Apple’s SEE Filmed S2 and S3 at an Ontario Theme Park, Shed and Car Graveyard
The production team of the hugely popular Apple TV series, SEE, set in a future where the population is blind, have achieved the incredible feat of filming seasons 2 and 3 in a row in Ontario, Canada.
This quick turnaround was not a planned decision, it was brought about by Jason Momoa’s incredibly busy work schedule and the unfortunate delay in filming Season 2 due to a Covid shutdown.
Here, John Rakich, LMGI, Toronto-based set manager, tells KFTV how they managed to stick with some of the most unlikely filming locations and using Momoa lookalikes for multiple scenes…
When did you join the series and why was Ontario chosen?
The first season was filmed in Vancouver. But then the plot shifted from taking place in the woods to a more urban setting for season two. At first they were going to Boston, but then they changed their minds to come to Toronto. We have a more stable tax credit and an established crew. The funny thing is that the trucks had already left Vancouver heading east, so it was a shorter route.
I got involved in October 2019. They had decided to shoot in Ontario and a production manager friend asked me to introduce Jim Rowe, the executive producer of seasons 2 and 3, to the local studio heads. The following week the designer arrived, I showed him around and was then on board.
It was clear from the start that this was a gigantic show with big plans. The intention was to block the shooting of eight episodes, two at a time with a group of directors. Filming began in February 2020 with large sets built, prepared and distressed to look 600 years into the future, but four weeks later we were closed and had to suddenly leave… for six months.
How was August?
Everything changed because of the Covid, but we adapted. Instead of multiple directors, we now had one director, Anders Engstrom, and basically shot it in a feature style, keeping most of the cast and crew together throughout. The script was rewritten on the fly, schedules were redesigned, and we had to deal with protocols with foreign workers entering Canada having to quarantine for 10 days.
It was also summer rather than winter so different temperatures and conditions. Also, when we reverted to the existing sets, they didn’t fit anymore, in part because they weren’t big enough to fit the new spacing rules, so we had to start over.
We also had the problem of a cap on the number of background artists and extras we could have. Before Covid, we had 400 or 500 for large crowd scenes, but now we had to deal with a limit of 50, which we massaged to 75.
Interestingly, we thought the number of crews would also decrease, but they were actually bigger to handle the protocols.
We ended up relying on more outdoor environments to accommodate the size of the team and the scope of the show.
Can you tell me about some of these outdoor locations?
We were based out of Cinespace Studios in Toronto (now owned by TPG Real Estate Partners), but we built a giant city about 2.5 hours from Toronto in a town called St. Thomas on the site of a former psychiatric hospital. But the distance and the accommodation of people in hotels meant that the costs skyrocketed. So we decided to bring the whole thing (including the village shacks, stores and roads), piece by piece, on tractor-trailers to a conservation area called Clairville closer to town, using reclaimed quarries or abandoned buildings that were on larger properties. .
We’re lucky in Ontario that our government agencies, like Ontario Creates, are very pro-film, and our conservation authorities run some pretty amazing parks and outdoor environments we’re allowed to shoot in, like the following…
Ontario Place Theme Park
We built the Season 2 finale at this old theme park, Ontario Place, which had closed. It was a huge battle sequence between the two main forces in a fortress with giant trenches.
Filming a log ride in the old Ontario Place theme park. 1 credit
Production designer Caroline Hannina and I were trying to find interesting sites and noticed that the park had one of these log rides with these giant stone chasms that the canal would cross that we converted into a trench WW1 style combat sequence with blinds, swords and weapons. In addition, we built a door (see below). Caroline has done a brilliant job of entering the visual world of SEE.
Construction of a barrier at Place de l’Ontario theme park. 1 credit
We’ve also built some amazing sets on the Leslie Street Spit Trail along beautiful Lake Ontario…
The SEE located on Lake Ontario. 1 credit
The production team also did an amazing job converting the closed Sheridan Center Mall in Mississauga into an abandoned airport…
Filming at the Sheridan Mall. 1 credit
How was the transition to season 3?
