cinesphere

How Toronto got the most thrilling cinema in the world

One of the strange things about living in Toronto is that despite the fierce pride the city takes in some of its landmarks, other extremely important buildings tend to get overlooked. Perhaps it's a 1970s thing. It was a period of rapid expansion in Toronto, but the architectural style of the day has fallen out of favour.

Such is the case with the Cinesphere. While there's been renewed interest thanks its role in the in/future festival and is temporarily in use for TIFF, for years it sat as a lonely relic of a different era on the waterfront. While early talk of its demise as part of redevelopment plans for Ontario Place was quickly silenced, the very thought of demolishing such an icon is ludicrous.

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The Cinesphere and Ontario Place grounds at night. Photo via the Ontario Archives.

One of the reasons, I suspect, the Cinesphere doesn't get all the love it so richly deserves is that since the closure of Ontario Place, the theatre is thought of in purely architectural terms. The glowing golf ball-like structure still catches the eye, but like most futuristic designs of this type (e.g. Montreal's Biosphere), the appeal has an element of kitsch.

The more ambitious a building is, the more easily it falls into this trap as it ages. But the funny thing is, the Cinesphere never stopped being a marvel. Yes, IMAX eventually became popular across the globe, but to this day there are few theatres that can match the thrill of the purpose-designed dome on Toronto's waterfront (digital IMAX just doesn't cut it).

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The Cinesphere under construction. Photo via the Toronto Archives.

If more people knew that IMAX was born in Toronto and found its first permanent home at Ontario Place, it also seems likely that our collective esteem of the building would be enhanced. The Cinesphere is less a a historical curiosity than a cinematic legacy in this city, which is one of the reasons why its recent rebirth has been so wonderful.

The organizers have returned one of Canada's film treasures to the screen in the form of North of Superior, the gorgeous movie that first demonstrated the power of the huge screen and film stock. The Graeme Ferguson feature wasn't entirely lost before playing at in/future and now at TIFF, but it hasn't been easy to find online (in decent quality) nor has it been a fixture on other IMAX screens.

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Graeme Ferguson using the IMAX camera.

Yet, this is where it all started. Donald Brittain's Tiger Child, which showed at at Expo '70 in Osaka, was the first IMAX film ever made (and produced by IMAX co-founder Roman Kroitor), but North of Superior had such a longstanding run at the Cinesphere that it introduced the masses to the form.

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Crowds line up for the opening of the Cinesphere. Photo via the Ontario Archives.

When Ontario Place opened in 1971, initial park attendance sagged. That wasn't the case at the Cinesphere, though. While the rest of the grounds were quiet on opening weekend, there were huge lineups to witness the modern marvel of cinema that was IMAX.

Today IMAX is a global brand and cinematic fixture, and scores of big money films shoot in the format, even if only for the most dramatic scenes. In no small way, the success of the form can be traced to its first permanent projector at Ontario Place.

Let's remember how dazzled we once were at this profound graphic invention that called Toronto home. And let's remember that it still does.

Lead photo by

Phil Marion


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