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Behind the Scenes
About the TV Series
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Setting out to re-tell the history of Canada in the language of television required not only a compelling and accurate script, but also pictures: visuals, images, graphics. A team of photographers, visual researchers, graphic artists, compositors and editors pulled together the visual elements that the producers wove into the stories they wanted to tell.

Michael Sweeney CSC, director of photography for Canada: A People's History, says the cameramen working on the series approached their shoots the way they would approach a straight news documentary, allowing the action to unfold before the lens. "The camera is fluid and re-active, rather than scripted or plotted out, like it is in a drama," Sweeney says.

Doing the principal photography for the series required careful planning however, and there was a balance between choreographing a shoot and just letting the cameras roll. "We've had to create everything. Unless we make it happen, it doesn't happen," says Sweeney. "So the cooperation between the director and myself has been an exciting learning experience." The collaboration in some cases even included digital compositors (graphic artists who digitally manipulate images for film and television) who helped to plan a shoot ahead of time.

For complex re-enactments like the Battle on the Plains of Abraham, where the budget only allowed for a certain number of extras, the participants had to be carefully placed and directed so they could be multiplied later on, through the magic of digital compositing. While on the shoot, the compositor, working with the cameramen and producers, had to make certain that what ended up on tape would provide the necessary raw materials to produce the finished, accurate-looking scene.

The compositors also worked on touching up some unexpected anachronisms. In creating imagery meant to take the audience back in time, the photographers sometimes struggled with locations that presented obvious evidence of the 21st century.

"There are so many modern things that you don't notice until you actually try to shoot a historical documentary," says Laine Drewery, director of Episode 5: A Question of Loyalties. "When you realize, you can see telephone poles and antennas and satellite dishes and motor boats on the lake ... You have to pick your spots, live with the difficulties and sometimes you're shooting through the eye of a needle ... trying to sort of keep things small and be specific in what you shoot."

When some of the modern things couldn't be avoided, the compositors worked to adjust the image later on, making sure that what we see reflects the historic period being represented. For example, to create a skyline of Quebec under seige the compositors started with a modern skyline, removed the Château Frontenac and other conspicuous edifices, and added smoke, haze and war ships.

About 50 composites were created for each of the first seven episodes, from complex battle scenes, to time period touch-ups to the creation of backgrounds for the actors playing a figure on camera. Steve Dutcheshen, one of the lead designers behind the graphic look of the series, says it's the biggest thing the department's ever done. "This is stuff they do for films like Gladiator or Titanic ... this is a pretty staggering amount of work coming out of our two shops in Toronto and Montreal."

In some cases, instead of reconstructions, the best visual representations were historical resources: paintings, portraits and photographs of the people and events depicted in the series. Visualizing the editorial elements and finding the pictures to illustrate those stories was the job of Ron Krant in Toronto and Hélène Bourgault in Montreal. Besides the usual libraries, museums and government collections, Bourgault and Krant looked into little-known catalogues, photo clubs and private collections, where some of the best resources are to be found.

Krant says he approached the work by seeking out the best possible image for any given element, even consulting sources around the world in order to find the images to tell Canada's story. Much of the early history of Canada involves Europeans so it was common to look up museums and archives in France, England and else where. Sometimes the hunt would result in many choices for one character or event. "The searching doesn't stop until the project's done," he says. "I'm always watching out for better images, even than the ones I've already got." For the audience that means getting a glimpse at some rare images, many of which have never appeared in a television documentary before.

The look of the series changes somewhat over the two-year broadcast schedule, from the time before photography and film to the digital age. The second year of programming, which begins after Confederation and ends with the 1989 Free Trade debate, carries far fewer reenactments and concentrates on archival footage and photographs. What will remain constant is the overall graphical look and the opening series animation. Alain Provost, who produced most of the series opening in Montreal, worked with Dutcheshen in Toronto to maintain the visual design, creating the series titles, episode animations, maps and other graphics to the series-specific style of Canada: A People's History
Michael Sweeney, Director of photography
Michael Sweeney

Director of photography

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A team of digital compositors worked their magic to multiply armies, make ships appear and make buildings disappear.

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