From Vancouver Open File: Vancouver's geography reels in film industry
Vancouver’s backyard is sprinkled with snow-capped mountains, lush forests, sandy beaches and glittering waters. Drive a few hours outside the neighborhood and you’ll discover dusty deserts, icy ridges and cozy rural towns.
In all its vegetative forms, Vancouver and B.C.’s geography has been its calling card for major motion pictures and television series, making it a star on the big screen since the early 1970s. According to BC Film Commissioner Susan Croome, Vancouver’s proximity to Los Angeles, its compatible time zone, temperate climate and, of course, spectacular terrain are what originally drew—and continue to draw—big budget productions to our city.
“Vancouver provides the perfect combination of urban comfort and natural beauty,” says Croome. “It’s the third-largest in North America after Los Angeles and New York. All types of productions, from blockbuster movies like Mission Impossible 4 to television series like Fringe, find exactly what they need."
"Vancouver has it all," she continues. "Excellent production talent, expertise, and infrastructure located in a beautiful city, in the midst of a broad spectrum of spectacular natural shooting locations.”
Croome explains that B.C. has 14 biogeoclimatic zones, which is more than Los Angeles, New York or other Canadian provinces. Its diverse geography allows for a variety of films to mold its surroundings to their liking. Some of the more interesting places Vancouver and B.C. have "been" include Mars in Mission To Mars, Singapore in X-Men: The Last Stand, Medieval England in the Girl With The Red Riding Hood, and San Francisco in the latest box office breadwinner, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
According to Croome, Vancouver’s big break came in 1971 when films McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Carnal Knowledge were attracted to Vancouver by the convenience of its breathtaking landscapes: they could take advantage of a beautiful urban centre and also drive to relatively rugged locations in West Vancouver in less than half an hour. The commitment by A-list directors Robert Altman and Mike Nichols, respectively, helped to establish Vancouver and B.C.’s reputation as a production destination.
U.S.-based television series soon followed suit, which provided the province and Vancouver with a more stable base of business that allowed it to build human and physical infrastructure. The presence of these productions sparked a thriving industry that, coupled with raw materials, actors and crew members, created a “world-class production centre,” according to Croome. In 2010 alone, $1,021,722,575 was spent in B.C. in total on film and television productions. Of that number, only $243,835,524 was from domestic productions, while foreign productions brought in $777,887,051.
To help filmmakers, scouts, location managers and other industry professionals to envision Vancouver and the province for their projects, the B.C. Film Commission provides a digital photo library consisting of more than 250,000 images and 14,000 locations. In addition, the BCFC is supported by a network of Regional Film Commissions, such as the Okanagan Film Commission and Vancouver Island North Film Commission.
John Smith, executive producer for many Stargate television series, has been working in the B.C. film industry for over 25 years. He first got his start as a technical adviser on The Beachcombers. Eventually, his career led him to become a producer for Stargate SG-1, and executive producer for Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe.
Today, he notes that urban development has erased some of the more coveted shooting locations he turned to in the past. However, he still maintains the area is a prime filming location.
“Around 25, 30 years ago, we had a lot more locations in Vancouver than we have now, because as the area grows there is more and more residential development,” says Smith. “In my 25 years producing in Vancouver, I saw a lot of our locations disappear that we used for years and years. Power lines were put up and houses were in the background where you wanted open fields.”
For Stargate, many of Smith’s shooting sites often had to resemble other planets. For example, he’s used the sand dunes in Richmond at the foot of #7 Road a number of times. The location allowed him to shoot 300 degrees without seeing any buildings.
“There were also some big pits out at Stokes Field in Surrey that we used to use all the time,” Smith adds. “Hundreds of acres of property with big gravel pits and stuff, a lot of it resembling the surface of the moon and places like that. If we went to beach locations we could simulate planets with no life but oceans and water in the background. Vancouver has all of that, whereas if you shoot in Los Angeles, you’re hard-pressed to go anywhere and point a camera without seeing a building.”
Looking back at the evolution and growth of Vancouver’s film industry, Smith can’t help but attribute its success to the land itself. He says the province would never have become a major film center if it wasn’t for the geographical diversity of Vancouver and its surrounding areas.
“It’s what got the people to come here originally, and because they came here, of course we developed this infrastructure,” explains Smith. “The locations started it. It is the locations that originally brought people here, and it will be the locations that keep people here as long as we have the good infrastructure that can support the films.”