Giant Influence

LF Pioneer Ferguson Is a Man of Vision

Graeme Ferguson, filmmaker, inventor and founding president of Imax Corporation, will get top honors at the annual conference of the Large Format Cinema Association (LFCA) in Universal City. Ferguson will receive the prestigious LFCA Kodak Vision Award in a presentation showcasing his life and work.

Without Ferguson, born in Toronto in 1929, we might not know the era of the seven-story screen. He co-invented the patented IMAX 70mm/15-perforation film process with Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr and William Shaw. Together, they built a new 65mm movie camera able to capture images of unprecedented clarity. It was used to make Tiger Child (produced by Kroitor) for Osaka Expo '70, and was the spark that ignited the giant-screen cinema industry.

Never say an artist can't also have a business head-a filmmaker will prove you wrong. Ferguson headed Imax Corp. for 23 years, and it grew into an important production and distribution company as well as provider of theatre systems and camera equipment. But the LFCA Kodak Vision Award is celebrating this remarkable businessman's equally remarkable achievements as a cinematographer.

Ferguson knew how to make the most of the new medium he had helped create. His most influential films include North of Superior (1971, for the first permanent IMAX theatre, at Ontario Place) Man Belongs to the Earth (Spokane Expo '74) and The Dream Is Alive! (for the Smithsonian in 1985).

"He had this vision-it wasn't just a camera or a technology," says fellow filmmaker Dennis Earl Moore (Living Planet), a longtime LFCA board member. "It looks simplistic, but no one had done it before. The closest thing at the time was Cinerama, but that didn't have the same vertical space-the screen extending down below the audience. And Cinerama was made up, whereas Graeme was creating a true documentary medium. You have to really get that camera into those places. He wedded the documentary sensibility with the visual spectacle of the huge screen and low horizon line, to reveal intimate stories about people and places."

Moore names the following as defining Ferguson's approach to large-format cinematography: 1) using aerials to transport the viewer from place to place, 2) using the boom and helicopter to drop the horizon line and place the action in the lower third of the screen, "giving the audience that feeling of 'whoosh,'" and 3) creating a sense of being in the picture by exploiting the screen size to fill the audience's peripheral vision, and the color saturation, sharpness and contrast that were equal to or better than reality.

Moore adds, "Graeme was so bent on getting other filmmakers to see and use the medium in the way he envisioned, that the first IMAX cameras had these viewfinders that were completely impractical for the cinematographer. When you looked in them, you saw as if you were in the theatre. It made the camera almost impossible to operate because you were seeing only the middle of the image clearly, and for filming you need an edge-to-edge view. But Graeme had an absolute fanatical desire to have other people make these films and see this way."

Ferguson's goal-oriented determination paid off in other ways. For instance, he developed the long-term relationship with NASA that resulted in getting the first IMAX cameras into space, operated by the astronauts and resulting in a series of films, most recently Space Station 3D (2002), for which Ferguson was consulting producer. Ferguson helped take the giant-screen medium into 3D, doing some of the early 3D tests for Imax.

"Graeme's work was the benchmark for all large-format filmmakers who followed him," says Moore. "Using rudimentary equipment, he set the basic story structure, the basic style structure and the basic language of large-format film. Graeme had the savvy to form a sequence in the middle of chaos, under less than ideal conditions and with limited resources-which are the characteristic conditions of filming a large-format documentary."

Stephen Low, another large-format filmmaker (Across the Sea of Time, Titanica, Fighter Pilots) who sits on the LFCA Kodak Vision Award committee, and himself received the award last year, recalls working briefly with Ferguson on the set of Hail Columbia! (1982). "He was throwing around that 100-pound camera like it was nothing, and it wasn't on a dolly, either. He used it as a viewfinder." But it wasn't for his physical strength that Low nominated Ferguson for the award. It was The Dream Is Alive! "Who would have thought at the time that you could get a camera into space? Politically and photographically, Graeme is a genius. In a way, he spoiled the public and the museum community, who now take for granted that filmmakers can do extraordinary things like that. And we have to live up to it."