Hamil­ton’s home to a vast ware­house of sets

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL WIL­SON

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.

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