As a still photographer, Chris Large is tasked with finding the frame that will grab a viewer’s attention.
And what’s stopped the Okotokian in his tracks is a pair of game-changing events that has pushed the Alberta film industry into new heights.
“The last couple of years have been the biggest that the film industry has ever had,” Large says.
“The Calgary Film Centre has three stages, Rocky Mountain has got two on the other side of Deerfoot and William F. White has another one right near the Calgary Film Centre. Those have all sprung up within the last couple years which coincides with the Alberta government matching the tax credit.”
In 2020, the Government of Alberta launched the Film and Television Tax Credit Program, a refundable tax credit to cover production and labour costs up to $10 million per project.
Large says the move put Alberta’s film industry on a level playing field with other parts of Canada and was the missing link with the province already boasting the locations and the crew.
“The important thing for people to understand is the tax credit is not going into the actors’ pockets or the producers, it’s for the crew, the Alberta-based crew,” he says. “Years ago, when it was proposed, people were saying, ‘Why should we give money to millionaire actors?’ Well, we’re not.
“You have to be Alberta-based, so if they bring in a director of photography from Los Angeles, there’s no tax credit for him. And that encourages them to hire locally.”
He says there are a plethora of people in the area who make their living in the industry in a variety of roles, from stuntmen to Teamsters.
“They’re all important parts,” he says. “I’m one of the minor players in that I’m not involved in the making of the movie because even the Teamsters, they’re putting in incredible hours moving set to set.
“They physically have to make it happen, the wardrobe department physically has to get the actors looking right. The grips have to make sure the dolly-track is laid so the camera can move through, the cinematographer has to light the scene. I’m just a fly on the wall.”
The film crews develop significant bonds and learn to look out for one another on set, Large adds.
“I need the co-operation of almost every department at times. If I’m going to take the actor aside for a shot then I’m going to check with hair and makeup to make sure it’s right,” he says. “For a certain angle, I may want to get on a certain ladder and I don’t just get on a ladder, there’s a whole chain of command hierarchy. So I will go to a grip and say I need a six-foot step ladder if you’ve got one handy.
“You get to know them really well. Some of these shows I’ve worked on for 10 or 15 years, there’s a key core group here and it is very close-knit.”
For Large, the other gamechanger has been the locally-shot HBO smash-hit series The Last of Us which has given the industry worldwide attention like never before.
“It’s definitely the biggest show ever done in Canada, and probably North America,” he says. “The quality of it, the critics love it.”
Put him among its proponents.
The Okotokian got a chance to work on the production and was up close and personal with a set that just happened to be right outside his front door.
“They were filming in my cul-de-sac and the crew was out in the house next to mine and I went over to talk to them,” he says. “One of the production-assistants saw me and said, ‘Chris, you’re going to need to wear a mask’ because he thought I was working on the show.”
Large worked on some re-shoots for the series in studio at the Calgary Film Centre as well as on location in the Crescent Heights neighbourhood and was blown away by the seriousness of the project.
“I’ve never been on a set like that before,” he adds. “The scope of it, the amount of players involved and the attention to detail.”
One such example was the amount of work done to ensure the wall receptacles in a household in Okotoks set in the series matched the paint colour trends of the time.
“That whole scene in that room might be on the screen for 30 seconds,” Large says. “How many people are going to look and say, ‘Those receptacles aren’t right.’
“That kind of detail, the set decorators are the most underrated people in the business. They never know what direction the director is going to look at, so everything has to be perfect.”
Large got into the industry initially in sound mixing.
His first big gig came when Superman (1978), starring Christopher Reeve, came to be filmed partly in Alberta in the High River and Blackie area as well as Kananaskis Country.
“They had three locations, Alberta, New York and the studio in London, and the mixer was a British mixer and I was the fourth person on the crew,” he says. “He had a family emergency and had to go home after the first week of shooting and they asked me to take the show over.
“I was maybe 23, 24, and I finished the Alberta section. It was kind of mind-blowing just because of the size of it. It didn’t have a huge crew in comparison to some of what’s going on now, but it was still pretty amazing.”
Large was part of the crew nominated for an Academy Award for his sound work in Superman and earned a Primetime Emmy nomination for outstanding achievement in film sound mixing for the TV movie Amber Waves.
