“This isn’t very impressive,” I remember thinking for a moment, when as a kid I first saw the film North of Superior at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere, the first IMAX theatre ever built. But then, the small rectangle of film image on the huge white wall suddenly filled the entire white wall and my stomach dropped through my knees. We were on a plane, swooping over the land; on a toboggan, careening down a snowy hill; in the midst of a forest fire.
IMAX (short for “Image Maximum”) was virtual reality before such a thing existed: an immersive viewing experience that makes you feel as if you are in the action taking place. And it’s a made-in-Canada invention that grew from experiments film-makers undertook as part of Expo ’67 in Montréal, itself a celebration of Canada’s centennial.
Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, and Robert Kerr, co-founders of what became IMAX Corporation, “all participated in some of the popular large- and multiple-screen film experiments that were part of the Montréal Expo,”the Canadian Encylopedia states. “Along with engineer William Shaw, another co-founder, they developed a camera system that allowed for high-resolution images and enlarged projection.” IMAX, says Forbes Magazine, now is simultaneously “a technology company, a movie theater configuration, a type of camera and (type of) film.”
While IMAX theatres now are part of many special event venues around the world — 1,100 in 69 countries, according to a June 2016 update — and major Hollywood movies get the IMAX treatment, it’s hard to overstate just how cool and different IMAX was in its early days. North of Superior was 18 minutes long because that was the maximum length that an IMAX film reel could hold, at that time. Much of the technology to shoot and play this larger-formatted film had to be invented. But it was worth the long lineups that would snake through the over-water walkways at Ontario Place to see and feel an experience like no-one on Earth had ever seen or felt, before.
Ontario Place, itself, was also inspired by Expo ’67: The provincial government of the day decided it should build an attraction to showcase Ontario through exhibitions and entertainment. Opened in 1971, there were pods built out over the water, three artificially constructed islands, and three old freighters sunk to create a breakwater for a marina. The rounded Cinesphere held two IMAX theatres and one of the islands hosted The Forum, an open-air concert space with a rotating stage, covered seating circled around it, and then grassy berms beyond for additional concert-goers.
Ontario Place over the years changed radically, becoming more amusement-park-like as it aged. An Ontario North exhibition built on one of the islands in silo-like structures became best known for its water ride, where you rode in a log-shaped boat down a chute. Much of the exhibition space shut down, turned over to private operators to run as event venues. Attendance in the first year was 2.5 million; that dwindled to well under 1 million in its later years of operation.
Despite a $10-million investment in infrastructure renewal at Ontario Place in 2011 to mark the facility’s 40th anniversary, the next year the government decided to mothball the place, except for a few areas run by private operators: The Molson Ampitheatre, the Atlantis event facility, and the marina. And there it has sat, unused, while debates take place about how to best revive or redevelop this key part of Toronto’s waterfront.
In 2016, a group of artists and performers took over Ontario Place for in/future, billed as “a transformative art experience.” That Ontario North water ride was dry, the lumberjack animated figures discovered and displayed in pieces, and parts of boats were stuck onto the silo walls. Artists created exhibitions or performed in spaces that had been empty for years. And in the best nod to nostalgia, once again North of Superior played in the Cinesphere, looking a bit spooky with many its dome’s exterior lights burned out.
In 2017, there’s been a new waterfront trail and park created in part of the old Ontario Place grounds and eight festivals are setting up on the property for short periods over the summer, from Taco Fest to the Arts & Music Ontario Festival. No word yet on whether the Cinesphere will ever re-open: it’s no longer unique, even in the city of Toronto. There’s an IMAX at the Ontario Science Centre and several large commercial theatres with IMAX capacity. I hope it’s not forgotten, if only as a living memorial to a time when some Canadians changed they way we can see our world.
Photo of the Cinesphere taken during in/future, September 2016: Chris Moorehead.