The Moose-in-the-Box, Ontario, 1987
Winter in Canada in 1987. Just a small selection of the unit vehicles. The tracked Argocat that got pulled through the tree is in the centre of the picture. There was little damage. Note Bell 'Moose carrying' Jetranger in background.
Yup, a moose. In a box. With air holes, like you're buying a new pet guinea-pig. And it was slung under a helicopter to bring it to the set. And although we didn't show the moose the respect it deserved, the story might give you an insight into the somewhat bizarre lengths film crews went to in the pre-digital era. But don't fret, moose-lovers. Despite the heaped indignities, the moose did have the last laugh.
From 1980 to 2000 I worked in the film biz as crew, first a runner, then a loader, then a focus puller in UK parlance, but in the States a 1st AC: First Assistant Camera. I did movies, mostly, but also commercials - 500 of them. The first I worked on was for Condor tobacco in 1984, and the last was in 2000 for Italian Telecoms with Leo DiCaprio. Commercials were a lot of fun as they were quick - from a day of pack shots in a hideously small studio once a converted music hall in Greenwich, to big six week shoots for huge and mildly questionable global brands, traveling all round the world.
I did two Vauxhall Corsa shoots - neither of which convinced me to buy one - and some of the early Levi's 501 shoots directed by Roger Lyons. I missed 'Departure' and 'Launderette' but was there for 'Blue Jeans' with Eddie Kidd. Oddly, although I didn't know it at the time, with my future Uncle-in-Law who was the cameraman. Along the way I did a dizzying array of products - from sanitary towels for the Lebanon to Lynx aftershave to Adidas to Nike to Virgin Airlines to Ringos.
Anyway, commercials were high-powered, very expensive, highly intensive affairs upon which careers depended as this was pre-internet, obviously, and there were big advertising budgets for TV and print. So a lot of the time I was working with some very ambitious and highly motivated individuals using a lot of money to sell something to someone who might not actually want it, so there was a lot of 'pushing of the envelope' to film new things in new ways - and for the most part, without CGI - for real.
For me as an observer, and later a writer - I started penning stuff in 1988 - It made for some truly bizarre incidents. I guested for a few days on Mr Bean the movie and found myself being driven around the perfume counter of Harrods, in a Mini, by Rowan Atkinson, as Mr Bean. I was pulling focus, the operator was handholding the camera. In the pause between takes six and seven, I ventured: 'This is a little odd isn't it?' and we all looked at one another. Up until that point it was just another day at the office.
So things can get odd very quickly, especially if you are in the pre-digital era, where if you want a moose you actually have to go and get one, and get it on the set. No digital, everything in-camera. And at the right time. Ready to shoot. A moose. A real live moose.
Tempers could get a little frayed when things go wrong, but to us, as crew, it was more like live cabaret - so long as you kept station, had your camera in readiness to shoot at a moment's notice, and didn't screw up - or you could be on the plane home pretty quickly. The free-lance world is highly meritocratic for the lower-downs.
So: The commercial was for DHL, the courier people, the director was Barney, an immensely successful advertising photographer who had branched into directing. I'd done a lot with him - directors like trusted, familiar faces who would not let them down, so you would often find yourselves doing a lot of work for one production company.
Barney was exciting and interesting and quirkily eccentric - and did massive shoots. They were always meticulously well planned, and for the twenty-something me, full of hardware - cranes, helicopters, tons of equipment. I did Gallo Wines with him, shooting in the vineyards of Sonoma County. He wanted early morning fog so had it delivered by a 1946 Stearman biplane with a smoke generator. The pilot, known affectionately as 'Fly-low Milo' was good to his nickname. I was on the crane, less than twenty five feet up and I could see the top of his wing. We did Territorial Army stuff, too, Ford Orion on the Isle of Lewis as well as Solo Paint in the R101 airship hangar at Cardington: The first and only time that I have been paid to watch paint dry.
So we always knew jobs with Barney were challenging, and exciting. This was, I think, February of 1987 and we were based first in Toronto to get kitted up with an allowance for warm weather gear as the temperature could plummet to minus thirty in the evening. We all bought massive snow jackets that made us look like chess pieces, huge gloves, mitts to go over the large gloves, Sorrell snow boots which have a thick felt inner that you wore first, and thermal trousers, hat - the works.
We checked the camera gear and met up with the Canadian crew as it was only Barney's British regulars who were with him - Steve the Cameraman, Roy who was focussing with me, John operating, production crew and First AD. We checked the gear and learned about cold weather operations: The Arriflex film cameras were all winterised and had a slow ramp up to film speed so the film transport movement did not shatter the cold film. The gear is always kept cold - you can't bring it in for the night or you will get a deep lens condensation that you cannot remove, and it's also a wise move to load the magazines not long before shooting, as it is the dryness of the film as well as the cold that can make it shatter in the cameras.
So we headed out to the location, shot over two or three days of glorious sunshine. Air was still cold, and colder still as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, but without a breath of wind - and with about a foot of powder snow over everything. Gorgeous. We left the highway, drove for an hour along a logging track, then were taken into the location on a bizarre array of vehicles (see above) that included a snow-trac sort of vehicle with brake steering. Otherwise we were in what looked like bath tubs pulled by Skidoos - the camera gear was delivered in a net under the chopper.
