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The Passing of Graeme Ferguson - IMAX Pioneer
07.10.1929 - 08.05.2021

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: James Neihouse, Cinematographer, ASC Date: 20.05.2021
Graeme Ferguson filming in 65mm IMAX for the 1982 Imax documentary "Hail Columbia!". Picture: ROGER SCRUGGS/IMAX

On May 8th, 2021 the IMAX world lost its creator and guiding light. Graeme Ferguson, the last surviving founder of IMAX Corporation passed away, peacefully, at his beloved Norway Point home on the Lake of Bays in Ontario, Canada.

How do you sum up a 45 year friendship in a few words?

I first met and worked with Graeme in 1976 on the first IMAX underwater film - OCEAN. Graeme was directing the film for the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater (now the Fleet Science Center) in San Diego, I was fresh out of film school and totally enthralled with this new movie format. Getting to meet, let alone work with one of the inventors was beyond my wildest dreams.

The same year we were working on "OCEAN" the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum opened with its IMAX screen being one of the big attractions. Graeme was encouraged by the museum’s first director, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, to fly the IMAX camera in space. Collins believed that IMAX was the best way to share with the public the beauty of the Earth from space. He said that the space shuttle would be the perfect way to get the big camera into orbit, Graeme’s response “That’s a great idea, but what’s a space shuttle?”

After "OCEAN" I had the privilege, no, honor of working on most of Graeme’s IMAX films. He brought me in to help shoot shuttle launches and ground footage for "The Dream Is Alive", and it was through that project that I met my wife, Leslie, who worked for NASA Public Affairs at the Kennedy Space Center. She would guide us around during our shoots. All those early mornings in the marshes around the launch pads led to true romance, and Graeme and his wife Phyllis always took credit, and rightly so, for making that match!

"The Dream Is Alive" was the first commercially successful motion picture to be filmed in space, and became an IMAX classic. TDIA was instrumental in the success of the IMAX format as well as being a tribute to courage of the astronauts following the Challenger accident. The film also inspired several people to pursue becoming an astronaut, one of them, Susan Helms, would later be featured in the IMAX "Space Station 3D" movie.

When it was time to return to flight after Challenger, what came to be known as the IMAX Space Team, under Graeme’s leadership, was already gearing up for two more films with NASA. He asked me to come help with crew training at the Johnson Space Center and I officially became a part of the Space Team. I would go on to make a total of 7 IMAX space films with Graeme.

Graeme had a rich and amazing life that was well lived.
More in 70mm reading:

The Birth of IMAX

The Passing of Bill Shaw

in70mm.com's IMAX Page

IMAX, IMAX Dome, IMAX Solido, IMAX 3D, IMAX Magic Carpet, IMAX HD

As a young assistant cameraman working on a film in India he was forced to shoot a man-eating tiger that was charging at him. He told me this story as I was prepping for a film about wild tigers in India. While filming in the Arctic he and his crew had to throw all of the camera gear out of a failing aircraft in an unsuccessful attempt to stay airborne. They eventually made an emergency landing and endured the cold for several days before being rescued.

He flew on the NASA KC-135 “Vomit Comet” zero-G simulation aircraft during testing of the IMAX camera for space flight.

I gave him a crash course in SCUBA diving so he could see what was being shot underwater for "OCEAN". We watched “rushes” in the Casino Theater on Catalina Island laying on the stage in front of the screen so we could get a pseudo “IMAX” view.

In 1993 as Leslie and I were expecting our first child, Graeme quite seriously, offered to film the birth in IMAX 3D. Leslie respectfully declined his generous offer, we did however name our new baby boy Joseph Graeme, after my father and Graeme Ferguson.

We weathered Hurricane Hugo in Charleston, South Carolina in 1989 after chasing it up the coast from Jacksonville, Florida. We spent the next few days documenting the destruction for "Blue Planet".

Graeme received a Silver Snoopy Award from the astronauts. This award is given exclusively by astronauts to less than 1% of eligible support personnel in recognition of outstanding contributions to mission safety and success. The letter that accompanies the award is usually signed by only one astronaut, Graeme’s was signed by more than 25. We spent many long hours of flight support together “on console” at the various NASA space centers during the times we had a camera on orbit. We were always the daylight/awake shift, that’s the time when the astronauts in orbit were awake and working, so we had to be constantly aware of what was being said on several communication “loops.” The last thing we wanted to hear was “Houston for IMAX, we have a problem…” Fortunately we didn’t hear that very often because of the meticulous thought and preparation Graeme and the team did before flight.

He was a diligent note taker, and always carried a small, leather bound notebook and mechanical pencil, in the pocket of his signature seersucker jacket. He considered himself a luddite, and preferred the analogue world. His pocket journals were crammed full of minuscule handwriting, notes on his films, on IMAX, on everything. He called these little treasures, ironically, his Random Access Memory, it fit. He taught me the importance of testing new ideas and techniques, fixing it in “pre” not in “post”.

Passionate about storytelling, a perfectionist, an explorer, Graeme always wanted to share his discoveries with the world in a manner never before seen. He wanted the audience to experience his stories in a personal way, and the giant IMAX screen was his canvas.

Graeme was a true visionary, a remarkable filmmaker, a “foodie” before there was such a thing (we shared many wonderful meals and lots of great wine) and a wonderful human being. He loved cruising Lake of Bays in his classic antique wooden boats, he was constantly inquiring about what fun cars I had driven recently, or what new camera technology might be useful for IMAX. He was always available when you needed advice, and was very supportive of the giant screen cinema world.

He believed in me, and helped me grow as a filmmaker. He made me feel that my input was important and listened to my crazy ideas. He was always ready with praise when deserved, but more importantly with constructive critique when needed.

He was a supportive mentor, and a wonderful friend. I shall miss him immensely.

• Go to The Birth of IMAX
• Go to in70mm.com's IMAX Page
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Updated 21-01-24