When the National Air and Space Museum opened its doors in July 1976, it featured in its theater a film produced specifically for the Museum called To Fly in a large format called IMAX. The Canadian-designed IMAX (Image MAXimum) format was created by Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr, and William C. Shaw. IMAX was able to record and project images in a much larger format and much higher resolution than conventional film systems. Theater goers were astonished by the panoramic images in To Fly, one of whose effects on the audience was a vertiginous loss of balance. To Fly was immensely popular, and continues to be shown today in both of the Museum’s IMAX theaters. The film was considered significant enough to be selected in 1995 for preservation and placed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, which pays tribute to culturally important films. Until 2004, To Fly held the record as the highest-grossing documentary film.
Many people (including me) thought To Fly was the first IMAX film to be shown in the United States. However, subsequent research has turned up some interesting facts about IMAX’s origins and history. IMAX is probably the most significant and most successful in a long line of large format films that began with Twentieth Century Fox’s Fox Grandeur, the first 70 mm motion picture format, introduced in 1929. (The Big Trail in 1930, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring John Wayne in his first major role, was the first film made in Fox Grandeur.) Another wide-screen process, Cinerama, which used multiple projectors to achieve its effects, appeared in 1952. (The first feature film, This Is Cinerama, thrilled audiences with its wild point-of-view roller coaster ride). The 1950s also saw such large formats as Twentieth Century Fox’s Cinemascope (The Robe was the first Cinemascope production in 1953), Paramount’s Vista Vision (White Christmas in 1954 was the first in that process) both of which widened the standard 35 mm image, and Todd-AO, a 70 mm process (Oklahoma in 1955 and Around the World in Eight Days in 1956 were the first in that process).
The history of IMAX goes back to 1967, when two films shown at Montreal Expo—Roman Kroitor’s In the Labyrinth and Graeme Ferguson’s Man and the Polar Regions—attempted to use multiple screen, multiple projection techniques, but ran into numerous technical problems. Undaunted, Kroiter and Ferguson founded a company, originally called “Multiscreen” (later changed to IMAX when multiple screen projection became impractical). The process they developed used a single projector, a single camera, and a single large format screen. The first IMAX film was titled Tiger Child, and was shown at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. In 1971, the first IMAX theater system was set up in Toronto at Ontario Place. At Expo ’74 in Spokane, Washington, a very large IMAX format screen (300 ft. x 213 ft,) was installed in the U.S. Pavilion. Although this screen was temporary, a permanent IMAX screen replaced it in what is now the Riverfront Park IMAX Theater. In 1973, an IMAX Dome opened at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California. IMAX theaters now exist in all parts of the world.
Despite the fact that the National Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater was not the first in the U.S., its significance in introducing a vast audience to the IMAX film format cannot be denied. Over the years, the National Air and Space Museum has shown such aerospace-related IMAX films as Blue Planet (1990), Destiny in Space (1994), Cosmic Voyage (1996), Mission to Mir (1997), and Space Station (2002). Hubble 3D, one of the current attractions at the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, is characteristic of how far the IMAX process has come in its development. At one time thought to be impractical for major motion pictures, IMAX has now become commonplace. Although as of this writing, no feature film has been shot entirely in IMAX (some, like Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, made in 2009, have some scenes shot in IMAX) many have been or are being digitally remastered to be shown in IMAX theaters in IMAX and IMAX 3D.
Dominick A. Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum