IMAX - Thunder Bay to NASA

June 2021

Graeme Ferguson had never spent any time in the Thunder Bay area when he arrived in 1970 to shoot his ground-breaking Imax documentary, North of Superior.

Ferguson had been commissioned to make a short film for the Cinesphere, the giant-screen theatre that would be part of the new Ontario Place theme park in Toronto. The Ontario government was looking for movies that would highlight different parts of the province and Ferguson was given the northwest.

“I’d been through on the train, I’d seen what a glorious part of the world it was,” he would recall in 2017, when North of Superior received a special screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, “but it was absolutely accidental that they assigned it to me.”

It was the happiest of accidents. Not only did Ferguson make one of Canada’s most breathtaking and beloved travelogues, he also fell in love with the region – and the Thunder Bay resident who would become his future wife.

She was Phyllis Ferguson, known back then as Phyllis Wilson and a budding broadcaster from Confederation College’s new radio and television program. Phyllis was living with Lindsay and David Morgan, who knew the film’s production manager, David Hughes, and got a job helping out on location.

It wasn’t your ordinary film shoot. North of Superior was going to be a spectacular showcase for the new Imax technology, which Graeme Ferguson had helped invent. It involved making a movie that, when projected, would be nine times the size of a regular 35mm motion picture, filling a vast 18-by-24-metre screen and essentially immersing viewers in the imagery. Although the Imax camera itself was sizeable, Graeme and his assistant, Ronald Lautore, were determined to take it everywhere, from airplanes and helicopters to canoes and inner tubes.
The result would range from stomach-flipping aerial sequences over Lake Superior and Ouimet Canyon to crackling close-ups of crews fighting a raging forest fire – moments that still thrill

50 years after the film’s 1971 premiere. They were contrasted with quieter passages, like the idyllic scenes of kids at play on the Big Trout Lake reserve.

Graeme later revealed that he’d been asked by Indigenous friends to focus on the joyful side of growing up on the rez. It would be Phyllis who, a few years later, brought attention to the problems facing First Nations communities with her own film project, Nishnawbe-Aski: The People and the Land.

At the time, however, Phyllis had no idea what the future held, but she did know she was infatuated with Graeme. Even if, at 41, he was 21 years older than her, and married to boot. Her best friend, Beverly Sabourin – later a vice-provost of Lakehead University – recalled trying to dissuade her.

“I remember saying, ‘Phyllis, he’s too old for you!’ She totally ignored me,” a laughing Sabourin told The Globe and Mail.

The two also came from different worlds. Graeme had studied at the University of Toronto under Northrop Frye and other leading intellects, travelled widely – from the jungles of India to the polar regions – and carved out a career as an experimental filmmaker in New York.

Phyllis, a status member of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, had been born in Quetico to a single mother who later abandoned her. She was raised by her maternal grandmother, Phyllis Tenniscoe, who had 19 children of her own. She grew up poor but happy, an outgoing kid with an athletic streak. It was a guidance counsellor at her high school, Port Arthur Collegiate, who steered her towards broadcasting after noticing her interest in audio-visual equipment.

Following North of Superior, Phyllis Wilson would build her own career, starting out in Whitehorse as a CBC Radio announcer and eventually becoming a production manager on the national investigative news programs The Fifth Estate and W5.

But she and Graeme also continued to work together. Phyllis was the sound recordist on Graeme’s 1974 Imax environmental film, Man Belongs to the Earth, capturing the recollections of legendary Indigenous Canadian actor and author Chief Dan George. Graeme, in turn, served as producer and cinematographer on Phyllis’s 1977 National Film Board documentary, Nishnawbe-Aski. She directed and narrated this profile of four Ojibwa and Cree communities from northern Ontario’s Nishnawbe Aski Nation, sharing their concerns over industrial expansion into their lands and their fight for self-determination.

As collaborators and as a couple, the two were perfectly matched. Graeme was famously level-headed and methodical, while Phyllis masked her high competency behind a quiet demeanour. Those qualities made them ideally suited for the challenges of what would become Imax’s most popular project: the remarkable series of films shot by astronauts aboard NASA’s space shuttles.

Phyllis, along with writer-editor Toni Myers and cinematographer James Neihouse, joined Graeme as the core team that organized and oversaw the NASA films. Phyllis is credited as the one who broke the ice at the U.S. space agency, which had been wary about allowing an outside company to record its work. At a super-serious press conference with space-shuttle Columbia astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen, Phyllis caused the pair to crack up when she tossed them the unexpected question: “Is it fun to be an astronaut?” (Young’s grinning reply: “The answer is yes, yes, yes!”)

That unpretentious attitude was typical of Phyllis, who later made a point of hanging with the astronauts at the cafeteria of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She was described as the glue that bonded the Imax team and the NASA people.

Hail Columbia!, Imax’s first NASA movie, was released in 1982. That same year, Phyllis and Graeme – by then divorced from his first wife, Betty Ferguson – were married. They worked together on four subsequent space films: The Dream is Alive (1985), Blue Planet (1990), Destiny in Space (1994) and Mission to Mir (1997).

Graeme had founded the Imax company in the late 1960s with his co-inventors, Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr and William Shaw. He served as its president for more than 20 years, until it was bought out by U.S. investors Richard Gelfond and Bradley Wechsler in 1994. Graeme remained involved with Imax as a filmmaker and adviser into the 2000s, but he and Phyllis began to segue into a busy retirement.

The couple made their rambling stone cottage at Norway Point on Muskoka’s Lake of Bays their principal residence. Graeme devoted his spare energies to collecting antique boats and working on writing projects, including a book about the history of naphtha as a now-forgotten Industrial Age fuel. Phyllis raised funds for various charities and causes and became an ardent golfer.

They also travelled and continually returned to Thunder Bay, where it all began. Phyllis kept in touch with her sprawling family and would organize a big dinner for everyone when she came to town.

“Phyllis was a very caring person. Everybody in the family loved her,” said her aunt, Ruth Martinsen, in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “When she came home, she would go around and check on everyone and see who was going to need her help.”

Phyllis developed respiratory problems at the start of this year and was being treated at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital when she died, on March 12, of heart failure. Graeme was already suffering from throat cancer and died eight weeks later, on May 8, at Norway Point. They chose as their final resting place St. Andrew’s Catholic Cemetery in Thunder Bay, where Phyllis’s grandmother and relatives are buried.
Beverly Sabourin, who long ago revised her original assessment of their May-September pairing, may have summed it up best: “It was a match made in heaven for the two of them. They turned out to be a really amazing couple.”

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