Amid Pandemic, "Canada Is the Place Hollywood Is Looking to" for Productions

Big Sky shot in British Columbia. “B.C. is seen as a safe place to bet on,” says Zach Lipovsky, a rep for the province with Canada’s Directors Guild.
ABC/Darko Sikman

'Big Sky' shot in British Columbia. “B.C. is seen as a safe place to bet on,” says Zach Lipovsky, a rep for
the province with Canada’s Directors Guild.

Producers, crews and VFX houses up north are running at full speed, surpassing pre-shutdown levels.

As Hollywood travels a long, bumpy road to recovery from pandemic lockdowns, Canada is raising its production game. On local soundstages and location sets, agile Canadian crews and talent have managed to keep cameras rolling through a combination of resourcefulness, careful planning and sheer will.

In fact, the swift, industrywide embrace of strict safety protocols and social distancing has led to so much activity for the country's locations sector that productions have surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

"What's nice is we're busy," says Karen Thorne-Stone, president and CEO of Ontario Creates, which markets Ontario to Hollywood.

Her province saw a production shutdown in March and reopened in May with a pandemic playbook that includes quarantining, continuous COVID-19 testing and socially distanced sets. There have been no government-imposed shutdowns of sets.

While shooting in L.A. began to return in June, it was mostly restricted to commercials and small indie productions, with a full return to TV and film shoots ramping up in late summer.

Momentum is accelerating as major U.S. studios and streamers tap Canada's talent, crews, soundstages and VFX houses in the race to scale up and shoot fresh content for subscribers stuck indoors and craving entertainment.

Streamers like Netflix and CBS All Access had already created new production hubs in Vancouver and Toronto pre-pandemic, with younger digital platform rivals like Disney+, HBO Max and Apple TV+ also increasingly heading north to shoot originals.

And with the North American industry operating at varying rates of recovery, Canada expects even greater production growth this year and next as Hollywood increases production post-COVID.

"We've always positioned ourselves as a leader, as a no-surprises, reliable jurisdiction," Thorne-Stone adds. "And we just built on that reputation in the context of COVID and hope that carries us through to 2022."

Despite shifting government directives and lockdowns, provincial film and TV production sectors have been allowed to continue production nearly uninterrupted on COVID-secure stages with tight restrictions and scrutiny.

It's not just the production epicenter of Ontario that has thrived. TV dramas like The CW's Batwoman and ABC's Big Sky and A Million Little Things have also spurred the production sector of British Columbia's West Coast to a record pace.

"This is the busiest January on record, and there are no signs of stopping. Vancouver is clearly a destination that U.S. studios and networks see as a reliable place to come," says Zach Lipovsky, who directed the 2018 sci-fi release Freaks and is also the Directors Guild of Canada's B.C. caucus representative.

High in the mountains of the West Coast province, Mark Miller, founder and executive producer of Great Pacific Media, recently oversaw strict health and safety protocols to shoot the first season of Mud Mountain Haulers, a reality series for Discovery Canada, while navigating forests, logging roads and lakes.

"Our crews tend to be smaller, between two and three people. Sometimes it's a one-man band. The advent of 4K Go Pro and cameras like that allow us to do more remote shooting. And on Mud Mountain, we didn't have a single case of COVID," Miller reports.

In neighboring Alberta, Erin O'Connor, business development manager at the Calgary Film Centre, a studio hosting a shoot for AppleTV+'s Fraggle Rock reboot, says her province has hit new records for foreign production activity.

"Local crews are inspired. They're willing to step up and do what it takes, whether that's working in minus 30 and plus 30 Celsius weather [minus 22 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit]," O'Connor says.

The Canadian VFX and post front is similarly eyeing a strong summer and beyond as concerns about a second COVID-19 wave fade.

"Despite the challenge of COVID, it's been an exciting year, as we've remained busy," says Ontario Film Commissioner Justin Cutler. "We've been able to advance our studio space and we're supporting new technology and creative that's a calling card for Ontario."

Elsewhere, Pixomondo has opened Canada's first and largest virtual production studio in Toronto with LED walls and pixel-perfect accuracy  where the VFX company's artists can either customize pre-built assets with 3D environments, or build virtual environments from scratch based on an art department’s designs.

And the new Pixomondo facility may also be used for socially distanced projects that require crowd scenes, for example, or specific virtual backdrops created due to reduced location travel.

"We can create a packed restaurant, a party scene, a stadium full of cheering fans, all on the LED wall and seamlessly match it to the practical set built in the middle of the volume where the main actors are," Mahmoud Rahnama, Pixomondo's head of studio for Toronto and Montreal, tells THR.

Rahnama adds the first virtual production stage is pre-booked for multiple years, while Pixomondo has plans to build more stages in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada and internationally.

Laura Fitzpatrick, managing director at Mr. X, the Toronto-based visual effects house, adds that a changing theatrical landscape and expanded streaming content has her studio artists working nonstop on genre projects like HBO Max's Raised by Wolves, Disney+'s WandaVision and Searchlight's upcoming thriller Nightmare Alley, directed by long-time collaborator Guillermo del Toro.

Says Fitzpatrick: "Canada is definitely the place Hollywood is looking to. We're top of the list in what we can provide to American filmmaking. We have a bright future and definitely intend to scale up and to expand our offerings."

Elsewhere, Neishaw Ali, president and executive producer of Spin VFX in Toronto, commends the Ontario industry for bridging differences to hammer out an industry reopening plan last year that is paying dividends in 2021.  "Our government has worked head to toe with us. The entire industry, across the industry, has come together to build the framework from which we all operate in an elegant matter, and also in a way that shows empathy across the different sectors. For that I'm proud," she told THR.

That reopening strategy includes local VFX houses helping film and TV projects return to or start work quickly and safely by using age-old split techniques and stitching and newer pre-visualization tools during pre-production.  That includes offering cost-effective solutions to capturing complex visuals or crowd scenes well before a Hollywood director, cast and crew steps onto a Canadian soundstage.

"On a Sony show that just wrapped in Toronto, we were able to use previz to see, OK, where do we need everyone, people here, people there, in small segments, so we could maintain the proper social distancing and then stitch it together," Ali recalled.  Similarly for Disney Channel's Spin teen TV series shoot in Ontario, previz tools were used to situate young actors for scenes involving a restaurant and a garage, where social distancing again was required.

"During this time, time on set hasn't changed. You don't extend the days because of COVID, but there's a lot of additional work, and everything takes more time to set up. Having a virtual previz and understanding the scope of that set allows everyone to have one vision," Ali explains.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.