Antarctica: starring Hudson Bay Mt.

🕔Sep 22, 2005

Standing on a plateau on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, the horizon seems to go on forever, uninterrupted by anything, just a vast expanse of white. Called “the Prairie,” it is a spot unlike any other. It is breathtaking, yet has a definite sense of isolation about it. And that’s exactly why Disney’s latest US $34-million motion picture is being filmed with one of Smithers’ most spectacular backdrops.

Antarctica is the fact-based story of a scientist and his guide, a musher, who are forced to abandon their team of sled dogs during a ferocious storm. Starring Paul Walker (of Fast and the Furious fame), the movie weaves the tale of the dogs’ fight for survival over six months in the freezing conditions of the Antarctic before they are rescued.

Finding the perfect location to suit a production’s needs can be a tricky balancing act between finding the right place and making sure the needs of the cast and crew can be met. When the Prince George-based Northern BC Film Commission was approached for an Arctic-type setting, film commissioner Karen Cameron knew the Prairie would fit the bill.

She sent photos of the location along with details about access to and from the site and the amenities available in Smithers. Soon scouts from Vancouver-based Survival Productions Limited were checking out the location and securing it.

“Hudson Bay Mountain is the perfect location because it’s isolated-looking, but it’s not isolated,” explains Cameron. “At the bottom of the hill, there is a town of 5,000. There are direct flights from Vancouver to Smithers; everything the production needs is right there.”

Antarctica producer Pat Crowley agrees the location is ideal.

“It’s easy access for them,” says Crowley. “Smithers is a place where people can be in hotels in town and then go up to where we are doing all the shooting.”

And up on the plateau you would never know a bustling little town lies below.

“When you are up there, you don’t see any trees at all, you just see snow,” says Crowley. “The audience doesn’t know that it’s not Antarctica.”

But creating that illusion doesn’t come without its challenges. If the camera angles aren’t just right, there are trees located beneath the plateau that could inadvertently get in a shot.

“The challenge in doing Antarctica is that there can’t be any trees,” Crowley says. “You have to be very careful where you place the camera.”

That’s why most of Smithers’ sequences are close-up scenes. It’s here that most of the film’s outdoor footage, set in Antarctica, will be shot. Parts of the story also take place outside of the bone-chilling Arctic and those segments are being filmed in Vancouver.

But Smithers isn’t the only northern town to host the production. After roughly seven weeks of filming wraps up at Hudson Bay Mountain, second units will be sent to Stewart for two weeks of aerial shooting. Second units are used to collect wide sweeping shots of the landscape to emulate the vastness of the Antarctic and set the overall scene and feel for the film’s setting. The footage from B.C. will be combined with footage from Greenland as well.

Antarctica is one of several major motion pictures that have been shot in northern B.C. since 1997, contributing an estimated $1.8 million to the regional economy. Those credits include Dreamcatcher, Reindeer Games, Insomnia and Double Jeopardy. Not to mention commercials for Chevy Tahoe, Jeep, MasterCard and Toyota. Those productions have used Prince George, Dease Lake and Stewart as backdrops.

The economic spin-offs of a shoot such as Antarctica are felt immediately.

The production has rented a 100,000 square foot warehouse in Smithers that has been transformed into the nerve centre for the production. A local Internet supplier hooked the production up with wireless service and some locals have been hired as assistant production assistants, says Smithers District Chamber of Commerce manager, Brian Burrill. That’s not including money spent in restaurants, bars, grocery stores, lumberyards and hardware stores.

“The economic impact is huge at the time, but also if that project attracts future projects, it just keeps building,” Cameron says. “Once people see that location in the movie, I know we’ll get more people up here.”

And considering the amount of money being invested in the film and television industry every year, getting a piece of the action up north has the potential to create a viable alternative economy here.

According to the BC Film Commission, the film and television industry spent $1.4 billion on more than 169 productions in B.C. in 2003. Of the $1.4, a whopping $1.2 billion came from foreign TV and film productions, making foreign investment the backbone of the industry. On average, more than 90 per cent of the production crews are British Columbians and more than 30,000 people in B.C. make a living from working in the industry.

