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'Walking With Dinosaurs 3-D': A different kind of Alaska-made film

Ben Anderson
An empty loading bay will become a large greenscreen soundstage in the new Evergreen Films headquarters.
Photo courtesy Evergreen Films
An artist's rendering shows how the greenscreen stage would be set up in the space.
Photo courtesy Evergreen Films
A small screening area will overlook the soundstage.
Photo courtesy Evergreen Films
A production still from "Walking with Dinosaurs 3-D," Evergreen Films' current project.
Courtesy Evergreen Films

In an old Crowley building on a dead end road in South Anchorage, there’s a moviemaker’s playground taking shape. The nondescript two-story building is the new home of Evergreen Films’ Anchorage office, after years at a Hillside location that Evergreen’s director of business development, Kate Tesar, described as “pretty dicey” to get to.

That location will remain open for post-production purposes, but the new facilities will have more workspace, a 50-foot-tall by 50-foot-wide by 30-foot-deep greenscreen soundstage, and a 24-person theater for screening daily footage and edits of in-progress works. And in this new headquarters, a $65 million feature film will take shape.

That film, “Walking With Dinosaurs 3-D,” is being produced by Evergreen, BBC Earth Films and Reliance Pictures. The story will follow a young pachyrhinosaurus -- a dinosaur similar to the more-recognizable triceratops -- and tells that tale without dialogue or human characters.

Despite that hard-sell exterior, Evergreen chief executive Mike Devlin seemed confident the film will resonate with a large audience, and part of that confidence comes from the involvement of James Cameron, one of the world's most well-known directors and the creator of the 3-D “Avatar,” the highest-grossing film of all time. The Cameron Pace Group, a leading innovator of 3-D filmmaking technology, has lent its 3-D production experience to the film.

“We’ve always said that we wanted to have “Avatar”-class production values in our films,” said Devlin, estimating that around 30 of the approximately 50 films created in 3-D so far have utilized technology spearheaded by Cameron.

Devlin added that Cameron’s involvement allowed for a blending of technology and storytelling.

“The basic filmmaking is still the same,” no matter how much technology is involved, Devlin said. “You have to have a great film, a great story, first of all. Which is why we like working with James Cameron, because he comes at it as a storyteller.”

20th Century Fox has also shown its confidence in the film’s potential for success, by funding its distribution in the U.S. and some international markets as part of a deal inked last year.

'Get away from all that for a moment'

Devlin became part of Evergreen Films in 2008 after moving to Alaska in 2005 and starting a small production company following a career in the software business.

“After 100 quarters of making the numbers every quarter in the software business, this was a good place to get away from all that for a moment,” Devlin said.

In 2010, Alaska Native corporation NANA announced that it was investing several million in Evegreen Films and becoming a minority partner in the firm. NANA also started Piksik, a production services company. Robin Kornfield, president of Piksik, said the film industry represents another opportunity to diversify and create economic opportunities in Alaska.

“The whole reason for NANA to get involved in a new industry like the film business is related to our interest in producing job opportunities,” Kornfield said. She said that Piksik is also involved in the production of “Frozen Ground,” another major production about Alaska serial killer Robert Hansen that stars Nicolas Cage and John Cusack and is being filmed in Alaska. That production is expected to employ around 200 full-time, temporary employees, Kornfield said, although not all of those employees will be related to Piksik.

Kornfield added that NANA has taken its expertise in support infrastructure for the oil and mining industries to create a support company for the film industry, supplying catering, security, location scouting and other services.

“Basically all the things that we’re known to do here in Alaska, we can do in this industry,” Kornfield said. She also said that interest from their shareholders in working in the industry has been high. A training workshop offered to NANA in conjunction with a nonprofit filled all 25 available slots in two days.

When asked about the potential for upcoming projects, it seems that all of the interested parties play the cards close to the chest. That's in part due to the length of time from conception to production, and all the factors in between, Kornfield said.

“What I’ve learned -- and I’m a newcomer to this business -- is that it takes a long time, 2 years even, to take a project from a script to where there’s the funding for the project and all the planning is in order,” Kornfield said. “So it’s a long lead kind of business.”

'80-some minutes of dinosaurs'

While “Frozen Ground” doesn’t begin shooting until next month, “Walking With Dinosaurs 3-D” has already begun photography in several locations around Alaska. John Copeland, a co-producer of the film who worked on the Discovery Channel’s similarly-flavored documentary “When Dinosaurs Roamed America” in 2001 -- among other film credits -- revealed some of the details of the new film.

Copeland talks less like a film producer than a paleontologist, spitting out dinosaur names and behaviors off the cuff. He said some of the background photography -- over which the animated dinosaurs will be placed -- has already been shot at locations like the Crow Creek Mine near Girdwood and off the Sterling Highway on the Kenai Peninsula.

He lists off some of the dinosaurs that will be in the movie. That pachyrhinosaurus protagonist is the runt of a large dinosaur litter. Its herd moves with another herbivorous dino, the duck-billed edmontosaurus. One of the potential antagonists in the film is the carnivorous gorgasaurus, a dinosaur similar to but smaller than the well-known Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Copeland is also in tune with the technical aspects of the production. “These are photo-real looking dinosaurs. The audience is going to really believe that they are here, a level above what everybody fondly remembers about Jurassic Park,” Copeland said. “In Jurassic Park, there were only nine minutes of dinosaurs. This is going to be 80-some minutes of dinosaurs.”

The film offers a chance to illustrate new information about dinosaurs’ physiology and sociology. "In the last 20 years, we’ve learned more about dinosaurs than in the previous 150,” he said. The movie will focus heavily on those family relationships, and even the Gorgasaurus will be shown as part of a larger family unit.

Alaska wasn’t chosen simply because it’s a pretty shooting location.

All of the dinosaurs in the story actually lived in Alaska during the latest cretaceous period, approximately 70 million years ago, Copeland said, although they lived more in the northern parts of the state, closer to the poles. But the sub-Arctic rainforests of Southeast Alaska would be an environment similar to what they were living in at that time, so most of the background photography will be shot in Southcentral and Southeast, with Fairbanks also mentioned as a shooting location.

The Alaska Legislature voted this year to wait on renewing the film tax credit, a tax incentive program that provides up to 44 percent of a production’s value in tax credits. The renewal stalled after lawmakers said that more review of the program -- and who was qualifying for the lucrative credits -- was necessary. The Legislature will likely revisit the program during the next legislative session, with the current program set to expire in 2013.

Mike Devlin had high hopes for film production in Alaska when he founded his production studio in 2005. Since then, he’s seen major productions like “Everybody Loves Whales,” the Jon Voight thriller “Beyond,” and “Frozen Ground” come to the state, in addition to his heavy involvement in “Walking with Dinosaurs 3-D.” He urged a renewal of the program in order to see the industry continue to grow.

“The incentive needs to pass, or we’ll be doing a lot of filming outside of Alaska,” Devlin said.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.