Graeme Ferguson was a student at the University of Toronto in the late 1940s when the school’s film society assigned him to work as a cameraman on a film. During a summer internship at the National Film Board of Canada, he met another young man with cinematic ambitions, Roman Kroitor.
Both men were aspiring film directors. Later in life, they were also brothers-in-law. Both Kroitor and Ferguson had made films for the Expo 67 in Montreal that were shown on multiple screens. To create this large-screen experience, they had to sync footage coming from nine projectors.
In the late 1960s, Ferguson and Kroitor met with a group of Japanese businessmen in Montreal. The Japanese visitors wanted Ferguson and Kroitor to produce a film for Expo 70 in Osaka. Part of the proposal included making a new camera that could shoot images bigger than the conventional 35mm format. They also needed a working projector that could propel those images into a screen, as well as equipment that could magnify sound.
Alongside financier Robert Kerr and engineer Bill Shaw, the friends developed a camera and projection system that became known as Image Maximum. Or, in an abbreviated form, IMAX. Nearly 40 years after their technical savvy helped to ignite large-screen format filmmaking, Ferguson and Kroitor’s creation is one of the most recognizable brands in the world.
The point of IMAX is to deliver an enhanced sensory experience. The purpose is to not see a frame because the picture is so tall and wide, the sound so intense and all-encompassing. Much of the technology to create this big-screen format was invented by engineers at IMAX. These include high-resolution cameras and enormous sound systems. The auditoriums showing these films, meanwhile, have curved screens and custom-built speaker systems to correspond with the technology.
Initially, IMAX was a niche technology for museums, with films shown only in purpose-built auditoriums. The first permanent IMAX projector was installed at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere in 1971. North of Superior, the travelogue film playing there, was just 18 minutes long – the maximum runtime for an IMAX reel in the early 1970s.
In the traditional documentary format, IMAX cameras have spanned a large area of the globe – literally. Some have been to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean visiting Titanic and others near the top of Mt. Everest. For music lovers, both U2 and the Rolling Stones have filmed concerts in the IMAX format.
The idea to bring big Hollywood films to the IMAX screen did not become popular, though, until the mid-1990s. The worry was that IMAX could only work at movie theatres if there were enough features to fit the six-storey screen for a year. Conversely, since there were so few auditoriums at the time, studios did not want to make films in IMAX until it seemed like a worthwhile investment.
Spurred by the worldwide moneymaker Avatar, IMAX is now a global brand. Today, most of the major tentpoles from Hollywood can be seen on these large-format screens. Through the DMR process (digital media remastering), footage captured with a regular film or digital camera can be transferred digitally and then enhanced with IMAX technology.
Only a couple of films per year, however, are actually filmed with IMAX cameras and technology that will ensure the image fills the entire screen. (This year, only Transformers: Age of Extinction and Interstellar used IMAX cameras extensively.) For the best quality presentation, the engineers and creators at IMAX work with the filmmakers to alter and enhance the image and sound so that it fits the format. Due to the intricate planning and expenses, only a handful of features have ever been filmed with the equipment.
IMAX cameras offer moviegoers up to 40 per cent more of the image than a regular theatre screen does. Films shown on IMAX screens but not shot with the format can offer moviegoers around 20 per cent more than standard cinemas.
Films shot with IMAX cameras and equipment, meanwhile, are usually mobbed on their opening weekends and beyond. That is not just because moviegoers are aching to see the large-screen format accompanying blockbuster movies, but because the films are guaranteed hits. Many films that have used IMAX equipment have grossed $100 million in North America or more in their first three days. In 2012, Paramount even released Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in IMAX five days before its wide release. The film earned $17 million in North America from this format in only 425 auditoriums during that span.
However, as the brand has grown during the 21st century, there are fewer large-screen venues available to show these films. There has also been a backlash against exhibitors that claim to show “The IMAX Experience,” but do so in retrofitted auditoriums.
Just ask actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. In May of 2009, he blogged about his disappointment after he paid to see Star Trek at an AMC IMAX theatre. He vented that the screen was hardly bigger than a regular multiplex one, and asked his fans to boycott AMC.
“Some people at Regal and AMC both wanted to call these screens IMAX Digital so as to differentiate it somehow from the giant IMAX screens people are used to associating with the name IMAX,” Ansari wrote in his blog post. “Apparently IMAX doesn’t see anything wrong with duping customers like this and insisted on simply keeping it as IMAX.”
These multiplex cinemas that show IMAX films only modify the screen and sound slightly, and the angle for seating that is standard in traditional IMAX theatres is not there. The field-of-view, sound and image quality at the IMAX auditorium at the Empress Walk cinemas in North York is not the same as the one at the Scotiabank Theatre in downtown Toronto. These regular multiplex screens with the IMAX name are an estimated to be 30 to 40 per cent smaller than a traditional format screen.
Meanwhile, in many auditoriums that use both regular 35mm scenes and those shot on IMAX cameras, the differences between the formats is virtually invisible. With 4K projectors now commonplace at many movie houses, IMAX resolution systems are not as defining as they once were.
Although Ansari’s blog got a lot of press, including an enraged anti-IMAX response from critic Roger Ebert, the backlash has mostly been forgotten. In the wake of Avatar’s massive success later that year and into 2010, the IMAX brand has been quite potent since. Currently, there are more than 800 IMAX theatres around the world, in 60 countries. In China and Russia, the large-screen format is seeing the biggest gains.
However, it seems that the only place that IMAX is not expanding to meet its audience is the country where the format was invented.
Fewer Canadian documentaries get to use the technology. Meanwhile, even with around 20 IMAX auditoriums under the Cineplex Entertainment banner, the exhibitor is more interested in growing its UltraAVX format, according to Mike Langdon, director of communications for Cineplex Entertainment.
It is becoming more difficult to differentiate a retrofitted multiplex playing an IMAX film with an UltraAVX auditorium. UltraAVX provides a screen 60 feet wide, 4K high-definition projection that is 3D enabled, Dolby ATMOS sound and reserved seating. Cineplex has not announced any expansions with IMAX in the future.