FEATURE ARTICLES

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

An Interview with Stargate's Location Manager, Lynn Smith


Lynn Smith Stargate fans will recognize two universal truths: Most aliens speak English, and much of the known universe resembles British Columbia. Yet the area in and around Vancouver, where the series is filmed, offers a diversity that is more than capable of emulating any alien world, from vast oceans to majestic mountains, barren deserts to lush rain forests, quaint villages to modern urban structures. Finding those perfect venues is the job of Lynn Smith, the location manager for Stargate SG-1.

The search begins in the minds of the writers, but many considerations must be met for a location to work within the framework of an episode. "It starts with the writer," Lynn explains. "They're quite familiar with the area, so sometimes they'll write something and I'll say, 'Did you have anything in mind?' 'Well, I cross this certain bridge and I always see this treatment plant on the left-hand side, so check out there first.' And I will check it out, and if we can get in, great, and we do all the paperwork and all this kind of stuff. If we can't, at least we've seen what their eye sees every day going to work that they're kind of writing around. Sometimes they'll already know a place that they might frequent or have seen for whatever reason, and say, will you check into such and such place. I've even, at times, gone in and said, you should see these few files, they're really really interesting. They might want to write around them. So, different writers work in different ways, and different shows work in different ways."

Knowing the vicinity helps to narrow down the options when a script calls for a forest or desert or rocky terrain, for example. "Especially now in season six, we've been to all these places so many times that they could say that this is Stokes Pit, or GVRD, or the Dunes, or Tynehead. They know where the empty spots are around us that are going to be workable and sound-friendly and stuff like that, because of course wherever you get big open spots, it's usually for air traffic. So, it's not like a miracle where they say we need a big deserted empty land, go find it. They know that they're going to get one of the ten places that there are out there." Yet within those places to which the production often returns, creative camera angles and set decoration can transform a familiar setting into another world. During the week of preproduction, the director and producers join the location survey of selected sites to determine how best to use an area to meet the needs of the story. During the preparation for Paradise Lost, for example, there was talk of using two separate locations for the planet and the moon in order to emphasize the contrast between the two. However, practical considerations dictated that a move from the "paradise" of Widgeon Park to a less idyllic setting would not be cost effective, and small adjustments were made to the script to enable certain scenes to be shot on a soundstage and eliminate the need for a second location. "When we were in the meeting," Lynn recalls, "they knew what they had to work with in Widgeon. We went there on our tech survey, and it worked for the paradise, and so then we continued to walk around, and we found little holes in a few crannies and hills that worked. They know the general area now. So now when they come back and say, well, we really want something that's more deserted to do this other scene, well, they know that they're going to have to make it a whole new day, and move the whole unit and the trucks and everything out to the Dunes, or out to Stokes Pit, where it's brown, and dirt, and there's areas that you don't have to sit there and look at trees. But because the whole package works around saving money, and one stop shopping, they know that they can change a few things in the writing and make it work at where they already are for four days.

"Sometimes we'll find three different locations, and they'll say, well, here's where we're going to be, so instead of that perfect house that we saw over here, find a house that's going to work for us in this neighborhood with this, so it's a shorter move, or we don't have to move it all, or it's a mini move, or whatever. Everybody gives and takes. I think maybe sometimes that's where it differs with features, where you go to the other end of the Earth to get your perfect location. In a TV series, you're just going, going, going, and you're on a little bit of a tighter budget, and you have a lot of departments putting into budgets that are already over. So you have to maybe go without, or tighten the ropes and sharpen a pencil a little bit." The ideal situation is to find a single location that can be used for several different scenes within the story. This sort of "one stop shopping" has been used in many episodes. In Foothold, for example, Carter makes a phone call from a phone booth that is meant to be at the airport, and later meets Maybourne at a café near NID headquarters. The two locations are directly across the street from each other, on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver. In Upgrades, SG-1 meets for dinner at O'Malley's Bar and Grill, then travels to a planet where Apophis is constructing a new alien ship amid enigmatic totem poles. The totems and the restaurant are, in fact, side by side on Burnaby Mountain. In 2010, SG-1 gathers for an anniversary ceremony at the JR Reed Space Terminal, then meets later for dinner at an elegant restaurant. Both scenes were shot at the Plaza of Nations, with the magic of the art department and set decorators to create a stargate terminal and a cozy restaurant within the same empty building.

