Times Arts Editor

“The Dream Is Alive,” the breathtaking documentary on the space shuttle flights that opens today at the Museum of Science and Industry’s Mitsubishi IMAX Theater, seems to me to be both the ultimate travelogue and the coming of age of the ultra-large screen format.

Graeme Ferguson, the amiable Canadian film maker-entrepreneur who with two high school pals and a brother-in-law brought Imax and Omnimax into being in the late 1960s, said earlier this week here in Los Angeles that there are now 45 specially built cinemas worldwide showing the big-format films, with an average of half a dozen more being added each year. One of the newest additions is a shining and futurist complex in stainless steel in Paris, called La Geode.

The Imax screen is flat; the Omnimax screen is domed so that the viewer seems to be sitting within the image, because it extends beyond the edges of peripheral vision. In either format the screen is roughly five stories high and six to seven stories wide. Imax has better resolution and color balance and less distortion at the edges; Omnimax gives the stronger visceral kick. Omnimax uses a fish-eye lens; Imax can use all regular lenses. Most films are produced in both forms.

Roughly half the existing big-format theaters are part of public institutions, like the Reuben H. Fleet Space Museum in San Diego (in the Omnimax format), the Museum of Science and Industry here and the enormously popular installation at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, where “The Dream Is Alive” had its world premiere last week. The others are commercial ventures, also divided about equally between Imax and Omnimax.


Ironically, Ferguson says, the larger the city, the more difficult it has been to build a following for the big-screen idea. The theater in Hutchinson, Kan., draws more than 100,000 viewers a year amid a population perhaps half that size, but the Museum of Science and Industry’s installation had been struggling, although a recent special Imax festival drew big crowds, and “The Dream Is Alive” seems certain to be a hit.

Ferguson had done an earlier Imax documentary called “Hail Columbia” on the first shuttle flight. It contained no Imax footage actually shot in space but it whetted appetites, not least at NASA and among the astronauts themselves, to put an Imax camera aboard a shuttle.

The tricky philosophical problem was how to avoid seeming to give a particular company a part of what is essentially a pool operation in terms of press coverage (everyone has access to the feeds from the shuttles). When the Smithsonian, a public institution, elected to sponsor the film with NASA, the problem was solved.

The Smithsonian put up $700,000 of the film’s $3.6-million cost (working out to just under $100,000 a minute for the 37 1/2-minute film). Lockheed donated the rest.


David Douglas, a young Santa Monican who started working with Ferguson on Imax films while still in high school, spent a year at NASA in Houston training 14 astronauts from three different shuttle flights how to use the camera, including how to light the interiors of crowded flight decks.

The camera weighs just over 80 pounds on Earth and, although weightless in space, is bulky, and when the film started rolling, the camera wanted to spin like a top. It was tricky, says astronaut David Leetsma, who attended a press screening at the museum. He is seen in the film during a space walk with Kathy Sullivan, peering in the cabin window and grinning delightedly, like an interplanetary hitchhiker.

The camera reels, in the huge 70-millimeter-format film, run only three minutes, and at most nine reels were taken aloft per flight (someone joked that the film wasn’t that expensive but the postage ran to several thousand dollars a roll). The astronauts proved to be efficient photographers and Ferguson says that about a quarter of their footage is edited into the finished film.

For David Leetsma, the film answered an old frustration. “You just can’t communicate in words what it’s like up there. Unbelievable, miraculous, incredible --they just don’t do it.” The film indubitably does, conveying the majesty of the curving earth, maplike and all too deceptively tranquil, and giving a clear and often amusing glimpse of the living and working conditions in flight. (Eating is an adventure, and we watch the astronauts spearing shrimp that have gone airborne from the food packets. The astronauts sleep with their weightless arms elevated, as if they were embracing invisible beach balls, or possibly teddy bears.)


The launches themselves, incidentally, shot from tethered cameras close up, are awesome and are both seen and felt, thanks to the six-channel wraparound sound, edited by Ben Burtt of Lucasfilms.

It is, Ferguson hopes, only the beginning. The gleams in his eye include a blimped camera that could go outside the shuttle with the space walkers, providing even more revealing glimpses of the heavens and the Earth.

At present there is a repertoire of perhaps 50 large-format films, the earliest shot on minuscule budgets and breakneck schedules, the later entries increasingly ambitious and sophisticated, like the McGillivray-Freeman “To Fly” and “Speed,” Kieth Merrill’s thrilling Grand Canyon action-adventure, a boggling display of computer-generated Imax images called “The Magic Egg” and, now, “The Dream Is Alive.”

With “The Dream Is Alive,” the Imax/Omnimax idea moves from being a gee-whiz novelty, spectacular and diverting, to a film form with its own possibilities and capabilities for enlarging--in every sense--our comprehension of the world, and for creating new forms of art.


The hottest attraction at Expo ’85 in Japan is an Imax film in 3-D. Ferguson is working on a 3-D Imax for Expo ’86 in Vancouver, and it may well be true again, as a fellow remarked when vaudeville was king, that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.