Among international markets, the words “Yukon” and “film” typically connote a documentary on the Gold Rush, or a Jack London biopic.
But the Yukon’s film reputation is changing. Increasingly, the territory’s endless spaces have played host to car commercials, feature films and National Geographic documentaries.
The Yukon’s value as a film backdrop is rising — but steal a glance behind the camera, the script or even the lighting, and there will be nary a Yukoner to be seen.
When productions come to the Yukon, such as the 2007 supernatural thriller Whisper, they usually bring their own crew.
Few Yukoners have the skills and experience needed to staff the productions occurring right on their doorstep — frustrating both locals and filmmakers alike.
“It sometimes turns people off that there’s not enough of an experienced crew here,” said Blake Wildfong, an amateur Yukon filmmaker.
Percentage-wise, the Yukon has one of Canada’s largest populations of amateur filmmakers. Yet, little has existed to bridge the delicate gap that separates what is amateur from what is professional.
Yukon filmmakers can fill the program at Dawson and Keno City film festivals — but when it comes to international markets and feature films, they are often left in the cold.
Enter the Yukon Film Society and its Mise En Scene program — a brilliant scheme to take the Yukon’s ranks of part-time camera-wielders and mould them into committed armies of trained semi-professionals.
“Definitely one of the premises or goals of the program is to raise the qualifications of people who are readily available to help for any film projects in town,” said Wildfong, a student of the program.
The plan: take four “creative teams,” blitz them with a just over a dozen film workshops, and give them two days to shoot a six- to eight-minute dramatic short film.
“Basically, we’re getting film school done in weekend workshops over the span of four months,” said David Hamelin, a Mise en Scene participant who has previously attended film school in the south.
“I don’t want to say it’s the “Cliffnotes” of film school, but it is a crash course — and you come out unscathed, hopefully,” he said.
Time is tight, and budgets are even tighter. Funding only allows for three teams to shoot a final film, requiring one team to be eliminated in the mid-stages of the project.
The shooting period itself is no laughing matter.
Creative teams are supplied with five crew members, high-definition camera and sound equipment, production vehicles, scheduled times with sound and picture editors and a cash credit of $5,000.
In the meantime, the weekend workshops are almost boot-campish: quick, direct and exhausting.
“There’s definitely a no-BS mentality to the teaching that is refreshing,” said Hamelin.
Students had their scripts “torn apart” in the first weekend of workshops.
“We all went into this wanting to make a movie and then we all came out of the first workshop thinking just the opposite,” said Rod Jacob.
“We’re on the third major rewrite on ours,” he added.
In the past, film programs in the Yukon have suffered from instructors “who wrote a script 20 years ago – maybe got it made, and then have been teaching ever since then,” said Vernon.
Eager students have often been regaled with anecdotes from visiting instructors — but received little in the way of useful film training.
For Mise-En-Scene, the program was careful to establish a cast of instructors still prominent in the industry — with real world knowledge of the ever-changing Canadian film scene.
“It’s important to have someone with parenthetical, current knowledge teaching rather than someone who has anecdotes and remembers a time when things worked a certain way,” said Vernon.
The key of Mise en Scene is that students are tasked with creating a dramatic film, rather than the legions of nature and historical documentaries that so dominate the Yukon film industry.
“There’s this misconception that the only thing that the film industry here is capable of is really confined to just a couple of topics,” said Wildfong.
The Yukon need not only be a clearinghouse for caribou hunting PBS specials. Yukoners have stories to tell, and many ways to tell them.
“As soon as we start creating films for the strengths that exist here, the more potential we have to work with what we’ve got,” said McFarlane.
The international market is stressed as a clear end goal for Mise En Scene participants.
“You don’t have to think big to go out big, you can still make a personal movie — but think in terms of how you can strategize and get it out (on the international market)” said Wildfong.
“Don’t just show it at the Vancouver Film Festival, show it at Tribeca if you can,” he added.
Of course, with the internet, film festivals aren’t the only platform in filmtown. Online access to downloadable films presents budding filmmakers with instant international potential.
“If one had a film online available for 50 cents per view, and if 10,000 people watch it — that’s fantastic!” said McFarlane.
“It’s not about television only, and series only, and short films only and feature films only, it’s about a far vaster playing field,” she said.
It is hoped that when the dust has cleared, and the Yukon Film Society has added another 21 minutes worth of independent Yukon films to its catalogue, they will have also created the vanguard of this new reality for Yukon film.
After a creative team is eliminated by “secret jury” in only two weeks time, there’s no doubt that it may threaten the present cohesiveness of the “rag tag” group of Mise En Scene students.
But there is a long road ahead for Yukon films, and together they will be the ones to move it along.
“Even if one of us is able to get a short series or a project off the ground, then that could provide stable employment for 20, 30 people for a couple of months,” said Vernon.
“As soon as we start creating for the strengths that exist here, the more potential we have to work with what we’ve got,” said McFarlane.