In an effort to stay competitive with tax incentives offered by other Canadian provinces, such as Ontario, the B.C. government recently proposed a raise to the tax credits offered the film and television industry.

Effective Jan. 1, 2005, the Production Services Tax Credit for foreign productions was raised from 11 per cent to 18 per cent. The basic Film Incentive BC tax credit for domestic productions was bumped up to 30 per cent from 20 per cent. The increased tax credit makes a tangible difference to the cost of a production.

And the credit is welcome news to producers such as Pat Crowley, especially in light of a strong Canadian dollar that has driven up the cost of doing business here. When the rising Canadian dollar hit $0.84, Crawley says Antarctica was put behind in costs by about $1.8 million. While the tax credit has helped to ease the burden of the deficit, it hasn’t erased it, he says.

Another benefit of the increased tax credit is being able to maintain the creative vision of the director. Whether it’s this production or any other, the increased tax credit could mean the difference between axing a sequence as a cost-cutting measure and keeping a segment important to a film.

The credits also help when it comes to meeting the special needs of a production like Antarctica.

“It’s a complicated movie logistically because you have to rent snowcats and helicopters and charter planes,” he explains. “So, to have those tax credits can make a significant difference.”

While tax incentives keep the film industry here on par with those in other Canadian jurisdictions, the work of promoting the north as a venue for more television and film productions continues. The Northern BC Film Commission has formed alliances with town councils and regional districts throughout the region to help one another with marketing its varied landscapes and breathtaking outdoors.

Brian Burrill knows attracting films can largely be luck of the draw. Smithers has been scouted before and likely will be again in the future.

“We’ve probably answered location requests about 20 times in the last couple of years,” he says, adding Antarctica is the first major production to require what only Hudson Bay Mountain could offer. “We’re quite grateful it’s our turn.”

Other productions have been to Smithers recently on scouting trips, but whether those pan out remain to be seen. Securing the production of a film at any location requires that a lot of pieces fall together perfectly. The location might be right, but the access heinous. The price might be right, but the location may not meet the standards the director is looking for.

“If the producer thinks it’s great but it doesn’t meet the director’s creative vision then there is nothing we can do about that,” explains Karen Cameron.

But location isn’t everything. A cool reception on the part of a community where shooting is taking place could jeopardize the chances of crews returning in the future. But that isn’t a problem in Smithers.

“It’s been great,” Crowley says about the cast and crew’s reception in Smithers.

“From an emotional perspective, people are so excited in Smithers, it’s crazy,” Cameron adds. “It’s like they are having company and they are excited and can’t wait to show off their town and that, for me, is what makes it really wonderful.”

Dogs pulling their load

At the heart of Antarctica is the heroic survival story of a team of eight sled dogs stranded in the brutal cold for six months.

But if you were to take a walk onto the set of Antarctica you might think it was about a whole lot more dogs than that. That’s because for each of the eight sled dog characters in the film, there are four actor dogs playing each animal.

“One of the lead characters is Maya,” explains Antarctica producer Pat Crowley. “So there will be Maya One, Maya Two, Maya Three and Maya Four.”

All of the 32 actor dogs are specially trained—each boasting several special skills or tricks used in the film. For example, one dog might be trained specifically to retrieve food or another might be trained to bark or yelp on command.

“If you see Maya pulling the dog sled that will usually be Maya Number Four,” Crowley says. “They each have four or five tricks.”

And when it comes to filming shots with all eight dogs together, things can get a little hairy on the set.

“Animals are incredibly co-operative but they often don’t understand the precision required in filmmaking… their attention span is a little more limited,” Crowley says.

That’s where the dogs’ handlers and trainers come in to play. While the dogs may appear isolated, stranded and alone in the barren Arctic ice fields on film, they are far from it on the set. In fact, behind the camera, things can get downright crowded.

“It can be remarkable because the camera will be there and right behind the camera there will be eight people, each one responsible for one of the dogs,” Crowley says. “And it’s not always silent.”

Trying to get eight different dogs to obey the commands of only their handlers, while seven other handlers are giving out commands can be a challenge, but it’s all part of the magic of creating a family film.