When line producer Craig Fleming started looking at locations to film Cea Sunrise Person’s autobiographical book North of Normal, he knew it had to be a remote location. Once Fleming found the ideal location, he knew that rural British Columbia would play a starring role. But the beautiful location presented a challenge: at first it appeared that its remoteness meant the crew couldn’t connect with the outside world.
“The story is based in very remote areas of British Columbia and for part of the shoot, we found a location that reflected that isolation in Mattawa, Ontario, an hour east of North Bay,” said Fleming. “It is one of the most beautiful locations I have ever been to, and I knew the director would choose it for the look and light. It is a great choice, except that there was zero connectivity on any cellular phone network.”
Growing up outside of mainstream society meant that Person had an extremely unconventional childhood. Raised in a remote counterculture community with her mother and grandparents, she spent her early years living in the rugged and exposed wilds of 1970s Western Canada.
Directed by Carly Stone from a screenplay by Alexander Weir, the film stars Sarah Gadon, Robert Carlyle and Amanda Fix and was filmed over 24 days around North Bay in Northeastern Ontario, Canada, in the summer of 2021.
In addition to the geographic challenges, as filming was during the COVID-19 pandemic, this further impacted production as crew members were also working remotely with production staff located in other parts of the world.
The challenge was clear: how to get reliable connectivity in that perfect location to ensure the shoot is a success. The North of Normal set was as remote as you can get.
“There is always an expectation to be connected somehow,” said Fleming. “On other remote shoots I have been able to use a satellite phone, but even then, their usage is limited and can be expensive. Plus, we’d usually be sharing that one phone amongst the entire crew. That might be okay for a couple of days, but we were in the Mattawa location for seven days.
“However, where we set up base camp and the assistant director’s office, there was no cell service – none! We could get a signal if we drove to Mattawa, but it’s not practical to drive from the set just to make a phone call.
“There were a couple of isolated spots nearby, on the beach where we could get one bar on our phones, but it would have been impractical to have everyone congregate there for very poor reception. But, because of this very slight inkling of a signal, I figured there must be a solution and I wondered if Brandon at First Mile Technologies could help us.”
Brandon Cooper is CEO of First Mile Technologies, a Toronto company which specializes in finding creative connectivity solutions for the film and media production industry. By aggregating LTE and 5G networks and using KU Band and LEO satellite, First Mile creates bespoke solutions for transporting live video and data with speed, security, and reliability.
Cooper has spent the last twenty years helping creative people to produce innovative work across a variety of technical challenges and was able to work with Fleming on a robust solution using First Mile’s Internet Gateway aggregation devices.
Cooper said, “First we looked at coverage maps and sent one of our team up there to scout the location from a connectivity perspective. We were able to pull some bandwidth from a tower which was relatively close, but we also looked at the other carriers – Bell, Rogers and Telus – and were able to pull enough bandwidth from each to get some readings.
“We returned with one of our Internet Gateways, two high gain antennas and a Kinetic Mesh breadcrumb kit from Rajant. We set up the Gateway, attached the high gain antennas and spread our Rajant breadcrumbs around the trailers to create a wireless mesh network, using the aggregated bandwidth as the source and channeled through the Gateway.”
First Mile’s Gateway uses Smart Blending Technology patented by Dejero to blend 3G/4G/5G cellular connectivity as well as any broadband and satellite connectivity. It uses the highest tiered SIM cards available and features cell tower priority without bandwidth restrictions or throttling. In this way it builds a network of aggregated connectivity paths from every single provider within range. The device can also combine other wired or wireless IP connections if they are available.
“It gave us a Wi-Fi internet network which everybody on set could connect to,” said Fleming. “We were able to use VoIP apps to reach people, to do our jobs, to stay in touch with family and whatever else we needed. It provided opportunities for the cast and the crew to connect to the outside world - not just professionally but also with family and friends.”
Moreover, while First Mile’s Gateway connectivity enabled the North of Normal crew to be as efficient as possible, it also provided vital services to the cast and crew’s youngest member, double Nova Star award winner River Price-Maenpaa.
“There were two fundamental use cases for us,” Fleming continued. “Firstly, one of our performers was just eight years old and so needed to be tutored to ensure she didn’t miss out on her elementary education. Pre-pandemic a tutor would come on set and they would work together, but during the pandemic tutoring had to be done over Zoom, and of course you need internet to do that.
“Being able to provide tutoring every day is an absolute requirement, and because child performers can only be on set for a limited number of hours, we would lose valuable time having to travel to the nearest spot with reliable internet connectivity.”
The other benefit to the production crew was being able to work collaboratively and in real time, despite the distributed nature of the production.
“When people are working remotely, they have to be able to communicate with each other. Having reliable Wi-Fi gave us so much more than a satellite phone can provide – the easy availability of data meant we could stream dailies. Our director and continuity could work together with the editor who was working remotely in Toronto; they could talk about scenes that may need to be covered to make sure we’re getting the coverage we need.
“Change is a constant on set, so having a reliable signal with plenty of bandwidth to keep everyone in the loop is profoundly important.”
In this way Fleming and the entire crew were able to stick to an already tight production schedule despite the challenges of geography and remote connectivity. The ability to collaborate with colleagues in real time saved time, money, resources and had the additional benefit of keeping the crew in touch with family and friends – and tutors.
“Considering how much data we used, it was remarkably affordable, and the best thing is it just worked. First Mile has decades of experience and knows the chaotic world they are stepping into. Their experience in film, television and commercials has a lot to do with that because they know exactly what I am dealing with. I didn’t have to figure anything out because First Mile had already done all that. All I did was make a phone call and they did all the rest.
“But what I really liked best about it is that I didn’t notice it. It was so elegantly simple, it didn’t get in the way, and it integrated seamlessly into our working environment. It’s a level of service and reliability that meant I didn’t have to worry about it. First Mile ticked all those boxes.”
North of Normal is the first film released and financed by Undisputed Pictures, with Joel Reilly and Patrick Patterson as executive producers and Kyle Mann and Jonathan Bronfman as producers. The movie received its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and was hailed by Jason Bailey of The Playlist as a “True off-the-grid story that Is captivating & well-acted.”