So the point of the commercial was that DHL go to huge lengths to deliver their parcels, even using a dog-sled to do so, across a frozen lake in Alberta. But this being a commercial, a single dog sled wasn't really enough. No, we were going for a 96 dog sled. That's right, 96 dogs. that's a fraction under 400 legs, and they can be pretty powerful.
The logistics of putting the dog team together would probably be a book in itself, but that was what the Canadians did - and then set them off across the frozen lake with us following on the pillions of Snowmobiles, filming from a discreet distance as Barney went overhead in a helicopter, filing from the air - the so-called 'money shot'. This kind of worked really well, but the dog sled people knew something we didn't: That once a dog starts, it's quite tricky to get them to stop. We were told that if you had a pet Husky you could let them out for a wee one night and they'd return three days later, panting happily and covered in brambles, having jogged to the Yukon and back.
As I said, 96 dogs can pull quite a lot, so there was a steel cable 120' long leading out the back of the sled, and attached to a tracked Argocat. The theory was that if the dogs didn't stop, the Argocat could slam on the brakes and stop them. Surely the dogs wouldn't pull a sno-trac through the powdery snow with its brakes on?
So we shot the shot, and after coming to the end of the run - we didn't get a second go, what with the pristine snow and no CGI - everyone tried to stop the dogs. But they were kind of having fun and carried on running - to the frozen river that outflowed the lake, which happened to have a few sinewy 'S' bends. And while the dog sled and the dogs took a sinewy 'S' route, the Argocat on the end of the hawser, brakes fully on and being dragged along invisible inside a flurry of snow, was dragged overland and through one thicket of trees and then came to a shuddering stop in a second, bigger, spinney. When we caught up with the dogs they were all sitting obediently and looking at us in a: 'well, that was jolly! are we going again?' sort of way.
We did go again, but shooting from the ground where the tracks didn't matter and with a smaller and more manageable team of dogs. It was apparently, the longest sled team ever put together. It might still be a record to this day.
Yes, but what about the moose?
Well, this was the eighties and perhaps the well-being of even toed ungulates might not be uppermost in anyone's mind. Barney - or the creative team, I don't know which - thought that an establishing shot of the snowy Canadian interior would not be complete without a moose. Location recces had been done and the position of the moose determined beforehand - it just took a team of moose wranglers who said it could be done to have us all waiting at the requisite spot, cameras at readiness, waiting to turn.
Trouble was, we were a long way from a road, and Moose aren't particularly happy to be led, pony like, to a preset position. So the moose had to be helicoptered in. How they found the moose, how they got it in the box - I will never know. But I do know that we were waiting for an hour for the moose to be delivered and finally, there it was, in a large wooden crate under a helicopter flying over the trees towards us. Once deposited near the moose- position, the moose-wranglers gathered around to coax said moose out of the box, which it eventually did, and quietly sniffed the air.
A moose, it has to be said, is a very elegant creature, full of quiet dignity coupled with a comedic stance of effortless insouciance. They have an appealing face, too, and ours was a magnificent specimen. Antlers - the lot. Oddly, I can't really look at a moose without thinking of Sidney Poitier. Not because he looks like a moose - he doesn't. No, for a scene in a film he did called Shoot to Kill. It's a thriller, not a comedy, but there is one perfect comedy moment. Someone else thought so too, as they found the clip and put it on Youtube. Comedy gold and one of my favourite movie moments. Sadly, no-one ever remembers the film.
Anyhoo, there's the moose, and we are all ready to shoot. Fingers are on switches, everything is perfect - snow, forests, pristine snow, blue sky - and all the moose needs to do is be wrangled into position. All seems to go according to plan when all of a sudden, in what was either a truculent moose-moment or mammalian commentary on the daftness that led us all to this moment in time, the moose suddenly decided that DHL could manage the commercial quite well without it and was gone into the undergrowth in the blink of an eye.
There was this odd ghastly pause and we looked at one another, wanting to desperately laugh at the absurdity of it all - the advert, the dogs, DHL - all of it. But we wisely kept quiet. When things go wrong you generally do. A grip I knew named Vic - lovely man - was on Boorman's The Emerald Forest when they were wrangling the anaconda. It too decided that life was better off not on a film set, and it too made a wise and successful dash for freedom. Vic, always one for a laugh, started singing: 'they've lost the anaconda' to the tune of 'Let's all do the konga'.
"Why did you do that, Vic?" I asked, many years later.
"I didn't like working there and I wanted to be fired."
"Did it work?"
"No. My punishment was to not be fired."
Back to Canada. So there's this long long pause, and everyone doesn't know what to say, and we all looked at Barney - who could be volatile, at times - to see what he'd say or do. Explode with rage? We weren't sure. He turned to the Assistant Director:
"Do we have another moose?"
"Er .. No."
"Then I think it's a wrap."
Recalled 18th March 2020. I still have the Sorrell Boots somewhere in a cupboard, and the mitts still see use. The snow-coat I kept, but no matter how cold it got in the UK - I ever got to need it.