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Big Screen, Eh?

photography by sofie kirk

IMAX’s Canadian connection tends to be hidden behind the giant screens that just over 50 years ago revolutionized the film industry.

But a postdoctoral researcher is hoping to change all that with her participation in a York University-led creative film project highlighting the Hollywood behemoth’s local origins.

“IMAX is a Canadian invention,” says Jessica Mulvogue (PhD ’18), a graduate of York’s film program whose research is being supervised by Lassonde professor and virtual reality/3D-vision expert Rob Allison.

“It’s quite literally a very large piece of Canadian cultural history but a story not often told.” 

That story began in Cambridge, Ont., where IMAX inventors Graeme Ferguson, William Shaw, Robert Kerr and Ferguson’s brother-in-law, Roman Kroitor, combined their various talents to launch a company – originally called Multi-Screen Corp. – that would project massive visual images onto enormous screens, providing viewers with a thrilling experience. 

Inspired by his participation in a multiscreen film installation staged at Expo 67 in Montreal, Ferguson was an experimental filmmaker who was among the first in the world to use a multiprojector, multiscreen system for showing a film. 

His prototype was cumbersome and technically too difficult to operate for it to be feasible on a large scale, however, prompting him to ask Shaw, an engineer, to modify and simplify it into a single-camera, single-screen system producing large-scale images. 

These images, the partners were pleased to find, ended up being far more dramatic and impactful than a multiplex of smaller ones.

After three more years of experimentation, they renamed their company IMAX for the technique of widescreen cinematography that produces an image approximately 10 times larger than that from standard 35-millimetre film, debuting their large-scale camera, projector and domed screen system at the Fuji Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. 

More experimentation followed, with the company inventing other novel technologies, including the IMAX Dome and IMAX 3D.  To accommodate them, purpose-built theatres popped up in science museums and galleries. Today, there are over 1,000 IMAX screens in 66 countries, with an additional 200 new screens being planned for China, reports the company that has been owned by U.S. investors since 1994. 

But the first permanent IMAX projection system was back in Canada, installed at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere in Toronto in 1971, where it remains in operation – screening immersive IMAX nature films and documentaries as well as reformatted Hollywood blockbusters like Lawrence of Arabia and the Harry Potter franchise through their movie business partner, Cineplex.

In recognition of this history, earlier this year Cinesphere served as the site launch for XL Outer Worlds, an ambitious original five-film project celebrating the 50th anniversary of the invention of IMAX. 

Spearheaded by York cinema and media arts Professor Janine Marchessault in collaboration with True Frame Productions’ Christian Kroitor, grandson of one of the original IMAX inventors, the large-format digital film shorts screened at Cinesphere alongside a selection of original IMAX.

The program debuted on April 18 and included works by Canadian experimental media artists Michael Snow, Oliver Husain, Leila Sujir, Kelly Richardson and Lisa Jackson.

XL Outer Worlds is now expected to tour other first-generation IMAX theatres across Canada, with stops planned for Montreal, Sudbury, Edmonton and Victoria throughout the remainder of the year.

The accompanying XL Outer Worlds catalogue, to be published in the fall, includes an interview with Ferguson, the only one of the IMAX inventors who remains alive.

For Mulvogue, it represents a coming home. 

“We want to highlight the Canadian story and bring back that experimental feeling that was part of IMAX at the beginning,” she says. “We want to honour that original spirit.”    

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