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How a Yukon scientist helped Hollywood re-create the ice age in Alpha

Paleontologist Grant Zazula was enlisted by the makers of Alpha — a big-budget Hollywood adventure tale — to 'make sure it looked like the ice age.'

Paleontologist Grant Zazula was scientific adviser for Hollywood's new big-budget adventure tale

Alpha, directed by Albert Hughes, is an adventure tale about a boy and a wolf, set in Europe during the last ice age. Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula says his advisory job on the film was to 'make sure it looked like the ice age.' (Sony Pictures)

Grant Zazula was pretty excited to hit the cinema in Whitehorse on Friday night, for the opening night of Alpha — an ice age adventure tale about a boy and a wolf — but he was also a bit nervous.

"I know there are some compromises in the movie. There are some things I'm going to cringe when I see and I'm going to go, 'I told you not to do that!'" Zazula said.

Zazula is a renowned expert on ice age animals, having dug up and studied bones and fossils throughout Yukon. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

The Yukon government paleontologist was drafted three years ago to serve as a scientific adviser to the filmmakers. An anthropologist friend of his in Vancouver, already enlisted to develop language for the film, helped make the connection.

"She was meeting with the director and the producers, they asked her if she knew any paleontologists and she said, 'well, I know this guy up in Whitehorse,'" Zazula said.

"That's how I got roped into this very cool process."

Zazula is a renowned expert on ice age animals, having dug up and studied bones and fossils throughout Yukon. Woolly mammoths, bison, and scimitar cats — all of which feature in Alpha — are his bailiwick.

'This doesn't look right'

The movie is set in Europe, 20,000 years ago and Zazula's job was "to make sure it looked like the ice age," he said. That meant reviewing scripts and talking about film locations.

It was a very different experience for Zazula, who's appeared in plenty of television documentaries but had never worked on a Hollywood film. His scientific input was not always warmly embraced, he said.

Alpha was directed by Albert Hughes, who also co-directed the Denzel Washington flim The Book of Eli, and the critically-acclaimed Menace II Society.

"I think [the director] kind of thought, 'don't you know you're talking to Albert Hughes?'" Zazula said. "But you know, I had to put my stake in the ground and say, 'no, this doesn't look right.'"

'It's an awesome opportunity to tell the story of the ice age,' Zazula said. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"When you hire a scientist to work on a film, you expect scientific advice."

Still, he was excited to finally see the full, finished product. He's confident the filmmakers got it right and made a spectacular ice age tale.

"What I've seen is amazing ... to me that's the important part — it's going to look good, and it's an awesome opportunity to tell the story of the ice age," Zazula said.

"I think it's really the first time the ice age, and ice age people and animals, have been portrayed in Hollywood in a proper scientific form."

Alpha opened in theatres on Friday.

Zazula says he's confident the filmmakers got it right, and made a spectacular ice age tale. (Sony Pictures)

With files from Tara McCarthy

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