In the 1960s and 1970s a team of young Canadians, three of whom – Graeme Ferguson, Bob Kerr and Bill Shaw – had been high school classmates in Cambridge, Ontario, developed the IMAX over-sized film format and projection system that revolutionized movie viewing.
Unlike several of the 19th and earlier 20th Century inventions highlighted in this series, complex systems like IMAX involving successive stages such as image-capture and projection, followed by marketing, promotion and financing, require teams of people with quite different skills but who can also collaborate to achieve a common goal. This makes for a challenge in narrating the story and there is therefore a series of links below for wider reading on the topic.
The genesis of large-format movie-making in the latter part of the 20th Century is generally thought to be two multiple-image, experimental films, In The Labyrinth and The Polar Regions created by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) for EXPO 67 in Montreal and involving the young Canadian film producer Roman Kroitor and Graeme Ferguson, who had begun his movie-making while a student at the University of Toronto and had interned one summer at the NFB. Following the success at EXPO 67, it was Kroitor whom Fuji Bank approached to make a film for EXPO 70, to be staged in Osaka, Japan in 1970. By this time, Kerr had headed a successful printing company and become Mayor of Cambridge.
Kroiter turned to Feguson and Kerr to help with the daunting task he had undertaken to be completed in three short years: create a new technology using one image (rather than the multiple images used in the earlier, experimental NFB films), develop a camera to shoot images on a film frame 10 times larger than the usual 35mm format (“IMAX” is derived from Image MAXimum), create new projection equipment to project images onto a six-storey-high screen, and invent the ancillary and supporting equipment such as lenses, sound systems, lighting and seating.
One of the key hurdles was the challenge of designing a transport mechanism through a projector for significantly larger-sized film (in order to match standard film speed of 24 frames per second, three times the length of film must move through an IMAX projector). To solve this, the team turned to Bob Kerr, who had worked for several years as an engineer with Ford Motor Company and, later, with CCM, a Canadian bicycle manufacturer, a bicycle being another device to which locomotion using chains and sprockets is central. The Japanese project turned out to be the launching pad for a commercially successful IMAX system.
The next stage of development was to use the system in more permanent premises, showing films on a regular basis. The vehicle for this (and using the same projector from the Japanese experience) was the newly-built theme park on the Toronto waterfront, Ontario Place. Here, beginning in 1971, in the Cinesphere, a triodesic-domed structure and the word’s first permanent IMAX theatre, generations of Canadians were exposed to a succession of films designed to showcase the unique attributes of the IMAX system, the first of which was the award-winning documentary, North of Superior. Anyone who saw this film will never forget the breath-taking aerial views of the Canadian boreal forest and northern lakes, with a sweep and clarity never before seen on a screen.
IMAX also pioneered in the area of sound technology, driven by the fact that in order to conserve space on the film, sound was not imbedded in the image film, as would normally be the case, but was contained on separate magnetic film synchronized with the image film. Speakers were placed both directly behind the screen and around the theatre in order to create a 3D-sound effect.
Over the next several decades, IMAX continued to refine the technologies it used. It entered the 3D and HD fields (for example, Avatar was produced in an IMAX 3D version and Walt Disney collaborated to produce a new version of the 1940s Disney classic Fantasia, entitled Fantasia 2000), as well as developing a digital projection system and a proprietary digital media re-mastering process and, occasionally, allowing its cameras to be used for individual sequences in conventional films, such as The Dark Knight.
Along the way, in 1997 IMAX received an Oscar for Scientific and Technical Achievement. As of March 31, 2012, there were 643 IMAX theatres in operation in 52 countries around the world.
1994 was a banner year for the original shareholders of the company, as a consortium of mainly US-based investors bought out the five original shareholders and one institutional shareholder for approximately $100 million.
Here are links to a number of articles containing a wide range of additional technical information and specifications:
On the Ontario Place Cinesphere; the Wikipedia entry on IMAX generally; a general history of IMAX technologies on the site of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; and an article on IMAX Corporation History.
Summary by: Richard Potter