IMAX logo

IMAX is a proprietary system of high-resolution cameras, film formats, film projectors, and theaters known for having very large screens with a tall aspect ratio (approximately 1.43:1 & 1.90:1) and steep stadium seating.

Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr, and William C. Shaw were the co-founders of what would be named the IMAX Corporation (founded in September of 1967 as Multiscreen Corporation, Limited), and they developed the first IMAX cinema projection standards in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Canada.[1] Unlike conventional film projectors, the film runs horizontally so that the image width can be greater than the width of the film stock.

When IMAX was introduced, it was a radical change in the movie-going experience. Viewers were treated to the scene of a gently-curved giant screen more than seven stories tall (75 feet (23 m), with the tallest measuring 117 feet (36 m)) and steep stadium seating that made for a visually immersive experience. This was enhanced by a sound system that was far superior to the audio at typical theaters in the years prior to the advent of THX. Some IMAX theaters have a hemispheric dome screen geometry, which can give the viewer an even more immersive feel. Over the decades since its introduction, IMAX evolved to include "3D" stereoscopic films, introduced in January 1998, and then began to proliferate with a transition away from analog film into the digital era. Beginning in May of 1991, a visceral dimension of the movie experience was added by having the audience's seats mounted on a full-motion platform as an amusement park ride in IMAX ride film theaters.

With the advent of digital projection, the IMAX brand has also been applied to lower-resolution imaging systems, causing some degree of confusion among the viewing public.


A comparison between 35 mm and 15/70 mm negative areas.

The IMAX film standard uses 70 mm film run through the projector horizontally. This technique produces an area that is nine times larger than the 35 mm format, and three times larger than 70 mm film which was run conventionally through the projector in a vertical orientation.[2]

The desire to increase the visual impact of film has a long history. In 1929, Fox introduced Fox Grandeur, the first 70 mm film format, but it quickly fell from use.[3] In the 1950s, the potential of 35 mm film to provide wider projected images was explored in the processes of CinemaScope (1953) and VistaVision (1954), following multi-projector systems such as Cinerama (1952). While impressive, Cinerama was difficult to install and maintain, requiring careful alignment and synchronization of the multiple projectors. During Expo 67 in Montreal, the National Film Board of Canada's In the Labyrinth and Ferguson's Man and the Polar Regions both used complex multi-projector, multi-screen systems. Each encountered technical difficulties that led them to found a company called "Multiscreen", with a goal of developing a simpler approach.

Multiscreen Corporation

The single-projector/single-camera system they eventually settled upon was designed and built by Shaw based upon a novel "Rolling Loop" film-transport technology purchased from Peter Ronald Wright Jones, a machine shop worker from Brisbane, Australia.[4] Film projectors do not continuously flow the film in front of the bulb, but instead "stutter" the film travel so that each frame can be illuminated in a momentarily-paused still image. This requires a mechanical apparatus to buffer the jerky travel of the film strip. The older technology of running 70 mm film vertically through the projector used only five sprocket perforations on the sides of each frame; however, the IMAX method used fifteen perforations per frame.[5] The previous mechanism was inadequate to handle this intermittent mechanical movement that was three times longer, and so Jones's invention was necessary for the novel IMAX projector method with its horizontal film feed. As it became clear that a single, large-screen image had more impact than multiple smaller ones and was a more viable product direction, Multiscreen changed its name to IMAX. Cofounder Graeme Ferguson explained how the name IMAX originated:

"... the incorporation date [of the company was] September 1967. ... [The name change] came a year or two later. We first called the company Multiscreen Corporation because that, in fact, was what people knew us as. ... After about a year, our attorney informed us that we could never copyright or trademark Multivision. It was too generic. It was a descriptive word. The words that you can copyright are words like Kleenex or Xerox or Coca-Cola. If the name is descriptive, you can’t trademark it so you have to make up a word. So we were sitting at lunch one day in a Hungarian restaurant in Montreal and we worked out a name on a placemat on which we wrote all the possible names we could think of. We kept working with the idea of maximum image. We turned it around and came up with IMAX."[6]

The name change actually happened more than two years later, because a key patent filed on January 16, 1970, was assigned under the original name Multiscreen Corporation, Limited.[7] IMAX Chief Administration Officer Mary Ruby was quoted as saying, "Although many people may think "IMAX" is an acronym, it is, in fact, a made-up word."[8]

IMAX Corporation

IMAX projector with horizontal film reel

Tiger Child, the first IMAX film, was demonstrated at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan.[9] The first permanent IMAX installation was built at the Cinesphere theatre at Ontario Place in Toronto. It debuted in May 1971, showing the film North of Superior. The installation remained in place[10] during Ontario Place's hiatus for redevelopment. The Cinesphere was renovated while Ontario Place was closed and re-opened on November 3, 2017 with IMAX 70mm and IMAX with laser illumination.[11]

During Expo '74 in Spokane, Washington, an IMAX screen that measured 27 m × 20 m (89 ft × 66 ft) was featured in the US Pavilion (the largest structure in the expo). It became the first IMAX Theatre to not be partnered with any other brand of movie theatres. About five million visitors viewed the screen, which covered the viewer's total visual field when looking directly forward. This created a sensation of motion in most viewers, and motion sickness in some.

Another IMAX 3D theatre was also built in Spokane; however, its screen-size is less than half. Due to protests, the City of Spokane officials decided to work with the IMAX Corporation to demolish the theatre, under the condition they renovate the former US Pavilion itself into IMAX's first permanent outdoor giant-screen theatre. The plan was to use material on the inside of the structure similar to that used when first constructed. However, it was expected to last only five years, due to weather conditions destroying previous materials.[12] Concept art has been released in videos featured on Spokane's renovation site, and its budget revealed that seating is planned for more than 2,000.[13][14]

The first permanent IMAX Dome installation, the Eugene Heikoff and Marilyn Jacobs Heikoff Dome Theatre at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, opened in San Diego's Balboa Park in 1973. It doubles as a planetarium theater. The first permanent IMAX 3D theatre was built in Vancouver, British Columbia for Transitions at Expo '86, and was in use until September 30, 2009.[15] It was located at the tip of Canada Place, a Vancouver landmark.

Digital projection

In 2008, IMAX extended their brand into traditional theaters with the introduction of Digital IMAX, a lower-cost system that uses two 2K digital projectors to project on a 1.90:1 aspect ratio screen. This lower-cost option, which allowed for the conversion of existing multiplex theater auditoriums, helped IMAX to grow from 299 screens worldwide at the end of 2007 to over 1,000 screens by the end of 2015.[16][17] As of September 2017, there were 1,302 IMAX theatres located in 75 countries, of which 1,203 were in commercial multiplexes.[18]

Switching to digital projection, introduced in July 2008, came at a steep cost in image quality, with 2K projectors having roughly an order of magnitude less resolution. Maintaining the same 7-story giant screen size would only make this loss more noticeable, and so many new theaters were being built with significantly smaller screen sizes, yet being marketed with the same brand name of "IMAX". These newer theaters with the much lower resolution and much smaller screens were soon being referred to by the derogatory name "LieMAX", particularly because the company did not make this major distinction clear to the public, going so far as to build the smallest "IMAX" screen having 10 times less area than the largest while persisting with the exact same brand name.[19][20]

Since 2002, some feature films have been converted into IMAX format for displaying in IMAX theatres, and some have also been (partially) shot in IMAX. By late 2017, 1,302 IMAX theatre systems were installed in 1,203 commercial multiplexes, 13 commercial destinations, and 86 institutional settings in 75 countries,[21] with less than a quarter of these having the capability to show 70mm film at the resolution of the large format as originally conceived.

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