Remembering Graeme Ferguson

As we at MacGillivray Freeman Films mourn the loss of brilliant iconoclast Graeme Ferguson, who co-founded IMAX Corporation and directed some of the format’s earliest films, we are also amazed and overjoyed as we reflect and remember the life of a man who was so many things to so many people: brilliant inventor of the IMAX format, entrepreneur, businessman and co-founder of IMAX Corporation, visionary filmmaker who launched IMAX cameras into space and who helped so many filmmakers coming up behind him, great marketer and communicator who could speak to museum directors in their own language and who inspired many of the world’s most prestigious institutions to embrace IMAX as their own.

There was no one else like him in our industry, and for more than 40 years, MFF’s own story has been linked to Graeme’s, starting in the early 1970s when Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman were asked to produce the first film for the Smithsonian’s new IMAX theatre at the National Air and Space Museum, To Fly! Graeme was there to offer help and guidance, and he played a pivotal role in MFF’s close relationship with IMAX as the two companies worked together to bring audiences the most awesome cinematic experience the world had ever seen.

Here are tributes from Greg MacGillivray, who was acknowledged by the Giant Screen Cinema Association as one of five pioneers of the IMAX industry along with Graeme, Bob Kerr, Bill Shaw, and Mike Sullivan of The Fleet Science Center; and from Mary Jane Dodge, an early pioneer of the format herself, who, starting in 1980, launched and managed more than 8 IMAX theatres in museums and commercial theatres from Kansas to Boston to New York and who consulted on more than 30 theatres around the world.

In Their Own Words…

From Greg MacGillivray:
“When Jim Freeman and I first met with Graeme back in 1974 as we were beginning the production of our first IMAX film To Fly, he could not have been more helpful. He guided us with ideas for how to structure the film and helped us whenever we ran into problems. I’ll never forget the day when Jim and I flew to Toronto to meet with the IMAX founders. We were there to discuss improvements to a new IMAX camera we needed to shoot To Fly.  We all went to Ontario Place to watch the only other three IMAX films in existence, then to IMAX’s offices where we sat on camera boxes in the garage. Jim made a proposal to Graeme and Bob: “If we come up with enough money to build three new IMAX cameras, can you build them in six months so that our team can make two new IMAX films for the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence?”  Their faces lit up. “Let’s start now!” they said. The cameras were done early.  Jim and I went off to make To Fly, and our partner, Francis Thompson, who had raised the money for the films, made the epic 50-minute IMAX film American Years for the Philadelphia 76 temporary IMAX theatre.

One thing that always impressed me was that Graeme always wanted to share the limelight with others. He was the co-founder of IMAX along with his boyhood friends, Bob Kerr, Bill Shaw, and Roman Kroiter, who are all recognized as pioneers of the best motion picture experience ever conceived. Happily, I was able to exchange many emails with Graeme these past few years as he contributed stories and ideas to the book I’m writing about my filmmaking adventures over the past 60 years. Graeme figured in many of those adventures, and I was able to express to him how grateful I was for his help and how grateful our industry is for his guidance and creativity. He and his wife Phyllis will be missed dearly by me and by everyone at our company. He was one of my heroes, and it saddens me deeply that he is not here to help guide us further.”

Greg MacGillivray and Graeme Ferguson

From Mary Jane Dodge:
“I’ll never forget the first time I met Graeme Ferguson. It changed my life. I was at a Planetarium conference in Vancouver in 1977 and I was walking through the trade show and I came across a really nice man at a table passing out brochures about something called “IMAX.”  I said, “IMAX, what’s that?”  It was Graeme Ferguson and he told me all about IMAX.  That started a conversation that lasted a lifetime.

I was working at the Hutchinson Planetarium at the time and we were building a new planetarium and space center.  I came back after that conference and proclaimed: we have to get an IMAX!  Then I saw my first IMAX film To Fly! at the National Air and Space Museum and it was a truly life changing experience.  I was so blown away, that I knew instantly that I wanted to work in the IMAX giant screen industry for the rest of my life.  It all started when I met Graeme at a planetarium conference!

Back in those days, Graeme used to visit the theatres 2 or 3 times a year.  We’d talk all about the operation and marketing of the theatre, and then I would pepper him with questions about IMAX filmmaking.  He always had great stories.  When Graeme was working on Hail Columbia, which opened in 1982, he said he was doing it so he could get the IMAX camera on the space shuttle.  Well, he sure did it!  Once NASA saw Hail Columbia, they were hooked!  The IMAX cameras flew aboard the space shuttle and who can ever forget the first images of earth in The Dream is Alive!  It was so thrilling I remember everything about it.  I got to see what the astronauts saw!  It was just astounding.  A dream come true for all of us who wanted to be an astronaut.

Graeme was a true leader, just what we needed in those early days.  Everything was so dynamic back then. There was so much growth every year, with new films, theatres, technology, it was always changing and evolving, there were all kinds of ups and downs all the time.  Filmmakers like Greg MacGillivray always talk about Graeme’s leadership and great collaboration. We all needed each other to build this new industry. I remember always looking forward to hearing Graeme speak at the annual conferences. It was kind of like a State of the Industry speech, even though we didn’t call it that.  He would give us an update on IMAX, what was next on the horizon and his perspective on the industry as a whole.  I would always leave the conference excited and confident about what was coming next.

Mary Jane Dodge, Graeme Ferguson, and Diane Carlson 

Most of the IMAX theatres in the beginning were in museums and science centers and Graeme played a key role in that development too.  The museum world is a very different culture from commercial filmmaking, but Graeme just fit in perfectly!  Museum directors could really talk to Graeme, and the more you got to know Graeme, the more you liked and trusted him.  He could speak their language. As I look back at it now, I think Graeme’s character, steady hand at the helm and creativity as a film director really played a key role in the huge expansion of the giant screen industry.

Looking back over 40 years of conversations with Graeme Ferguson, I remember the fun stuff too.  Every time we had a big premiere at the Lincoln Square IMAX Theatre in New York, Graeme always stayed in the booth, checking everything.  So I stayed in the booth too!  Every detail mattered. He was a great mentor that way.  Every year at the conferences, we would always talk about the new films, picking our favorite “IMAX moments” in each film, and I especially loved hearing the behind-the-scenes stories about NASA and the astronauts.  But it seemed like every conversation always involved the future.  He was always talking about what was coming next.  What new thing was right on the horizon. That’s what makes an industry thrive and grow and be successful.  It’s also what builds a legacy. Graeme Ferguson has a huge legacy, one that extends to the stars and back.  We all got to take that great ride with him.  And we all know we couldn’t have done it without him.

That’s what always made me look up to Graeme.  He had that rare quality of knowing how to dream big and make it happen.  The films and amazing images he created are still crystal clear in my memory.  He took us to places that only a few can see first-hand – like looking back at our beautiful planet from space.  But he was equally as profound on earth, reaching new heights as an artist.  Who can ever forget that opening scene in North of Superior.  The camera hovering fast and low over that great lake, with that mesmerizing drum beat.  It was so new, so interesting, so compelling such a great use of the medium and the message.  It was quintessential Graeme Ferguson.  Heroic.  Inventive.  Unforgettable.  Legendary.  Just like the man himself.”

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