It's Christmas in June for Ottawa filmmakers

It's Christmas in June for Ottawa filmmakers

A set decorator carries a Christmas tree during filming of 'Hocus Pocus Christmas' on April 16 in Almonte, Ontario, just outside Ottawa
A set decorator carries a Christmas tree during filming of 'Hocus Pocus Christmas' on April 16 in Almonte, Ontario, just outside Ottawa. Photo: Dave Chan / AFP
Source: AFP

It's Christmas in Ottawa, with filmmakers this spring and summer capturing couples smooching under mistletoe, reindeer running amok and Santa Claus leaving presents under evergreens lavishly decorated with lights and ornaments.

The Canadian capital has become a hub for holiday films, with more than a dozen each year, or one-third of all Christmas-themed movies screened annually in the month of December in North America, shot here.

But while snow is temporary, hefty tax credits last year round -- leading to creative workarounds to create icicle-laden shots amid 90-degree Fahrenheit (32 C) weather.

Amid a boom in demand for Christmas movies, it's all worth it for the quaint, seemingly made-for-the-screen scenery that dots the region, industry professionals tell AFP.

"There is a wow factor here," said Sandrine Pechels de Saint Sardos, film commissioner at the Ottawa Film Office -- pointing to the fairytale architecture of the Chateau Laurier, the Rideau Canal, old courtyards and cobblestone walkways, waterfalls and parks, and Canadian villages that stand in for American small towns.

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Special effects supervisor Mathieu Bissonnette-Bigras sprays foam to create a winter snow scene -- in April
Special effects supervisor Mathieu Bissonnette-Bigras sprays foam to create a winter snow scene -- in April. Photo: Dave Chan / AFP
Source: AFP

"There are so many spots in Ottawa and the surrounding area that look like where most of these Christmas stories take place," said producer Josie Fitzgerald, shooting her fourth and fifth Christmas films this year.

Snow in July

Director Marita Grabiak prepares to shoot a scene during the filming of 'Hocus Pocus Christmas'
Director Marita Grabiak prepares to shoot a scene during the filming of 'Hocus Pocus Christmas'. Photo: Dave Chan / AFP
Source: AFP

On the set of "Hocus Pocus Christmas," in Almonte, on the outskirts of Ottawa, director Marita Grabiak says it feels "very much like the small town that I grew up in, in Pennsylvania."

Christmas movies are so often set in small towns, she explains, because of the values they represent: simplicity, hard work and residents' commitment to each other.

"The main storyline is always about him and her falling in love, or becoming great friends," she says. "It's an assembly line product, but I try to bring truth and relatability to it."

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Locals Sarah Affleck and her daughter Hannah stopped by the set, hoping to catch a glimpse of a famous actor.

"It's funny and cool also to see snow and Christmas decorations at this time of year," says Hannah.

Passerby Kim Nixon recalls another film shot here last July: "The way they had the street decked out, you would swear it was the middle of January. It was really something to see."

"You kinda felt sorry though for the actors dressed in parkas in 30 degrees Celsius," he says.

The snow is obviously fake, he adds, "but when you watch the movie it looks real."

Special effects supervisor Mathieu Bissonnette-Bigras uses foam, paper and cotton batting to create the appearance of real snow. "We just roll it out as needed for scenes."

It can be touched up in post-production with computer-generated imagery, he says.

But on set it's a challenge. "If it's too warm, the foam melts... If it's too windy, all of it blows away. Also the foam will settle on peoples' hair and eyelashes and will become very quickly and obviously soap bubbles," adds Fitzgerald, the producer.

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Paper snow, meanwhile, requires "a heck of a clean-up."

This year, she says, "because of the incredible uptick in movies requiring snow, our biggest challenge is getting our hands on snow-making supplies."

Covid-era stress relief

Special effects supervisor Mathieu Bissonnette-Bigras carries a roll of synthetic batting to create a winter snow scene
Special effects supervisor Mathieu Bissonnette-Bigras carries a roll of synthetic batting to create a winter snow scene. Photo: Dave Chan / AFP
Source: AFP

Holiday film production and viewership exploded in recent years amid the stresses of the 2020 pandemic, economic woes and conflicts around the world, according to Pechels de Saint Sardos.

"People wanted something to make them feel good. And Christmas movies were there to deliver. It's escapism. It's comfort content. It's feel-good stories," she told AFP.

"Christmas movies also bring together families to watch sweet moments, and there's no violence," she added.

Hallmark, Lifetime, the Oprah Winfrey Network and other TV networks picked up on the trend, spending collectively more than Can$50 million (US$36 million) annually to shoot films in Ottawa, alongside the occasional theatrical release such as Fatman (2020) starring Mel Gibson.

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A generous tax credit covers 45 percent of labor costs -- 10 percent higher than in major film production centers Toronto and Vancouver.

For those trying to film the real thing, Canada's wintertime blizzards can produce "absolutely beautiful scenes," says Grabiak.

But extreme cold also wreaks havoc on equipment -- meaning sweating through a parka in the middle of the summer is often worth it.

Source: AFP

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