“It was always going to be a challenge to make this feel like a feature,â€ Robert Cooper says, of one of his main concerns as preparation for filming ‘Ark of Truth’ went on.
Though the budget had been increased from what Stargate SG-1 would usually have for a double-length episode of the television show, the money available was still modest in comparison to most science fiction movies going to camera. Time was another issue – one single-length episode is shot over seven days, with a double-length one given perhaps 14. ‘Ark of Truth’ had only 20 days at the outside to film, so in actual fact it was far closer to filming an episode of the show than a stand-alone film.
It’s no secret that for ‘Continuum,’ the second of the Stargate SG-1 movies hitting screens in 2008, the production filmed in Antarctica. Even though it wasn’t practical for ‘Ark of Truth’ to do something quite on that level, Cooper managed to bag a stunning opening sequence that really sets the tone for the rest of the film. A huge series of shots taken from a helicopter that sweep across snow-dotted mountains and valleys, it was one of the most ambitious sequences the Stargate SG-1 crew had ever attempted.
“That was great,â€ says Cooper with a grin, “and that was actually my first time in a helicopter. I felt it was important in ‘Ark of Truth’ to really create sequences that we wouldn’t normally see in an episode of the series.â€
Still, the decision to include these scenes caused more headaches for Cooper and the crew as they tried to schedule it in time.
“Helicopters are expensive and we could not afford it for very long,â€ Cooper explains. “That was basically shot in just a morning. We had a scout day where myself, Peter Woeste, the pilot and the camera operator went up and flew around and looked for locations in the areas we thought we’d like to shoot in. We videotaped that and came up with the plan for the one day. The biggest problem we had was waiting for weather. Those mountains get socked in with clouds on a regular basis, and we had an unnaturally cold spring. I didn’t want too much snow on the mountains because I felt it would be too similar to the sequences in ‘Continuum,’ even though those are a little flatter and more Arctic plains. I had originally wanted the sequence to have a rougher sort of terrain, with a rocky, forestry look to them. But we just didn’t get the weather. We shot most of the movie in May and had to wait until July for the helicopter unit day. That was unfortunate, because it meant pushing our visual effects on a lot of the big shots later. It just caused a real ¬– no pun intended,â€ he laughs, “snowball effect through production. Because in order to get those shots we had to wait for it to warm up until we could even land the helicopters on the mountain. When there’s too much snow, it’s too dangerous. People would just basically sink right into the snow and not even be able to walk.â€
The scenes shot from the helicopter were originally planned to come within the story, rather than as an introduction for the movie, as Teal’c finds himself hiking through the snow, alone.
“It was basically just a skeleton crew of camera people, one make-up and hair person and a mountain climbing expert who would work with Chris Judge and make sure he was safe,â€ Cooper says. “We were actually based out of Squamish, which is a small town with an airport just north of Vancouver. Then there’s a little 10 minute helicopter ride up to the area where we shot.â€
Though the script called for the action of these scenes to take place in total isolation (and that’s certainly how the finished cut works) the director reveals that in reality, the real world was never very far away.
“In many cases if you turned your camera 180 degrees from where you were shooting, you would actually see Vancouver. In fact, the shot where Chris is on the edge, and the helicopter comes around and we see the plains of Celestis, we actually ended up painting out all the signs of civilization. That was fine, we knew we were going to have to do that – but that’s how close we were to the city.â€
Having finally shot the whole sequence, however, in looking at the sequence Cooper realised that he’d solved another issue that had been worrying him.
“It’s funny, because originally I was not going to do an opening credit sequence. I was going to do an end title sequence, and basically just start off with the title and then go right into the film. But I didn’t really know how to start the movie,â€ he laughs. “We wanted to create a little bit of a build up to the ledge where the Ancients had built this almost Masada-like village. When I looked at the footage from the helicopter, I thought, ‘Well, listen to what you’ve said to Joel [Goldsmith, who wrote the score],’ which was ‘Let’s make some opportunities for music.’ The movies that I used to love as a kid had these big sweeping introductions that gave you a chance to settle into the experience of ‘Okay, now I’m watching a movie’ and that’s what Joel’s music does, right off the top. It’s obviously a throw back to the old David Arnold score from the feature. That gives you that sort of nostalgic Stargate feeling. Then it dips into the Ori theme and brings you forward to the more modern Stargate story. I think it really serves as an opportunity to get into the movie as opposed to starting right away with our team. So I actually changed my mind as we were editing the movie, to put that sequence at the beginning and put the scene and the titles up front.â€
With the shots safely in place and the movie finished, Cooper can now look back on the filming of those helicopter scenes with a slightly more settled feeling.
“It’s one of those things that’s very exciting and it’s certainly something that you look back on and are happy that you did, but I don’t know that you would call it fun while it was happening,â€ he laughs. “It’s very stressful, because you want to be able to get the shots that you need, and you know you have a limited time. We got about a 6-hour window in the weather, and had we not got what we did when we did, that would have been it. We could literally see the cloud front moving in, and we just got very, very lucky with the day we chose.
“That’s making movies,â€ he shrugs. “It’s not an exact science, it’s not like working in the studio where you can control everything you need to control. We got some great stuff.â€