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Film Imax filmmaker Toni Myers worked with rock stars and astronauts

Filmmaker Toni Myers in Imax theatre.

Courtesy of Branksome Hall

Astronauts and rock stars loomed large in the career of Toni Myers. The trailblazing Imax filmmaker, who died on Feb. 18 of cancer in her native Toronto, aged 75, not only put them on the giant screen, she hobnobbed with them as well. Ms. Myers could tell you stories of drinking bourbon with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, or chatting about the moon with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Then there were her tales from the 1960s, when she edited film with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, tuned Van Morrison’s guitars and helped an aspiring singer-songwriter named Leonard Cohen cut his first demo tape. She’s the one who suggested he record in it an empty bathtub for the acoustics.

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It was the astronauts, though, who came to dominate her working life. For more than three decades, she trained NASA’s finest to shoot Imax footage in space. “I’m teaching something that’s not rocket science to rocket scientists,” Ms. Myers liked to joke.

True enough, but operating a delicate Imax camera in zero gravity with no margin for error wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, either. Retired NASA astronaut Marsha Ivins did it on three space shuttle missions and considered Ms. Myers to be the perfect instructor. “There was never anybody with a quicker mind or a gentler disposition,” Ms. Ivins said, adding that Ms. Myers encouraged them to be creative when shooting in space. “She gave us the skills and urged us to use them. You can see the proof of it in all her movies.”

That rare footage shot by Ms. Ivins and her colleagues and projected on the six-storey Imax screen placed viewers around the world inside the shuttle with the astronauts. It formed the basis of a series of unique Imax films that have chronicled America’s space program from the 1980s to the present, including The Dream is Alive (1985), Mission to Mir (1997), Space Station 3D (2002) and Hubble (2010). Ms. Myers directed some of them, wrote most of them and edited them all.

She also plunged Imax spectators into the depths of the world’s oceans, for Under the Sea 3D (2009), and put them on the concert stage for the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour, captured in 1991’s landmark At the Max. Her final film, 2016’s A Beautiful Planet, was a stunning survey of the Earth and humankind’s impact upon it from the vantage point of space.

Ms. Myers shared in her audiences’ awe. The films reflected her own endless fascination with our world and the universe surrounding it. Her son, Jackson Myers, also an Imax editor, said that his mother could recall, as a small girl, gazing from a window at the trees and birds outside her family home and marvelling at their existence. That childhood sense of wonder never left her.

Ms. Myers, centre, with Yoko Ono, left, and John Lennon in London, 1968. They are looking at footage from a film called Rape, by Yoko Ono, which Ms. Myers edited.

Courtesy of the Myers Family

She was born Antoinette Trow on Sept. 29, 1943 in Toronto, the only child of broker Douglas Trow and Norah Trow, granddaughter of famed architect Henry Langley. She attended the Branksome Hall private girls’ school and then, briefly, the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). After apprenticing as a film editor at the CBC, her lifelong passion for music got the best of her and, in 1965, she moved to New York to join her best friend Mary Martin. Ms. Martin was working for Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, and soon Ms. Myers was immersed in the Greenwich Village folk scene. She hung out with Mr. Dylan and Mr. Morrison and assisted Ms. Martin in cutting and distributing the demo that launched Mr. Cohen’s recording career.

However, it was another Canadian she met at a party in New York, future Imax co-inventor Graeme Ferguson, who would help shape her future. Mr. Ferguson was making an experimental multiscreen film about the Arctic and Antarctic regions for Expo 67 in Montreal and invited her to assist the editors on it. When she edited a sequence herself, Mr. Ferguson said he was “gobsmacked” and ended up using it as the opening for Polar Life, which laid the groundwork for the later Imax movies.

After Expo, Ms. Myers hopped the pond for Swinging London, where she landed gigs at the BBC and the Beatles’ Apple Corps. The latter included hunkering down with Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono to cut Rape, one of their avant-garde films. While in England she also met her future husband, Michael Myers, a British artist and filmmaker. As rock documentarians, the two shot the legendary 1969 Isle of Wight Festival and Santana’s Abraxas concert tour. After relocating to Los Angeles and then New York, the couple and their baby son settled in Toronto in the 1970s.

It was there that Ms. Myers reconnected with Mr. Ferguson, who had asked her to edit the first official Imax film, the travelogue North of Superior. It premiered in 1971 in the purpose-built Cinesphere at the brand-new Ontario Place.

Although Ms. Myers followed that with work on various standard-format film and television projects, including several with director Claude Jutra, she found her true calling when she rejoined Imax for the first of its space documentaries, Hail Columbia! That 1982 short, about the maiden voyage of the first space shuttle, pleased NASA so much that Canadian-based Imax became its official documentary maker.

Shooting Imax films, however, was not the U.S. space administration’s top priority and Ms. Ivins said she and her fellow astronaut-cinematographers would have to squeeze in scenes whenever they had a spare moment between their primary duties on the shuttle. Logistics also meant that scenes had to be nailed in one take and, in those predigital times, Ms. Myers would not be able to view any footage until after the shuttle landed. “She’d sweat bullets and chew nails until we got back, to see what we’d shot,” Ms. Ivins said.

The films that resulted were more than just informative, said NASA film and television liaison Bert Ulrich. “Toni was able to share space exploration with the public in a profound and poetic way.”

Of all her movies, Ms. Myers was most proud of her two final bookend pieces, A Beautiful Planet and Hubble, which included images from the Hubble Space Telescope. “Hubble takes you to the very edge of the observable universe – it’s mind-blowing,” Jackson Myers said. “And A Beautiful Planet turns the camera the other way, toward Earth, and puts things in perspective. Those two films cover it all.”

After she was diagnosed last October with inoperable lung cancer, Ms. Myers remained in excellent spirits. Her beloved astronauts descended upon her in her last days. Ms. Ivins, John Grunsfeld and Terry Virts came to Toronto to present her with NASA’s Exceptional Public Achievement Medal, its highest civilian honour. Another former astronaut, Governor-General Julie Payette, also paid a visit – to bestow on her the Order of Canada.

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Ms. Myers was predeceased by her husband, Michael, in 2010. She leaves her son, Jackson; step-daughter Micki Myers from Mr. Myers’s first marriage; their partners and three grandchildren.

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