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‘It’s kind of scary to see it happening’: Toronto film industry limps back amid COVID-19

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WATCH ABOVE: Film and television production provides a cash injection of more than $2 billion into Ontario’s economy, with Toronto being one of the largest screen-based production centres in North America. As Morganne Campbell reports, it’s an industry trying to limp back amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Canada’s film industry faded to black in mid-March as the world grappled with the novel coronavirus, impacting those in front of and behind the camera, not to mention the dozens of other jobs hinging on the sector.

“I never thought ever in my dreams that would ever happen and it’s kind of scary to see it happening,” says Charles Taylor, the managing director at Movie Armaments Group (MAG) and a master film armourer based in Toronto.

“It went from a lot to 100 per cent of nothing. Zero.”

MAG supplies mainly weapons, props and uniforms to the film industry and if you’ve seen any of the big action movies in the past 25 years it’s quite likely you’ve seen Taylor’s work.

He’s credited in such films as Suicide Squad (2016), RED (2010), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Death Race (2008) and the Resident Evil franchise.

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Since COVID-19 hit, Taylor has lost $1.5 million, been forced to lay off employees and is in the process of closing his prop house, Hand Prop Inc.

Read more: Coronavirus — Okanagan film industry eager to start rolling again

“We didn’t close because we wanted to, we closed because we were forced to,” Taylor said.

“I don’t think the average Canadian has any concept of how big this actually is and how much revenue this generates and when we have all these people and all of the suppliers all sitting at home, it’s a hard pill to swallow.”

In Toronto alone, more than 28,000 people worked in the industry in 2019, in jobs ranging from camera operator to special effects to animation, according to the union that represents performers. Provincially, the industry contributed $2.16 billion to Ontario’s economy.

Many of those employees, although some are unionized, are still out of work, including Steadicam operator Zefred Ansaldo. Since 1999, he’s worked on both TV and movie productions, and this is the first summer he hasn’t been behind the camera.

“There’s no sense of crying all the tears of my body. It’s happening. It’s happening. I just have to live with it,” Ansaldo said.

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Ansaldo, like many in the industry, was lining up his gigs for the summer when the shutdown happened.

“Most of the productions, shooting or preparing right now are Canadian productions. They’re not necessarily American productions as they usually come in, or if they are, they’re the ones that were shut down in the middle of shooting,” Ansaldo said.

According to the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), production houses in Ontario began shooting again in late June. At the moment, there are around 20 productions shooting, with another 15 preparing to shoot in September.

“The numbers are, of course, lower than this point last year, but we are seeing a growth on a weekly basis,” wrote Alistair Hepburn, the director of film, television and digital media with ACTRA. “We already have six Christmas movies that have wrapped or are nearing completion.”

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According to the union, animation projects went ahead during the shutdown as many of the voice performers can broadcast from home. Video games are also being motion captured.

Read more: ‘The actors are the most vulnerable’ — Filming on two Vancouver-shot TV shows to resume in July

The shutdown has forced some to adapt to the so-called new normal. Mind Blowing Cinema is now livestreaming corporate events, weddings and funerals. It’s using robotic cameras to help with such shoots.

“Twenty productions in July and August and I already have bookings for September. I’m looking to ramp that up, obviously, and make sure that we have sufficient funds for when winter hits and we have to hibernate,” said director Ajeet Siewnarine.

Although Siewnarine has been able to supplement his income this way, not everyone has been so lucky.

“We were gearing up for good weather — summer — which is supposed to be when we earn the majority of our money. That’s the time when we shoot a lot, when we do a lot of productions, when we do a lot of events, a lot of gigs, and just by the down-scaling, it has been ridiculous for everybody in the industry,” he said.

“Some have been able to keep their heads above water and some cannot weather the storm, unfortunately.d”

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As the movie industry begins to “wake up,” new rules and guidelines are coming into focus: smaller crews, robotic cameras, mandatory masks and health screenings.

Read more: U.K. allowing Tom Cruise to skip quarantine to shoot ‘Mission: Impossible 7’

Taylor has already invested in disinfection equipment so he can quickly get back on set.

“Everything that leaves our shop goes through a UVC light disinfection system and we have on-set pods and spray disinfection. We’re trying to not have people come here (and) pick up their products — we’ll deliver them and everything is sanitized coming in and sanitized going back out, which is a huge cost to do that, but we feel it’s necessary.”

Although some production houses are back up and running, don’t expect to catch big blockbusters any time soon. Industry insiders say it could take up to two years to bounce back from the pandemic.