The art department works very closely with the location team. In many cases it is more efficient to construct a set than it is to find a location that will exactly meet the needs of a given story. Despite the strong Native American influence of the region, finding a location to represent the Salish village in the episode Spirits proved to be less effective than building the village from scratch. Lynn's office wall displays a series of pictures that document the transformation of an empty field in Tynehead Park in Surrey into a quaint Native American village. "It was amazing," she says in admiration. "I have unbelievable footage of most of this stuff. It was before, flat, bare land, trees, and then bang, after, what they built. That's why Spirits is one of my favorites, actually." Similarly, Vancouver boasts a significant Chinese community, but when the script for Maternal Instinct called for a Chinese temple, filming the scenes in an authentic locale in Chinatown was less practical than creating an original set. All the scenes of the temple on Kheb were filmed in the Norco studio, thanks to the design of the art department and set decorators. Occasionally, for the sake of expediency, stock footage may also be used when only an exterior shot is required to set a scene. The exterior of the hospital to which Daniel was admitted in Legacy, for example, was stock footage inserted in the post production process, and although the interior scenes of the Chicago museum in The Curse were filmed at the Maritime Museum in Vanier Park, the exterior image was again stock footage of an impressive white building that bears no resemblance to the museum.

Spirits
Salish Village [Spirits]
built by the Art Department in Tynehead Park

Maternal Instinct
Temple on Kheb [Maternal Instinct]
built by the Art Department at Norco Studio

Knowing how to find the perfect garden, or mansion, or alien city, is only part of the job of a location manager. All the arrangements for the day's filming must be made as well, and this can include everything from acquiring permits and setting up parking to providing for garbage removal and paying the bills. The necessary paperwork lines the walls of Lynn's office in the form of row after row of black binders. "At least I keep a binder on every episode so I can look up things," she smiles, pulling out one of the binders as an example. "Because it's a one location manager show, and sometimes we're wrapping one out, shooting one, and prepping sometimes one, two, or three of them, I keep a little cheat sheet. For every episode I have a binder, and for every location, I have a sheet, and it will just say the name, the set, the contacts. Because we've been going six years, we often go back [to a location]. Now I can just pull from when we went back last time and I know the cost of paying neighbors and all that, and I can keep it in sync instead of trying to ask, how much did I pay you last time three years ago? And I'll have where we put catering, where we put the tent, and if it worked out perfect, then it's going to work out perfect again." The binder also includes a checklist for all the considerations that must be addressed each time the production ventures out from the studio. "It's so easy to forget something very simple, like an electrical permit, or that there's a gate that catering's got to go through. So it just has everything here. If you check off that, you know the electrical permit was done, the neighborhood was papered, gate keys collected, if there were any water issues, noise issues, garbage. Sometimes I'll buy someone's dumpster and make it a little bit easier on transport. If we're going to be somewhere for five days, I'd rather either pay somebody for the use of their dumpster and get it dumped for them, or bring one in, as opposed to transport coming three times a day back to the studio to dump garbage. It's something as stupid and silly as that, that no one would even think of. If we're at a new location or something, I'll always ask for a floor plan to assist the art department. They do a lot of measuring and their own great wonderful maps, but if there's a floor plan available, they can alleviate their work. You need parking, insurance, police, fire, extras holding and where it's going to be, crew lunch, is it going to be a tent, is it going to be a room, is it going to be a garage. That's all part of that little prep sheet there."

The meticulous binders are especially valuable when the production returns to a location used in a previous episode. Each time SG-1 visits Tollana, a black binder keeps details for Simon Fraser University. The Plaza of Nations was the site of the planet decimated by alien insects in Bane, and the opposite side of the same building became the JR Reed Space Terminal in 2010. Bordertown, in nearby Maple Ridge, was hardly recognizable when the quaint thatched village of A Hundred Days was revisited as a frontier town in Beast of Burden. And the GVRD, or Greater Vancouver Regional District, the city's watershed in North Vancouver, has been used countless times as everything from a Nox forest to the Alpha Site. Each time, the paperwork must be in order. "We'll go back to a reoccurring location, or something that might seem just a drive-in location, but there's always still an application to do, and there's always still liaisons to coordinate with, and gates to open, and all this. 'Oh, we've been here a million times, you know, we just park over there.' No. You do all the paperwork over again."

