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Liam Neeson’s The Grey braves sub-zero conditions on location in British Columbia

British Columbia stands in for the wilds of Alaska in new survival thriller The Grey. The film stars Liam Neeson as the head of a group of oil workers stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash. It charts their struggles to survive against both the savage weather and a marauding pack of wolves.

Filming in Alaska itself was considered but ruled out early on as the costs worked out better in British Columbia and the Canadian province offered more locations closer to a major city. In the end the production chose locations including the town of Smithers in the centre of the province, and in and around Vancouver in Whistler and Squamish, with studio shooting at Bridge Studios in Burnaby.

When it was really cold we would line-up the snowcats adjacent to the set and put the actors, Director and Producers in them so they could stay warm; there was nowhere to hide on that set, so that became the way to keep them close.

Bruce Brownstein, Location Manager

The aftermath of the plane crash was filmed at Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers and the crew faced logistical challenges getting there. Bruce Brownstein was Location Manager on the shoot: “We moved everything from the aircraft fuselage, office containers, generators, fuel, crew and all equipment on sleds pulled by a variety of snowcats (truck-sized vehicles designed to move heavy snow). These were supplemented by snowmobiles for quick runs; otherwise everything was moved each day from a parking lot 20 minutes away.

“When it was really cold we would line-up the snowcats adjacent to the set and put the actors, Director and Producers in them so they could stay warm; there was nowhere to hide on that set, so that became the way to keep them close. The snowcats, while common in certain places, were invaluable.”

Specific infrastructure was needed to make the location safe and facilitate the shoot. The crew cleared four feet of snow from a nearby ski hill parking lot and used this as the base for their unit trucks and lunch tent, all of which were warmed round the clock with diesel heaters.

Containerised offices – shipping containers converted into small offices – were used to enable the crew to work and shelter from the cold, with outside temperatures reaching -50 Degrees Celsius at times with the wind chill. Director Joe Carnahan wanted to be able to film a wide view of the crash site plateau, so a mound of earth known as a ‘berm’ was built closer to the actual set. More containerised offices were set up behind this, hidden from the camera and providing the necessary heated storage space and shelter close to the set. Each night crew members had to keep an eye on the generators, clear fresh snow from the set, arrange catering and make sure washrooms were kept stocked up.

It’s common for people to become disoriented and cease being functional. We had a paramedic who would check on crew and send those who had ‘lost it’ back down the mountain to the unit and from there back to the hotel.

Bruce Brownstein, Location Manager

Safety was obviously a major issue. Marker poles were set up every 20 feet in case of white-outs and movement had to be strictly monitored. A ‘buddy’ system was in place, with everyone matched into pairs that looked out for each other, and everybody was signed in and out to the snowcats at the end of each filming day. Guidance ropes had to be used for walking.

Brownstein comments: “You could walk 15 steps away from the set and be lost as there were no reference points and the blowing snow made it impossible to find your direction. Thus people had to follow the rope if they walked between the two and were not allowed to go anywhere else beyond. We had also strung ‘catch’ ropes in the distance all around the set so that should someone wander they would ‘catch’ a rope before going too far.”

Crew members were all kitted out in arctic parkas and balaclavas, and radios had to be kept inside their clothes to keep them working. Brownstein adds: “It’s common for people to become disoriented and cease being functional. We had a paramedic who would check on crew and send those who had ‘lost it’ back down the mountain to the unit and from there back to the hotel.”

Of course the extreme conditions affected the equipment too. The cameras were kept at constant temperatures by storing them in warm offices and fitting them with heated jackets during filming. This was a better option than subjecting them to wild temperature changes.

One side effect of the amount of equipment combined with the endless snow and the debris-strewn nature of the crash set dressing was that some things got left behind when the shoot wrapped. Brownstein concludes: “We left the mountain in February and returned in late July, at which time the snow had melted and we could find whatever had been lost; we found one of the wheels and struts from the aircraft!”

The Grey is in the midst of a staggered global cinema release.

(Set photos courtesy of Bruce Brownstein.
Liam Neeson still courtesy of Kimberley French/Open Road Films.)

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