Vancouver’s (finally) Ready for its Close-up, Mr. DeMille

February 21, 2010
By | 12 Comments

What two things do all of the following films have in common? The Accused, Blade, Catwoman, Fantastic Four, Ghost Ship, I, Robot, Jumanji, The Lizzie Maguire Movie, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Neverending Story, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Rumble in the Bronx, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Twilight Saga, Underworld: Evolution, Watchmen, X2, and The X-Men: The Last Stand.

A hint: the following television series also have the same two things in common – 21 Jump Street, The 4400, Airwolf, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Dead Like Me, Highlander: The Series, Human Target, Kyle XY, Life Unexpected, The L Word, MacGyver, Noah’s Arc, The Outer Limits, Psych, Reaper, Smallville, Stargate SG-1, Supernatural, Taken, V, and The X-Files.

Answer: (1) All filmed in Vancouver, Canada; (2) None set in Vancouver, Canada.

Watching the Olympics, along with all of NBC’s shots of Vancouver, has thus been a very odd experience for a Vancouverite. I’ve seen Vancouver on film and television more than any city other than LA or New York. Probably everyone reading this has too: you just don’t know it. See, since it has rarely been allowed to play itself, its most identifiable and identifying landmarks are usually hidden. The Vancouver Art Gallery’s steps have been many a courthouse steps, Simon Fraser University has often played a sinister institution’s hideaway (or Earth pre-kaboom on BSG), and parts of its skyline have stood in for Metropolis in both Smallville and 21 Jump Street (yes, that was the city’s name). But Lions Gate Bridge, the tell-tale sails of Canada Place, the Burrard Street Bridge, Granville Island and English Bay, the beautiful group of Grouse, Seymour, Cypress, and the Lions that frame the city, or an aerial view of the downtown peninsula – these all had to be hid.

The SFU quad, which you've seen in the BSG miniseries, X-Files, or ...

I’m certainly not the first to notice this. Indeed, for an excellent discussion of the ghost-like representation without representation of Canada on film and TV, see Serra Tinic’s On Location: Canada’s Television Industry in a Global Market (half price right now, btw!). But when one is most used to recognizing one’s city in a particular parking garage (Rumble in the Bronx), a back alley that looks familiar (The Neverending Story), a house next to a good friend’s (It), the very well-watered grass (every show), the swimming pool and school at which one worked in summers (Smallville), a cafe at UBC (The Accused), or in a bilingual Keefer Street sign (Life Unexpected pilot), the city takes on an underground character. When a great deal of these shows and films are worlds for the supernatural and/or superheroes, one’s city seems to become all the more ethereal.

Smallville High, a.k.a Templeton High School

So it feels very odd to see a more decisively, obviously, proud Vancouver profiled in endless clips on either side of a commercial break, in glorious HD, with the camera pausing and luxuriating on all those sights that must usually be avoided to keep the myth of Chicago, Philly, Seattle, Portland, Metropolis, or some other American locale alive. I’m even getting weather reports for Vancouver and its suburbs every night on the local news! It’s a nice kind of odd, but also a cruel tease when I know Vancouver will need to be put back in a box in a week, once again I’ll need to extrapolate its weather from what’s happening in Seattle, and once again it will need to be represented by a glimpse of a street I recognized, a style of pre-ordered home, a rainy plot of land, a coffee shop I went to once, or so forth.


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12 Responses to “ Vancouver’s (finally) Ready for its Close-up, Mr. DeMille ”

  1. Myles McNutt on February 21, 2010 at 10:39 PM

    Not to put you on the spot, or to avoid researching this myself at some point in the future, but has there ever been any show set in a fictional location that has, to your knowledge, used some of Vancouver’s more recognizable landmarks as part of their own skyline/geography/etc.? That would seem highly possible considering that the majority of the audience wouldn’t be able to place some of that iconography in Vancouver, which is a whole new level of cultural confusion.

    Vancouver is certainly getting a nice showcase at the Olympics, but it’s interesting to me how (at least in Canada) Whistler being represented in a very reductive fashion: the “around Whistler” segments on CTV/TSN feature a local DJ going around trying to figure out what snowboard lingo means and where the hottest skiiers come from. Of course, that does sort of describe Whistler from my limited knowledge, but there’s surely some local culture which doesn’t surround booze and boarding that could be featured.

    But, of course, CTV already reduced Whistler to those broad stereotypes by setting a soap opera there, so maybe Vancouver’s been lucky.

    • Jonathan Gray on February 22, 2010 at 10:21 PM

      Rumble in the Bronx very amusingly included several shots with Grouse Mountain and Mt. Seymour in the background, despite being set in the Bronx. And it depends what “iconic” is to the individual person, but Human Target’s second ep. had the hero going up the Grouse gondola to a supposed Quebec monastery.

      As for truly fictional locales, the nearest examples I can think of: (1) SFU’s quad, as noted above, was Earth in the BSG miniseries; and (2) apparently when a new skyscraper was built, before it opened, it was plastered with Luther Corp logos and the Smallville crew filmed it and other bits of the skyline to use as establishing shots for Metropolis

  2. Serra Tinic on February 22, 2010 at 11:42 AM

    Jonathan, this is a great reminder of the continued importance of cultural and geographic specificity in the process of selling cities globally. As with all mega-events, hosting the Olympics is an opportunity to attract investment and tourism capital. And thus for one shining moment, Vancouver will “play” Vancouver. The photo of the Vancouver skyline is a testament to the success of another mega-event: Expo ’86, which transformed the city through a massive infusion of global investment from the Pacific Rim and heralded the city’s “global” status. Your piece spurred me to look online for pre-’86 skyline photos and it’s astonishing how in 1985 Vancouver still looked like a small coastal town nestled at the feet of the mountains.

