How do movie crews make Toronto look like New York? One fake police car at a time

How do movie crews make Toronto look like New York? One fake police car at a time

(Images: Christopher Drost)

Film is a billion-dollar business in Toronto. Lured by favourable exchange rates and tax credits, American companies come here to shoot TV shows and blockbuster features full of clones, serial killers, giant robots and smaller robots.

Unlike inwardly focused Hollywood, though, Toronto rarely plays itself on the big screen. Our standard North American streetscape and convenient cluster of downtown skyscrapers make the job of disguising the city relatively easy. Completing the illusion, though, requires work. As a result, filmmakers spend millions dressing our streets to look like other places. Much of that money goes to a network of local businesses that exist to serve whatever movie crews pass through town.

When film productions want to make Toronto look like New York—or any other city, for that matter—one of their first calls is to Peter Cullingford, who specializes in movie vehicles. His workshop, near Warden and St. Clair, is home to a fleet of about 180 vehicles, including imitation New York police cars (Cullingford makes them using decals and standard rooftop lights) and real New York City taxis purchased at auction. All of it is in demand, thanks to a recent boom in the local film industry. Each car can rent for hundreds of dollars a day.

One of Cullingford’s most requested vehicles is an old Mississauga bus dressed in New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority livery. It’s popular partly for its look, but mostly because of its size and length. “If they want to block something out that’s Toronto, they just park the bus in front of it,” Cullingford says. “They call it a blocker.” (Hiding the CN Tower, the red-granite Scotia Plaza, and smaller visual cues such as streetcar tracks, Tim Hortons franchises, or TTC subway entrances is vital to maintaining the illusion.)

The key to recreating an authentic-looking New York street scene is the balance of vehicles, Cullingford says. Typically there are about 10 yellow cabs to every private vehicle in Manhattan. “If they’re doing something where they’re shooting on University Avenue, which they like to do, they’ve got to flood the street with taxis.”

Often, Cullingford’s fleet of about 13 taxis are combined with those of another company and driven in circles around the block to mimic passing traffic.

Cullingford started out with a single vehicle, a Mercedes military ambulance that was used in filming of The Incredible Hulk. His company, Picture Vehicle Specialties Inc., took off when it was contracted to supply vehicles to the CTV cop drama Flashpoint in 2007. Cullingford’s latest high-profile job was for the upcoming Adam Sandler flick, Pixels, which finished shooting in September.

There’s more to looking like New York than just having the right vehicles, however. To complete the effect, moviemakers often visit the Lock Up, Jay Scanlon’s vast Etobicoke prop house, located in an warehouse near Brown’s Line and Lake Shore Boulevard.

Inside the giant space are New York police barricades, park benches, subway and street signs scattered among crowded shelves that contain everything from jars of pickled brains to briefcases full of fake money.

Scanlon has been in the prop business since 1999. The legal drama Suits, which is set in New York but filmed mostly in Toronto, frequently borrows from his collection, most of which was bought from completed shows or movies.

“Usually I’ll do a bulk deal, so I’ll get a couple of truckloads of stuff,” he says. Purchased independently, something as simple as a wire garbage can could run a show as much as $400. From the Lock Up, the rental is about $40 for a week.

Scanlon’s shopping list for creating a New York street, in addition to cars, includes: “a wire-mesh garbage can, a fire department call box, maybe a New York Times paper box, a U.S. postal box,” he says. “It depends on the scene.” Some props are deliberately left in bad condition, to give them that “aged” look.

Business is good right now, but Cullingford is aware that the Toronto film industry is fragile. He says that the 2008 U.S. writers’ strike had a big impact north of the border and forced some companies to close.

“The infrastructure of the business is tough because if it suddenly dies off we’re dedicated to the film industry,” he says. “I don’t rent [vehicles] out to the public, but we’ve done okay.”

Happily, Toronto will always have one major competitive advantage: it can look the part.