IMAX influencer: How one woman’s work impacted the big screen
If you’ve ever watched a movie on an IMAX screen, you know what a cinematic treat it is. The giant, gently-curved screen — measuring more than seven stories tall — provides an incredibly immersive and memorable experience.
Althea Douglas, a technical writer for IMAX Systems Corporation, donated archival materials to Ingenium in 2007.
However, you’ve probably never stopped to think about the complex technical requirements and hard-working people who came together to make IMAX a reality. One of those behind-the-scenes individuals was Althea Douglas. During my student placement in the Ingenium Library and Archives, I had the chance to learn about Althea’s story.
Althea worked as a technical writer for IMAX Systems Corporation between 1984 and 1991, editing and writing over 30 different manuals that were sent out with the theatre systems being installed around the world. It started as a job to create four user manuals: one for each IMAX and OMNIMAX screen that are either water-cooled or air-cooled. It didn’t take Althea long to see that her job was a lot more complex than that. While I arranged and described her archives, I found her creative problem-solving skills were both amusing and inspiring.
A global reach
As IMAX started installing screens internationally, Althea quickly understood that the technical manuals couldn’t be about a particular screen, but instead had to be customized for each location. Mexico, for example, needed a manual to account for a 60 Hz system at 208 volts, whereas Japan used 50 Hz and 120 volts, and Europe used 240 volts. There were too many differences to believe that the four standard manuals would be enough. Add in the need for imperial or metric measurements, keeping track of where new technology was added, or which older systems were retrofitted with newer parts, and it was clear to see that having a manual per theatre was critical.
One of Althea’s creative strategies to keep up with the workload was to learn AutoCAD. It was a lot easier to move a button diagram from one document to another, or from one place in the document to another, than to re-draw each chart by hand. This software had only been released two years prior to her working at IMAX, and it was a drastic change from the tradition of using hand-drawn techniques. She also admitted that she hated doing the drawings to begin with, especially if she was redoing a drawing after some small change in technology, so this software made it a lot easier for her to work.
She also became a great sleuth to find who had the right information for her to add into the manuals. She got a hold of production manager schedules so that she could be at the right place at the right time. She routinely wandered around to where the “tech guys” and the service department team worked with a hidden tape recorder, asking workers what they were up to; she later transcribed their replies and added the relevant text to the manuals. She would also use corporate planning and projection documents as a guide to start preparing manuals for the next large events. Her professional training as an archivist certainly prepared her to think out of the box for pulling these manuals together.
If red ink from your editor makes your heart race, imagine seeing red and black ink, pencil, and post-its!
As IMAX matured as a company, the theatre systems started to become more standardized. Althea put great efforts into generating a manual template, making it easier to create a custom manual from a library of already-developed data sheets. She then focused on two larger-scale projects. First, she created the IMAX tech encyclopaedia Design Facts — one for IMAX screens and one for OMNIMAX ones — so the service department was prepared to handle the wide variety of help requests. Next she created Design Considerations, an overview of IMAX technology and building requirements for clients interested in purchasing an IMAX system for their institution.
Althea shows us that technical writers have a lot more to say than red-inked edits. They can also greatly influence procedures and company innovation.