was to have one
projector for the large screen and a "standardized system that could be used
by everybody around the world." They wanted to take the big screen out of
Expo's and into everyday experience and make it commercially successful. |
development of Ontario Place in Toronto offered the first opportunity to do
that. The government-sponsored theme park was to include Cinesphere, a
theater showcasing new technology. Ontario Place bought the Expo '70
projector. It was brought back from Japan, refined a bit, and installed in
the spring of 1971. That first Imax projector, not rebuilt until three years
ago, still runs at Ontario Place. The company also provided the first film
for Ontario Place, "North of Superior".
The next milestone in the development of the company was the opportunity to
use the system with a dome screen, in a new kind of planetarium in San
Diego—the inauguration of Omnimax. About this time William A. Breukelman,
now chairman of Imax Corporation, came on board to aid in the fundraising
and business effort.
The Imax founders continue to work on "the marriage of new technology and
art," Kerr's way of looking at what they have done. Sharper images, larger
images, and improved concepts all are part of the drive to "fill the
audience's field of view," says Ferguson. Those working in the industry
continue to strive to blur the line between observer and participant in the
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