We had an incredibly tight deadline to prepare for season 3. Technically, we had five weeks (from the end of season 2 to the start of principal photography for season three) to prepare eight more television episodes and a shooting of 178 days (from May to October 2021). Usually for something like this you would have 8-12 weeks of preparation.
Much of it was driven by Jason Momoa who was only available for eight weeks of filming as he came straight from filming the Netflix movie. Slumberland, and had to switch to Aquaman II, but he’s in 70% production, so we had to rearrange the schedule and get the script ready quickly.
Our director, Anders, said that we basically shoot three projects – Jason Momoa’s movie in 8 weeks, then shoot the scenes with the other actors from SEE, including Dave Bautista, then complete the whole thing by October.
We had several locations that were dressed and partially shot, which we had to walk away from and then come back to at different intervals to do the rest of a scene. That’s because Jason’s character was doing something, walking away, and then several other actors were brought in at a later stage to continue.
We were very lucky that one of the stunt guys stayed with us who is a really good double camera for Jason for everything we missed in terms of fighting because in season 3 there’s a lot of fighting , action sequences.
Was it difficult to shoot the scenes where the actors interact with Jason, but he’s not there?
Because the characters of SEE are blind or visually impaired, we didn’t have to rely on that traditional site line where they look at eye level. We could have two characters talking but the camera could float and move because they are not looking at each other, the head could be on the side to communicate. We could be creative with our visual imagery.
The AD team and planning were phenomenal in dealing with the fact that the schedule was sometimes only accurate for a week and a half at a time and was constantly changing. Just like the incredible places…
Careers around Toronto
There’s a lot of combat and battle footage in Season 3 early on, which we filmed in disused and salvaged quarries just outside the city limits of Toronto.
These gave us this epic view to play with and the space to do whatever we wanted. We built giant sets using 70-80 semi-trailers, trucks, hair and makeup tents – it was a very large fundamental footprint.
One of the really cool places was this huge yard in a town called Acton, about 45 minutes from Toronto, where a family had been storing cars for about 60 years, but they became overgrown with shrubs and trees, which are literally get out of cars.
The car graveyard in Acton, Ontario, where See S3 filmed
It feels like a car graveyard that nature has taken over, which was perfect for our show because in the world our characters live in, nature has taken over and technology has ceased to be useful.
It’s a little known place unless you’re a guy looking for auto parts. They’ve had Instagrammers sneaking around and taking pictures in the past, but no one’s ever really filmed there because it poses a lot of logistical challenges to production that most people would walk in and say “no , it s too difficult”. But we knew it would look so good, so we made it work.
Although it’s an incredibly difficult place to film, as it’s not a set designed by us, we are now dealing with rows and rows of cars and lanes that may be vehicle covered in mud. So trying to get heavy equipment and cranes and machinery through tight trails was tough but worth it because when you look at what’s on screen it was something this issue had not yet seen. There’s going to be an entire episode that takes place in there and visually it’s going to be really stunning.
Pearson airport hangar
One of our TriBro partner studios had an arrangement to use an empty hangar at Pearson International Airport. It’s 80 square feet with 50 feet of clearance, so we rented it out as stage space.
Pearson International Airport
It wasn’t the most noise friendly due to planes taking off nearby, but we needed a biometrically large space to build our sets and it worked perfectly.
From a logistical point of view, it was great because none of the footage had sound, so for us it was great to shoot. There was tons of space, we could bring loads of machines and tools.
We also built a blue screen there to show the interior of a well-known space in New York City. So some of it was CG, but a lot of it was a massive interactive package. There was plenty of room to build and work.
Did you get all the slots you wanted?
In the end, we shot everything that was expected of us. We’ve built some really cool, imaginative stuff. We were fortunate that each department worked in tandem with each other. Even Covid wasn’t that strange, we learned to adapt to get tested every day.
It was a positive work of two years. We were lucky to have all this time together with over 90% crew retention for S2 and S3.
It was a difficult but rewarding turnaround. When we finished, the director said, “Congratulations, we survived!”
And season 4?
They wrote the ending of season 3 to be open ended, so it could happen, and the story could potentially continue with the characters, but we’ll have to see.