On set with hit TV sci-fi series Sanctuary

Friday night, East Vancouver. In amongst a sprawling mass of industrial units punctured by used car lots and dilapidated diners sits a collection of old warehouses known as Terminal City. In the past it has been home to many television productions, but today it is the setting for Sanctuary's season four finale.

Right from the start, I feel like I'm inside a Robert Altman movie: grips chat about girls and set-ups, producers huddle around TV screens pointing at someone or something, actors stand around discussing sports or bluegrass music, walkie-talkies squawk random chatter, military vehicles sit humming waiting for action, assistants move set pieces, cameras, and every little piece of flotsam and cinematic jetsam around in the creation of a giant pre-production puzzle. In every direction something is happening – organized chaos, non-acted theatrics, colour, life, adventure, excitement.

Somewhere through the hum of it all steps the actor Gil Bellows, currently guest starring in Sanctuary. Staring down with sadistic blue contact lenses, he offers out his hand and says,

“Welcome to the production. Enjoy your evening.”

As the sun begins to set, the production becomes still and quiet ahead of the upcoming scene. That is until a gaggle of seagulls spoil several takes. “If I say Amanda instead of action,” laughs director Damian Kindler, “the seagulls stay quiet.”

On another occasion, the scene is ruined by fire trucks rumbling along East Hastings blasting their sirens. The sound chief shakes his head. Actors cross their arms and try to stay calm. For a director, patience is probably not a strong enough word.

Between scenes there's a small opportunity to explore, and the warehouse sets at Terminal City provide a unique characteristic of their own. The interior feels like the location for an underground rave, while the faded neon lights of bars and restaurants provide an eerie ghost-town ambiance. The whole place is strewn with discarded pieces of production materials:1940s pin-up girl advertisements, steel grid balls, cockpits of WWII bombers, parked trucks, and abandoned technical apparatus. Terminal City and the in-flow production of Sanctuary is a Russian doll where every minute brings something new to encounter.

Lunch at 10pm is a hurried affair. Big-hearted, heavily tattooed grips wolf down their steak and peppers with cake and cans of soda. Actors walk around handing out candies. Further dialogue and chitter-chatter bounce around in the background; holiday plans, injuries sustained, family relations, romance, life, health and laughter. Just a bunch of guys and girls shooting the shit, enjoying their work and revelling in each others company.

Pretty soon, it's back to work, only this time they're shooting exteriors. Extras in character prepare themselves for their movements ahead, while a collection of giant lights resembling something out of Pink Floyd's the Wall hover malevolently overhead. Again, the producers and directors are huddled away in a corner surrounded by TV screens and mixed bouts of cracking, fizzing audio. Then somebody yells 'action!' and tranquillity is shattered. Humvees and SWAT teams pounce out of the street, burst down the drive way, spotlights dance, actors in uniform position themselves with torchlit machine guns. Then the same voice yells 'cut' and everything spirals away in reverse.

TV and movies are an audio-visual experience; witnessing the making of a TV show is a visual, sensory, surreal, and at times hallucinatory experience. This is the real deal – the grit, graft, persistence, sweat and endurance for everyone involved.

The hard work carving and creating a product from the words on a script and beyond. In many ways, experiencing what life is like on set is actually better than simply watching movies and television. If they sold tickets to out of studio productions, it would be one of the hottest engagements around. Outside of the theatre or an in-studio production, there aren't too many opportunities to see the mechanics of creation crank into action.

Somehow the time has reached midnight. The shoot is scheduled to continue to until four in the morning – possibly even longer. 

From make-up to lighting, from the photography department to an extra acting in only one scene, the whole collective that makes up the Sanctuary production feels like a family. In the case of Sanctuary, this is the family that lives together, eats together, works together and celebrates together. This is a warehouse party with creation at its core. And it's a hell of an environment to work in.

If you're already a fan of the series then look out for season four which premieres on the Space channel - Friday October 7 at 10pm. You really don’t want to miss it. Season three of the show is now available on DVD.

For more, please visit the official Sanctuary website.


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