“In 1979, 1980 I got out of it completely,” he says. “I decided I had done what I needed to do and joined the (Calgary) Police Department in 1980 and served in a number of different areas, patrol, I was a dog-handler in the K-9 unit and I started photography as a hobby.”
The photography evolved into something of a side-gig, shooting weddings and portraits, before he was called back to the film industry in the mid-1980s.
“Out of the blue I got a call from someone in my sound days saying, ‘I hear you’re a photographer now,”’ Large says. “And he says, ‘I’ve got a show in Edmonton and I need someone for one day and you came to mind.’
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve never done that before.’ And he said, ‘But you know your way around a set.’”
From one day on the series, The Ray Bradbury Theater, Large impressed enough to earn more opportunities. For about five years, he split his time as a police officer and still photographer.
“It was only one day here and there. Police, we’ve got some flexibility with days off and our schedules,” he says. “I had done my time with the police and took an early retirement. Police work is tough, the shifts are tough and it seemed like this door was opening for me.”
In the early 1990s, he had earned enough hours to join the union that covers camera operators and assistants, still photographers, cinematographers and digital workers.
“It took me five years to get enough days, enough credits for the union to look at my application,” he says. “Anything you hear about for TV or theatre in this area, almost all of it are union and the union protects us, gives us retirement benefits and safety.”
Describing it as a niche career, Large says there are three unionized still photographers in all of Alberta.
And that’s happening during the height of the industry where the studio space in the Calgary area has increased ten-fold within the past two years.
He says the role of a still photographer can be foreign to those not involved in the industry.
“Before anything happens with a movie, generally you see a picture, that’s always the first teaser that comes out,” he says. “My job is to get the picture that’s going to catch your interest and hold your focus and read about it.”
The advances in technology from slides to colour-negative film to digital to mirrorless cameras have significantly changed how still photographers go about their daily business, Large adds.
“When I started out everything had to be shot on slides and slide film is very unforgiving as far as exposure. Also, cameras are noisy, so they had to sit inside a metal-housing, specially made for it so it was quiet,” he says.
“Back in the slide days, you were told you can shoot 10 rolls of film a day which is 360 images and had to wait a couple of days before you saw them and got the action you hope that you did. Now, on an action show, I’ll shoot 2,000 frames in one day, review them instantly, narrow it down and may deliver 200.”
Large explains his role is to submit the images to the powers that be, often the actors, agents, publicists and editors among others, who will select from there using what’s called approval in the industry.
“On a project let’s say 10,000 images is what I finally submit,” he says. “They’re going to narrow that down to probably 100 that tell the story, that have been approved.
“There’s certain scenes, even on the show I’m doing now, where I know for a fact that this shot or one of the shots in the sequence is going to make the final cut, I just know it.”
He has over 125 credits as a still photographer in a variety of mediums from TV movies, mini-series, long running programs to Hollywood blockbusters. His CV includes the Kevin Costner-directed Open Range, Passchendaele, The Claim and the North of 60 series.
More recently, he worked on locally shot Hell on Wheels, Fargo and Fraggle Rock.
“I did the first season of Fargo and watched it when it came out and was just blown away,” he says. “It’s one of those shows you’re proud to say you were part of it. I did three seasons of Fargo and I’m proud of every bit of it.”
Career highlights have included working with Costner on Open Range and The Hatfields & McCoys mini-series along with Fargo and the 2019 Disney flick Togo starring Willem Dafoe. The poster for Open Range is a particular source of pride as well.
“You look back at the whole body of work it’s fun because you go, ‘I remember that shot,’” he says.
The career has allowed him to see the world with on-location work in Romania, Germany, Fiji, Mexico City as well as closer to home in B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario and the Maritimes.
“I’m slowing down now travel-wise because there’s lots of work here,” he says, “but also because I’ve got grandkids and there comes a time when grandkids are way more important than travelling.”
With the industry in the province realizing the potential that was always there, Large can’t help but be optimistic about its future.
“It was frustrating because we had the talent and we would have pictures that came here simply because of the scenery, they needed the mountains,” he says. “Producers weren’t willing to forgo the tax credit if they knew it could be done in Vancouver for cheaper.
“We had so much going for us and just didn’t have the government support and it’s just going to get better and better.”