    I’m curious to know if NBC is carrying the tourism ads extolling the city and province (I’ve flipped channels a few times but haven’t caught them) – here we see celebrities Kim Cattrall, Ryan Reynolds, Michael J. Fox and Sarah McLachlan in various B.C. beauty spots talking about “home.” Although, to the best of my knowledge, McLachlan is the only one who actually lives there. Commercials geared to domestic audiences illustrate the modernist narrative of Vancouver-as-nation (in line with Cornel’s earlier entry). Here we’ve seen some remarkably ‘un-Canadian’ patriotic zeal about “Owning the Podium” and “Let’s remind them it’s [hockey] our game.” Sadly, Team USA proved the latter wasn’t the case last night. You’re right, in a week Vancouver will be returned to the box so enjoy home while you can (or at least until the next episode of “Caprica”).

    • Erin Copple Smith on February 22, 2010 at 1:19 PM

      Serra, your points are all excellent, and your note about the (perpetually-airing) BC tourism ad reminds me of my initial reaction to the same. Namely, I was reminded yet again how much of Americans’ exposure to Canada and its inhabitants comes in the form of, “Huh. I didn’t know [fill-in-the-blank-with-a-celebrity] was Canadian.” It’s really unfortunate, because Canada is such a beautiful, fascinating, rich and diverse country–and yet so much of its identity on this side of the longest-friendly-border-in-the-world comes down to “celebrities we thought were American but are actually Canadian.”

      • Serra Tinic on February 22, 2010 at 2:38 PM

        Erin, terrific observations about the significance of celebrity marketing – a vast parade of internationally recognizable stars who no longer live in Canada. Another example was the unfortunate inclusion of the lip-synching duo Nelly Furtado and Bryan Adams at the Opening Ceremony. There was much excitement here re. rumors that Betty Fox would light the Olympic cauldron next to a hologram of her late son Terry. It would have been a symbolic conclusion of his Marathon of Hope in which Terry would have ‘virtually’ made it to B.C. Let’s just say that many Canadians were underwhelmed with the final choice of Gretzky in a pick-up truck.

        It may be cynical, but I assume the decision was based on the priorities of the American market and The Great One’s instant recognition value. I say this because Terry Fox is quite well known in Europe where several countries hold an annual Run for Hope (Taiwan recently organized one as well). If Meredith Vieira’s commentary that night is any indication, Terry was not well known across the border. She called him Michael and some one in NBC’s research department added the peculiar juxtaposition of photos of both Terry Fox and Michael J. Fox.

        • Erin Copple Smith on February 22, 2010 at 3:14 PM

          Yikes, Serra–I had no idea about the Viera/NBC foibles (though sadly am not surprised). You’re right that Terry Fox is not at all well known in the states. I grew up only a couple of hours from the border, and had no idea who he was until a Canadian blogger I follow mentioned her daughter’s participation in a Terry Fox Run several years ago. I agree that the option you describe (Betty & hologram-Terry) would have made more sense from a Canadian and even global perspective than Wayne Gretzky. Alas.

          Which brings me to the inclusion of Donald Sutherland as flag-bearer. Really? Donald Sutherland? I mean, I like the guy, but it seemed fairly apparent that he was included as compensation for his work on the opening ceremony voiceover. (He does, admittedly, have a wonderful voiceover voice.)

          • Jonathan Gray on February 22, 2010 at 10:28 PM

            Hey, hey, hey — anyone other than Wayne would’ve been a let-down to me. I don’t think that was about international visibility. I don’t think there’s a single Canadian who more Canadians know as much about. Evidence: if it was Walter, we’d have all recognized him, no? (translation for non-Cdn readers: Walter is Wayne’s father. Or Zeus, if you will).

            And lighting a flame from the grave just sounds kinda creepy to me, as much as Terry Fox rocked

            • Serra Tinic on February 22, 2010 at 11:03 PM

              Now Jonathan, you know I’m a loyal Edmonton Oilers fan. I enjoyed the dynasty years and Wayne will always be Apollo (if we follow the Zeus analogy?). But almost every public school in the country continues to teach Terry Fox’s story and holds an annual charity walk/run event. It’s the ideal Olympic spirit, fight against adversity story. Besides, it’s Hollywood North — a hologram would’ve been perfect.

          • Jonathan Gray on February 22, 2010 at 10:34 PM

            oh, and Donald Sutherland was indeed a crazy pick. Why not Shatner? 😉

    • Jonathan Gray on February 22, 2010 at 10:33 PM

      Serra, I’ve seen plenty of ads, but none containing Cdn celebs. Perhaps our stars have to stay closeted in the US, only allowed to out themselves in Canada itself?

      Meanwhile, yes, those pics from Expo are truly amazing. I took a dinner cruise around the Inlet and English Bay last year and counted about 80-90 huge glass apartment buildings that weren’t there in 1990.

  3. Colin Tait on March 1, 2010 at 3:19 PM

    I’m just happy to note that we did indeed have a Shatner sighting at the end of it all…

  4. Superhero Legacy on August 11, 2010 at 12:20 PM

    In addition to the city sights of Vancouver seen in all these movies and shows, there’s also some magnificent mountain shots, especially in Stargate SG-1. I wonder what kind of economic effect all these movies have had on the city of Vancouver…