HAMILTON TO HOLLYWOOD
Hamilton’s home to a vast warehouse of sets
Simon Winterson is the man behind the empire of illusions that is Digital Canaries.
A company called Coffield opened a factory near the corner of Wentworth and Burlington in the 1920s. They made washing machines.
The operation shut down a couple of generations ago, but it’s fun to imagine those workers walking back into the old plant today. They would be wide-eyed in the wonderland that is Digital Canaries Film Studio.
They don’t make washing machines here anymore, though on the floor they do have a 1948 Coffield wringer washer. And an old Westinghouse dryer, maybe made in Hamilton. And fridges of every vintage. And a stunning GE turquoise electric range with pushbutton controls.
That’s just the appliances. There are thousands of artifacts on the premises, from teacups to dialysis machines. Pianos, incubators, sewing machines, mannequins, old clocks, old phones, old stereos, big boulders made of Styrofoam.
Digital Canaries is more than a sea of props. It is a vast warehouse of sets on which to do your next movie, TV show, music video, fashion shoot. There are more than 50 standing sets, each ready to tell another story. Shadowy interrogation rooms. A dreary apartment that looks straight out of Moscow. A morgue. A strip club. A jailhouse row, with low lights and doors that really lock.
You can see all this yourself because Digital Canaries is a new addition to this weekend’s Doors Open. It’s at 520 Burlington St. E., with access from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. (Just Google “Doors Open Hamilton” for full details on the three dozen sites. And they’re all free.)
The tours of Digital Canaries are guided. They have to be.
“People get lost in here,” says Simon Winterson, the man behind this empire of illusions.
He left Bristol, England 15 years ago. Tried Toronto, then came to Hamilton with the idea of opening a boutique hotel. Plans changed, but he’s staying. “I believe in this city.” Digital Canaries started in the Cotton Factory on Sherman North. It’s a great space, a huge creative-industries complex, but sometimes it was hard to get quiet on the set for movie shoots.
And Winterson ran right out of space when he bought the big courtroom set that had been used in “The Firm,” a Tom Cruise legal thriller. Digital Canaries had to move and the washing machine plant was perfect. Its most recent occupant, Barton Air Fabrications, had left the building.
The move began in the summer of 2015 and took a year. New sets have been rising ever since.
The 66,000-square-foot plant came with its own retro movie set. Upstairs, at the east end of the building, vintage offices are still there — dark wood, frosted glass, cigarette-smoke-stained ceiling tiles.
Winterson says the job now is to make the enterprise known. It’s starting to pay off. No blockbusters yet, but TV crime shows appreciate the space — like “Web of Lies” and “See No Evil.”
Rocker Matthew Good’s just-released music video for “Bad Guys Win” was shot in the “panelled room.” Yes, those are real law books on the wall. (Do check out this five-minute tale of fake news and sleaze on YouTube.)
If you show up on the weekend, expect a tour just like the location scouts and production designers get.
You’ll see how a three-storey house is created all on one floor. (Hint: sometimes staircases go nowhere at all.) That set was used for National Geographic’s “Cradle to Grave” documentary. In the kitchen, open the fridge and check out the plastic asparagus.
Winterson is sure the most popular set will be the Oval Office, where visitors are bound to be taking pictures of each other at the presidential desk.
While you’re sitting there, sign some executive orders, send out some tweets, fire a few people.
Sure, it’s just a movie set. But these days, who can tell the difference?
A morgue. A strip club. A jailhouse row, with low lights and doors that really lock
Simon Winterson clowns around in the operating room at Digital Canaries Film Studio. There are some 100,000 artifacts on the premises.
A retro kitchen once used to film the National Geographic documentary, “Cradle to Grave.” Wouldn’t you be tempted to put your feet up? Winterson in the Oval Office set. All is quiet on the morgue set.
Simon Winterson in the courtroom at the Digital Canaries Film Studio.
A 1938 display of the washers coming out of Hamilton’s Coffield plant near Wentworth and Burlington. The building today is a moviemaker’s mecca. A cellblock, left, with doors that really lock.