Cambridge Chamber of Commerce

The following piece is one of several that appears in the special summer edition of  our INSIGHT Magazine celebrating Cambridge’s 50th anniversary as we recognize just a few of the people, businesses and institutions that have made our community great.

 

 

It’s been more than 50 years since the ingenuity and drive of two Cambridge men helped revolutionize filmmaking, setting the stage for millions of moviegoers worldwide to enjoy an enhanced experience every time they set foot inside a theatre.

 

It was the innovative vision of filmmaker Graeme Ferguson and businessman Robert Kerr, along with filmmaker Roman Kroitor and engineer William Shaw, which resulted in the creation of the IMAX film format and the success that followed.

 

Friends since childhood, Ferguson, and Kerr’s first ‘big’ collaboration was on a school newspaper at Galt Collegiate Institute. However, they took very different career paths with Kerr establishing a specialty printing company with his father called John Kerr and Son, and Ferguson, who developed a love for photography after his parents gave him a Baby Brownie camera at age 7, becoming a New York-based independent filmmaker.

 

Later, their creative drives would draw the pair together again when Ferguson reached out to his old friend, who at this time was serving as the youngest mayor of Galt (serving four one-year terms from 1964-67) and managing the printing company after he had sold it, to collaborate on a film for Montreal’s Expo 67.

 

The film, to be shown at the “Man the Explorer” pavilion, was entitled Polar Life and examined the lives of northern peoples in Canada, Lapland, and Siberia. It was to be featured on eleven 35mm screens and a continuously rotating audience platform. Kerr, who was known to enjoy making things with hands and discovering ‘elegant’ solutions to problems, welcomed the challenge.

 

“We had just enough experience to give us some confidence, and if didn’t go well, we still could recover,” Kerr once told a reporter. “We were very naïve, which probably saved us.”

 

The film was a success, along with another multi-screen film at Expo 67 called Labyrinth, co-created by Ferguson’s brother-in-law Roman Kroitor, who was also experimenting with screen technology.

 

When Kroitor received backing from film manufacturer Fuji to create another film for Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, Ferguson, and Kerr joined the project and the trio each invested $700 to form their own company called Multiscreen Corp. – the forerunner to what would later become IMAX Corp.

 

“We had two filmmakers, which was one too many, one businessman, which was right, and were short in the engineering department,” Ferguson was quoted as saying. “We said to each other, ‘Who’s the best engineer we could hire?’ And it took us about one tenth of a second to say, ‘Bill Shaw’.”

 

William Shaw, who was an engineer at bicycle-maker CCM, came onboard and began working out the technical aspects to fine tune this new technology.

 

Together, over the course of the next two-and-half years, the group invented the 15/70 film format, commissioned the first 15/70 camera, built the first 15/70 rolling loop projector, and produced a giant-screen film called Tiger Child which opened at what was considered the world’s first IMAX theatre at Expo 70.

 

Ontario Place first permanent IMAX theatre

 

However, it wouldn’t be until the foursome brought their technology to the 800-seat Cinesphere at Toronto’s Ontario Place which became the first permanent IMAX theatre, that the full potential of their creative dream thus far would be realized. The landmark theatre opened May 22, 1971, showing Ferguson’s now classic film North of Superior.

 

The sky really was the limit after that when Ferguson struck up a collaboration with NASA to bring moviegoers into space by having astronauts trained to use IMAX cameras. Several very successful documentaries would follow that established the IMAX brand.

 

But even as the company continued to flourish, the pair remained close, even working on their boats together after he, Kerr and Shaw retired to homes on Lake of Bays after IMAX was sold to two American businessmen in 1994.

 

Kerr, who had served as the company’s Chairman, President and CEO from 1967 to 1994, continued to dabble in large format film, and after retiring from IMAX formed a partnership with Jonathan Barker to form SK Films. But prior to this, he also managed to serve a two-year term (1974-1976) as mayor of the newly-amalgamated Cambridge before joining IMAX full time but proudly wore his mayoral ring for the remainder of his life.

 

Among his many municipal accomplishments was the development of Mill Race Park, following the Grand River flood in 1974.  At the time, his mayoral predecessor Claudette Millar – Cambridge’s first mayor following the amalgamation – was quoted as saying: “If it weren’t for him, it could have been a blank wall.”

 

Later during his retirement, Kerr fostered his interest in the arts and education by supporting local artists, as well as in 1997 by endowing the University of Waterloo’s Stanley Knowles Visiting Professorship in Canadian Studies. He also bestowed bursaries at Cambridge secondary schools.

 

“I believe it is important for Canadians to increase our understanding of ourselves, our history, our special institutions and those qualities that contribute to a more thoughtful and compassionate nation,” he once said.

 

Kerr passed away in April 2010 at the age of 80. Ferguson, the last of the four IMAX founders, died in May 2021 at the age of 91.

 

According to a news report published in the New York Times upon Ferguson’s death, despite reading bleak reports throughout the pandemic regarding a shift in viewing habits and the growing allure of streaming services enticing moviegoers away from theatres, the Cambridge native wasn’t worried about what the future held for IMAX.

 

“He was completely convinced it would flourish even if the rest of the exhibition industry was going to do much worse,” his son, Munro, was quoted as saying in the Times, “because he believed that if you’re going to leave your house, you might as well go see something amazing.”

 

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