Ivan Graeme Ferguson was born in Toronto on October 7, 1929, to Frank and Grace Ferguson (nee Warner), both school teachers. His parents encouraged his creative pursuits, gifting him a Kodak Brownie camera when he was seven, and later, a Keystone 8mm film camera. Ferguson was raised in Galt, Ontario, and he attended Galt Collegiate Institute alongside his future IMAX co-founders Robert Kerr and William Shaw.
Ferguson enrolled at Victoria College at the University of Toronto in 1948, planning to study economics and political science. At U of T, Ferguson was active in the Students Administrative Council, the Historical Club, as well as the U of T Film Society. In 1950, Ferguson was selected for a summer filmmaking apprenticeship program at the National Film Board, where he met another IMAX co-founder and eventual brother-in-law, Roman Kroitor. Ferguson’s filmmaking career was further influenced by the avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren. While teaching a workshop at U of T in 1951, Deren enlisted Ferguson as a lighting assistant, and convinced him to pursue film instead of economics.
Upon graduation, Ferguson was appointed the National Secretary of the World University Service of Canada. His job with WUSC took him to India, where he met the Swedish filmmaker Arne Sucksdorff. Sucksdorff hired Ferguson as an assistant director to work on his film, “En Djungelsaga,” (also known as “The Flute and the Arrow”) a dramatized documentary about the Muria people of central India. The film would go on to premier at the Cannes Film Festival. Ferguson eventually relocated to New York, with his first wife, Betty Ramsaur, a filmmaker he met while shooting in Alaska. The pair would go on to have two children, Munro and Allison, though they eventually divorced in 1974.
In New York, Ferguson found work as a freelance director, cinematographer, and editor. He edited the series ”Silents Please.” He also worked as the cinematographer on the short films “A Bowl of Cherries” and “Rooftops of New York” (that latter of which was nominated for an Academy Award). Ferguson also wrote and directed “The Legend of Rudolph Valentino,” a documentary about the legendary film star, and wrote and produced “The Love Goddesses”, a documentary about female film stars. Alongside Severn Darden and several members of the Second City, Ferguson wrote and directed the anarchic White House farce, “The Virgin President.”
It was around this time that Ferguson was also commissioned to make a documentary for Expo 67 in Montreal. Ferguson spent a year traveling and documenting the lives of Arctic peoples in Canada, Lapland, and Siberia. The resulting film was shown in a specially built theatre, in which audiences sat on a rotating turntable while viewing the film on 11 screens. In another pavilion, Ferguson’s brother-in-law Roman Kroitor was screening his film with Colin Low, “Labyrinth,” another immersive, multi-screen film experience. Both films were hugely successful, but both had technical challenges – particularly when it came to running and syncing multiple projectors across multiple screens. Kroitor and Ferguson at first commiserated with each other over technical issues, but then began to imagine an alternative method for producing an immersive, large-format viewing experience. The pair envisioned a single large screen – about the size of nine 35mm screens stacked in a three by three grid – projected from a single 70mm, 15-perf format moving horizontally. The idea for a new medium was born.
Ferguson moved back to Canada, and he and Kroitor began their new venture, Multiscreen Corp. They enlisted Ferguson’s former high school classmate Robert Kerr as a business manager. The group also tapped another one of Ferguson’s high school classmates, Bill Shaw, an engineer, to help build the technology needed for this new format. Within a few years, the team developed the 70mm format, commissioned a 70mm camera, and built the 70mm rolling loop projector. With the sponsorship of Fuji, they were also able to produce and screen the fist large-format film, “Tiger Child,” (directed by Donald Brittain) at Expo ’70, in Osaka, Japan.
But when the Expo closed, the future of the fledgling company was in doubt. That is, until the team learned the province of Ontario planned to open a new park with a multimedia theatre on Toronto’s lakeshore. Multiscreen struck a deal with Ontario Place, and Graeme Ferguson was commissioned to make a film for its new theatre. Ferguson’s “North of Superior” premiered at the Cinesphere, the first permanent IMAX theatre, on May 22, 1971. The venue would become a model for future IMAX theaters. Ferguson’s landmark film would further set the tone for future IMAX releases; while “Tiger Child” had featured multi-image filmmaking, Ferguson’s “North of Superior” predominantly featured sweeping vistas of nature in Northern Ontario in full-frame. The film was so popular that it quickly pushed all other Cinesphere films off the schedule, and even then, audiences lined up for hours to view it.
Over the next few years, Ferguson and his team focused on promoting and selling the IMAX format, while also continuing to make IMAX films. An IMAX theatre was launched at Circus World, in Florida, which featured Ferguson’s film of the same name. Another theatre opened at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Ohio. The first dome IMAX theatre (dubbed OMINMAX) opened at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California. An IMAX theatre was built at Expo ’74 in Spokane, Washington, where Ferguson’s film “Man Belongs to the Earth” premiered. It was here that Michael Collins, a former astronaut and first director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum was sold on the IMAX concept. Collins agreed to incorporate an IMAX theatre at NASM, and the film “To Fly” (produced by MacGillivrary Freeman Films) premiered at the Samuel P. Langley IMAX theatre in 1976. The film was an enormous success. Not only did it break attendance records, it also set up a more consistent stream of revenue for IMAX, as other museums and institutions bought the system in order to replicate the NASM formula.
In 1980, Ferguson sought new filmmaking frontiers, and approached NASA with the idea of sending an IMAX camera to space with shuttle astronauts. NASA agreed, and the result was Ferguson’s “Hail Columbia!” in 1982. In that year, Ferguson also married his partner Phyllis Wilson, whom he had met while working on “North of Superior” several years earlier. Wilson, as well as writer-editor Toni Myers, were key members of the IMAX space film team. Over the next decade and a half, the team would go on to make eight space films in total, training astronauts to use the IMAX camera to capture breathtaking footage of Earth and space.
Ferguson and his founding partners sold IMAX in 1994, but he continued to consult on and produce a number IMAX films up to year 2016, with the release of “A Beautiful Planet,” on which he served as executive producer. IMAX now has over 280 theatres in 36 countries, showing traditional IMAX films as well as Hollywood features adapted to the format. Ferguson received many awards and honours for his work, as well as for his contributions to the film industry. In 1986, he received a Genie Special Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to the Canadian film industry. He received the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts Medal in 1990, and was named to the Order of Canada in 1993. Ferguson also received honorary doctorates from the University of Bradford (UK), as well as Victoria University (at the University of Toronto). In his later years, Ferguson also wrote and published a book on the Swedish-American inventor Frank Ofeldt. Ferguson passed away in May, 2021 at the age of 91.