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The Ontario Place Cinesphere opened in May 1971 with the premiere showing of North of Superior, one of IMAX’s earliest and most popular films. | RAYSONHO: WIKIMEDIA
Strange Tales

The IMAX Connection with Thunder Bay and Area

Fifty-three years ago in 1971, the 18-minute film North of Superior—one of the earliest and most popular IMAX films—had its giant-screen premiere at the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre, the Cinesphere in Toronto. The event was part of the launch of Ontario’s new theme park Ontario Place. A number of people connected to Thunder Bay were involved with the ground-breaking film, including IMAX co-founder and filmmaker Graeme Ferguson (1929-2021); producer Phyllis Wilson (1950-2021); filmmaker Jim Hyder; singer/songwriter Bill Houston; and musician/band leader Paul Shaffer.

The award-winning film came about when the Ontario government commissioned IMAX and its co-founder Ferguson to make a short film about northern Ontario as part of a movie launch highlighting the province.

IMAX—a made-up name playing on the words “maximize image”—was co-founded in Montreal in 1967 by Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, Robert P. Kerr, and William Shaw. They had invented the IMAX high-resolution camera that used large 70mm film, and the IMAX projection system that allowed the IMAX films to be shown on huge screens for a movie experience with surround sound and nine times the size of a regular motion picture.

Ferguson’s first visit to Thunder Bay was in 1970, the same year it was a ‘new’ city created as a result of amalgamation by the Ontario government of the pioneer cities of Port Arthur and Fort William. It was here that Ferguson met his future wife Phyllis Wilson, a broadcaster who was also working on the North of Superior film project. They soon became a couple, as well as film collaborators.

Wilson was born in Quetico, Ontario, was a status member of Algonquins of Pikwakanagan (Golden Lake) First Nation, and was raised in Thunder Bay by her grandmother Phyllis Tenniscoe. She attended Port Arthur Collegiate, followed by Confederation College’s new radio and television program. Later in 1977, Wilson directed her first documentary, Nishnawbe-Aski: The People and the Land, for the National Film Board about four Ojibwa and Cree communities of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nations.

Graeme Ferguson, his wife Phyllis Wilson, and Toni Myers produced IMAX films for NASA. In this photo, STS 41-C mission specialist Terry J. Hart holds a 70-pound IMAX camera in the mid-deck of the space shuttle Challenger in 1984. | PUBLIC DOMAIN

Wilson and Ferguson married in 1982, the same year they led the NASA Space Team, along with Toni Myers, to produce IMAX films for NASA about the space shuttle program. In Wilson’s obituary (Globe & Mail), Canada’s first female astronaut Dr. Roberta Bodnar is quoted: “A rarity for astronauts to trust anyone outside of our own orbit, we believed in the IMAX folks, not only as respected movie-makers but as trusted members of our own space team, integral to the success of our missions—the storytelling that would survive any of us.” The first NASA film of the series was Hail Columbus! (1982).

Another filmmaker joining the North of Superior film project was Thunder Bay’s Jim Hyder, who later produced award-winning films like A Forest in Crisis and We’re Athletes Too. At the time, he was working at Monitor North, a community access video network that shared office space with IMAX in the former CN Railway Station. Needing a second camera person for the film, Hyder agreed to assist. The first IMAX camera was large—needing two camera people—was expensive to operate, and used large 70mm film stock. A cool trivia note about the project’s film—they used leftover film stock that had been used for Stanley Kubric’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

According to Hyder, his most memorable filming moment was a canoe scene on the Pigeon River. The large IMAX camera was mounted in the canoe, ready to film when—yikes—the camera flipped into the water before a crew member could pull it out. They contacted Hollywood and were told to immediately send the IMAX camera (which was the only one in the world at the time) to Hollywood without opening the camera. They did and the Hollywood experts saved the footage and camera. Hyder’s latest film, In Search of Wendell Beckwith, in partnership with the Thunder Bay Museum, is about an American inventor who lived for years on a remote island north of Armstrong, Ontario.

Canadian filmmaker and IMAX co-founder, Graeme Ferguson, was a producer and director at IMAX, and invented the IMAX camera. | NASA HQ PHOTOS: FLICKR

On the North of Superior film’s soundtrack, the popular song “Ojibway Country” was written and performed by Canadian singer/songwriter Bill Houston, who was born in Whitehorse, Yukon and now resides in Thunder Bay. His father was a fur-trader with the Hudson Bay Company, and before the family settled in Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario in 1950, they had lived throughout the North. The song appears on the North of Superior CD, which also includes Houston’s famous iconic song “King of White Otter Castle.”

In the film’s outdoor wedding scene, the organ player is musician/composer Paul Shaffer. He later gained international fame as the musical director and band leader on both the “Late Night with David Letterman” (1982-1993) and “Late Show with David Letterman” (1993-2015).

As of December 2023, there were 1,772 IMAX theatres located in 90 countries. Ferguson was president of IMAX until 1994 when the company was bought by two American investors. Though Ferguson and Wilson visited Thunder Bay often over the years, their principal residence was a stone cottage at Norway Point in Muskoka’s Lake of Bays. Wilson passed away on March 12, 2021 in Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Ferguson passed away a few months later on May 8 at Norway Point. They chose St. Andrew’s Catholic Cemetery in Thunder Bay as their final resting site.

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