Being a Movie Extra in Vancouver (aka Hollywood North)

One winter’s day I emerged from the office building I was working in to the puzzling sight of a ‘genuine’ New York hot dog stand before me, a puzzle further compounded by the NYPD police car that came cruising past.

All of this would’ve been pretty self-explanatory were I actually in New York at the time – but I was 3,000 miles away from the Big Apple, in the Canadian city of Vancouver.

And the obvious explanation for this, as any Vancouverite can tell you, is Vancouver’s thriving movie industry – in the movie world, Vancouver is often referred to by the nickname ‘Hollywood North’ and has served as the filming location for a host of American movies and TV shows, usually playing the role of an American city rather than appearing as itself (see this great video for more on that, with loads of example footage). The New York stuff I saw that day was for the TV show Fringe, and there’s actually a photo on the Fringe Wikipedia page of them filming in December 2010 near my old workplace in Vancouver that I think must’ve been taken on the same day.

On another occasion while walking home at night along West Georgia street (one of the main thoroughfares in downtown Van), I happened across a movie shoot and joined the watching crowd for a while; an action scene, involving a stuntman clinging to the roof of a wildly swerving taxi as a bunch of police cars pulled around the corner ahead, lights flashing, to block the road. The production staff were tight-lipped about what they were shooting for (as I suppose they usually are), but I eventually spotted the shot in Tron: Legacy in the BASE jumping scene near the start of the movie.

Vancouver’s popularity with Hollywood film studios is down to a number of reasons – first and foremost being that the Canadian government offers generous tax breaks to American movie producers to attract their business north of the border. But it’s not just that – Vancouver is a beautiful city nestled between the mountains and the sea, with a downtown core of chic cafes and grimy alleyways running between a forest of sleek skyscrapers, and thus offers a plethora of filming locations which (perhaps with a little CGI from the digital makeup department) can easily be passed off as San Francisco (as it was in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes), New York (as it was in Fringe), or LA and various European cities (as it was in The A-Team; see below).

While I was living in Vancouver and working several part time jobs (and always in need of a little extra cash), I signed up with one of the various extras agencies in town. They get you in for some paperwork, take your measurements and a photo, and then contact you if they have any suitable gigs. The pay isn’t great, obviously, but it’s a way to make the odd extra bit of income if you have the free time.

I was asked to be an extra on Fringe several times but the shooting times never suited my schedule, and then finally a 1-day shoot came through that I was available for – to be an extra in The A-Team.

Yes, The A-Team. But the rubbish movie version. Specifically, this ‘humorous scene’ in which they get their fake passports muddled up while passing through immigration in disguise, but Murdoch saves the day with his unexpected mastery of Swahili:

If you watch that scene, I’m somewhere in the crowd in the background, though it’s totally impossible to make any individual person out in the back. I think the scene actually takes place in a Danish port, but on set they told us (if I remember correctly) it was a ferry terminal in Germany… and it was filmed in Vancouver’s Rocky Mountaineer railway station (a station which only handles a few trains per week, and only in summer, making it a pretty handy location if you’re shooting in winter and in need a station of some sort).

It’s impressive how much care goes into the detail on a set like that – the station had been decorated with signage and advertising in multiple European languages, even though none of that stuff can be made out in the footage, and we extras were instructed to dress like north Europeans.

Being a north European I simply went dressed as myself, wearing a fleece I’d actually bought in Helsinki – and was told I looked ‘too Vancouver’, and sent to the costume guys for a change of clothing! (none of which made any difference to anything)

If the attention to detail was interesting, the day itself was most definitely not. Working as an extra mostly means sitting around for hours, passing the time with books and idle chat and waiting until they need you; and this was Vancouver on a rainy day in winter, so that meant sitting around in a big tent trying to keep the feeling in your fingers. At least food and drink is provided – and if you’re lucky it’s decent! In Hollywood North it was so-so, but as it was laid out to help yourself at least I could stock up on some free calories – I was severely broke at that point. The one other time I’ve done this sort of thing, for a TV commercial in Japan, food was served at fixed meal times but consisted of good quality bento boxes which went down very well!

I didn’t get called onto the set itself until the final takes of the day, when all hands were required on deck. And even then, it was quite a bizarre experience – to make the crowd look natural, a lot of us were given little things to act out in each take. In my case, I was paired up with a girl my age and a middle-aged lady; they were to be my mother and sister come to meet me, and in every take we had to go back to our starting positions, seek each other out in the crowd, wave excitedly, and then have a joyful reunion hug – all in complete silence.

That was the weird thing really – all these people walking around looking for someone or something, shaking hands and hugging, waving and gesturing and pretending to talk, and all you could hear was the shuffling of feet and the voices of Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper speaking their lines (though I was too far back to hear what was being said). The background noise you hear in the scene was added in later, and all the waving and hugging is reduced to blobs of vague background movement anyway. A remarkable effort really, to gather hundreds of people to be an airport crowd and then only have them as a couple of fuzzy blobs on screen!

So that was interesting to see, and it was easy money – but only if you find boredom to be easy. I’m glad I did it a couple of times, but I don’t think I could be bothered to do it again.

As to whether you can do it as a traveller to Vancouver, the answer is no, unless you have a working holiday visa. And to witness something being shot simply requires being in the right place at the right time – in my year-and-a-half in the city I just randomly saw those two scenes being filmed for Fringe and Tron: Legacy.

But what you can easily do, once you’re familiar with Vancouver, is feel the regular pangs of recognition when you’re watching a Hollywood movie set somewhere in America and you realise they filmed it in Hollywood North and you once had coffee in that shop in the background!

Here’s a list of movies filmed in Vancouver

And here are a few more memorable scenes filmed in Vancouver, the shooting locations of which are immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with the city:

Highway mutant fight in Deadpool:

The laughably gory bridge disaster in Final Destination 5:

And this one from NeverEnding Story shows that Vancouver’s been doing this for decades:

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