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Bardicvoice Vancon Reports, Part 4: Russ Hamilton

Photo courtesy of sweetondean

Location photos courtesy of Bardicvoice

Anyone on Twitter who follows Russ Hamilton, "Supernatural's" location manager, knows about his tequila suitcase – the infamous traveling bar that holds at least four bottles of booze. He unveiled his latest one at the con, saying he'd built a new one every year except for season 5. He promised next year's case will be better! This year's case looks like a fancy black casket.

Describing his job, he said that it starts with breaking down the script to find the locations described in it – mansion, street, gas station, warehouse, restaurant, ordinary house. Russ's crew takes 5,000 detail photos a week of places around Vancouver that might fit the bill for various different scripted locations. He said they have a library of over 10,000 potential locations investigated over the years.

Because the show's episodes are supposed to be in a different place every week, Russ said his crew researches the town[s] the episode is supposed to take place in, and then tries to find similar-looking places or buildings in the Vancouver vicinity. He said the hardest thing to match has been New York, because the brownstone look just doesn't exist anywhere around Vancouver.

Asked how he got involved with the show, he said it was because of word of mouth, conveyed through producer Cyrus Yavneh. He said he'd been working on another show, and when the folks from "Supernatural" called around, looking for a location coordinator, he was recommended. During the first season, "Supernatural" actually used two location managers, so Russ doesn't have all the records for the season one episodes, but he became the single coordinator at the beginning of season two and has served in that role ever since. He explained that the production employs him as a contractor, and he in turn picks and hires the members of his location team.  

Asked about his most memorable location, whether good or bad, Russ laughed that the show has shot at over 900 distinct locations, with 5 or 6 sets in each. If he had to pick one as his favorite, he would choose the Fantasy World amusement park that was used in "Monster Movie" during season four. Located in Richmond, it was already closed when they shot there, and has since been torn down.

Fantasy World

Asked about his favorite character to hang out with, he said that he doesn't hang out with actors because that's not his job. He hangs out the most with producer Jim Michaels, who joined the show at the beginning of season five. He said that when Jim first arrived – traveling at his own expense to investigate what he was going to get involved in, not on a trip paid by the studio – Russ had decided to pick him up instead of leaving the task to a production assistant, and they've been best friends ever since. He laughed that the funniest person is Kevin Parks. “Kevin wears bike shorts all the time. My office is at the top of the stairs. Kevin Parks in sweaty bike shorts is not the best view in the morning!”

Asked about the creepiest location, he said that was a hard one because the "Supernatural" crew builds the best sets wherever they are. He finally went with the place they were using as Purgatory right now, because of its awesome creepy trees. [More on this in my later location tour report – he wasn't kidding about the creepy trees!]

Asked the location he wished he would never see again because it had been used it so much, he said Riverview. He explained that in the first years of the show, they had other hospitals to use, but then they lost those locations and had to go back to Riverview every time they needed a hospital or morgue. He reported they now had new buildings becoming available, so they had access to different places to use as hospitals, sheriff stations, and the like.

Asked about the range of locations used, and why "Supernatural" didn't go to other places outside of Vancouver, Russ first joked that the crew actually had a "Supernatural" time machine, loaded their trucks into it, popped to the real location, shot the scenes, and then came back, and the studio never knew! Then he got serious and explained that the prescribed studio zone covered all locations within half an hour's travel outside Vancouver in any direction. Outside that 30-minute zone, the studio had to pay travel expenses in 6-minute increments, and the travel time counted against the shooting day. In other words, if they were an hour outside of town, they would lose 2 hours of shooting from each day, and would also have to pay a 60-minute travel premium on top of their standard costs. To meet a 12-hour shooting day at that distance, the director would have to make all his shots within 10 hours, to allow for the travel time. The only way to avoid the travel cost would be to put up the entire production crew in hotels overnight at the remote location, a choice with its own additional expenses that they chose to make when they decided to shoot "Wishful Thinking" up in Squamish, which was well beyond the studio zone. The only other episode shot significantly beyond the studio zone was "Good God, Y'All" – and all the scenes actually shot in Abbotsford had to be nailed down in one day.



Asked if any of the Supernatural locations were haunted, Russ responded that at least four of them were, including Riverview. He said he had read Riverview security logs from the 1950's and 1970's that reported people seen in windows and objects moving when no one was present. He added that he believed in ghosts, and laughed that he knew he was coming back!

When one fan asked how much of what we saw “on location” was actually computer generated and not live at all, Russ responded that the locations were real, but the show doctored them a lot using CGI. His favorite example was the destroyed bridge in "Good God, Y'All"; the bridge they used was very real, but perfectly intact. Seeing it as demolished was accomplished through CGI. He noted that CGI was getting cheaper all the time, and "Supernatural" was CGI-heavy. He said they still needed the real basis, but CGI kept getting better.

Russ laughed that he was engaged in a postcard war with Tara Larsen, and accused her of cheating. As he put it, the postcards sent by fans to the studio went from the production office to Tara to distribute, and he teased that she wasn't delivering the ones addressed to him. He encouraged fans to send postcards anyway, and to send a lot more to him than to Tara!

That was the end of Russ's panel. I will have a lot more information from Russ provided during the Monday location tour, so tune back in for that one. It will take a little time to post, though, because for that one, I've got pictures too – and maybe even a little video …

Next up, Julie McNiven – the angel Anna!


# Ginger 2012-09-06 22:35
Very interesting information in this report, Mary. I liked reading the about the contractual, or governing, rules. They sure have everything covered, don't they. Thanks for sharing this.
# Bardicvoice 2012-09-08 15:11
You're welcome, Ginger! Thanks for reading and commenting!
# EireneS 2012-09-07 14:32
I am amazed that the information about the "real" workings of a TV show just adds to the wonderment of what is accomplished in each episode. Thanks.
# Bardicvoice 2012-09-08 15:13
I'm a total production junkie, in case you haven't already guessed that! I'm fascinated by what it takes to turn words on a page into what we see on screen, and my hat is off to all the people who make it happen. :) You'll enjoy my account of the location tour, because that's chock-full of tidbits!
# Sylvie 2012-09-07 14:48
That was really interesting, I wasn't aware of the restraints that need to be put on the time it takes to travel to the locations chosen. I felt for sure they shot in a few towns outside Vancouver. Kudos to Russ and his team, because I would never be none the wiser.
# Bardicvoice 2012-09-08 15:20
As Jensen once put it, "We've shot the shit out of this town!" They've done a lot of shooting in North Vancouver, Langley, Fort Langley, Ladner, Burnaby (where the studio is!), Delta, and Surrey, and walking around in downtown Van, I found myself constantly going, "Oh, they shot there! And there! And they used that place ..." What amazes me is how they can use the same location and make it totally different by redressing it and shooting it from a different angle.
# alysha 2012-09-07 21:08
Having just been to Vancouver I really enjoyed the talk about the locations. If they measure in time from the studio, rather than kilometres I imagine it would get expensive because the traffic can be horrible.
# Bardicvoice 2012-09-08 15:21
It really can! Tune in again for my location tour report - there's a lot more cool stuff coming in that one!