Of course, a mobile production depends on power, and while on location, the SG-1 production must provide its own power source. Equally vital is the catering truck, and Lynn describes her current challenge for tomorrow's filming in which compensation must be made for a malfunctioning power source. "We have a generator truck. Even when we're at a location, we usually have our own power because it's so much. We'll have one generator powering the trucks, work truck circus, hair, makeup, wardrobe, and all that, and then we'll have a generator powering the set. Tomorrow is actually the full mish mash. Today it's been about, what's going to power catering? There's a problem with the power source that used to be there, and it's short circuiting. They don't like catering to power off the set generator, because it sometimes fluctuates the power for set. They can make do for breakfast, but they need a strong power source for lunch. In the morning it's just a toaster or whatnot, but for lunch it's a bigger deal, so we've been dealing with it today, and we'll be dealing with it tomorrow, because it probably has to be, unfortunately, a move for them, which we don't like to do. We like them to park for breakfast and lunch. Tomorrow they'll probably park for that easy breakfast, no generator, and then I'm going to have to scramble them somewhere, and find a bigger power source."

How does one train for a position that calls for finding a homeowner willing to have his house blown up on television, while also coordinating a power source to feed a hungry crew? "I just went up the ladder like most people," Lynn smiles. "I started out as a production assistant, which is kind of an entry level into the film industry. A lot of people start out as a production assistant, and locations, and then go anywhere from there. It's the easiest entry level. So basically I started there, and that was just assisting on set in locations kind of stuff, and then moved up to assistant location manager."

Her initial introduction to the film industry began in a rather roundabout way. Born and raised in Ontario, she was in her early twenties when she set off on an extended tour of Europe. "I traveled for ten months, backpacking," she recalls. "My brother-in-law's sister, her husband's a writer. And when I said I was going backpacking, they had said they had best friends that were going to Italy with their two kids, and would I nanny their two kids for a month in Italy. And I said, great! Italy is one of the most expensive places to backpack through, I had no money, and I said yeah, I'll nanny their kids and I'll be able to see the whole of Italy with them at no cost. So I did that, and got quite close to this family and their kids." Upon their return, the family asked her to stay on with them in Los Angeles where the husband worked in the entertainment industry as a writer. A few months grew into an extended stay, and Lynn took advantage of the opportunity to learn about the business. "So I said, while the kids are in school, can I maybe look at that whole film industry out there and maybe just puppy-dog on set and have a look, because it's an industry that is here in Vancouver, and maybe I can get trained out there, or get to know people, or figure out how you get involved. My brother-in-law's sister was very familiar with John Candy, Martin Short, all those guys, the eastern gang from SCTV. John Candy had filmed up here, and knew a few names, and so did my brother-in-law's sister, and they had told me a couple of names, when I come back, to get in touch with and see about this entry level to get in. My brother-in-law's sister is a Flaherty. Paul Flaherty [comedy writer/director/producer and SCTV alumnus] is her husband, and Joe Flaherty [comic actor and SCTV alumnus] is his brother, so they're all in the film industry. So, when I finished with the kids and I came back, I had all these contact names, and I contacted them. You've got to get this card, and then you go on, and then you get paid a hundred and fifty bucks a day for a 15-hour day. It was just what a high energy person needed at that time! And then once I got in the door it just progressively got busier in Vancouver, and I moved up and moved up and moved up. I did one and a half location managing jobs before this show, and then came onto Stargate and I was on here for another five years."

Lynn has been with Stargate SG-1 since its second season, and she echoes the sentiments of everyone else on the production when she describes the close-knit team of people behind the show. "You can't work with a better art department than what we have," she says of the people who design whole new worlds in the locations she finds. "If a wall's not right, or an angle's not right on a house, or the lawn's not right, well, by the time the camera gets there, you can guarantee it's going to be perfect, and you didn't have to go to the other end of the world to do it," she raves. She adds her praise for the director with whom she is cooperating on the current episode. "Peter DeLuise, for instance, who's directing this episode, he's just phenomenal. I've never seen a guy like him. He just works with every department. I often joke and go, well if the garbage can is in the way, instead of me moving it, can you change your shot? I'm sure he'd say, 'Sure!' He's just so great. I really like working with him. Everybody's got to give and take in their department. I think after six years, you know when someone's turning left or right, and who not to go near before their coffee. It's like a family!"

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Many of the locations used in the series are public landmarks that are readily accessible and recognizable. Some of the more familiar sites have been collected here for those adventurous souls who are interested in discovering for themselves the world of Stargate SG-1 on the streets of Vancouver.

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Ritter, Kate. "Location, Location, Location." July 16, 2002.


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