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#YVRShoots - Matt Damon's Elysium Spaceship Landed Here - Updated

This series had its genesis when I began photographing Vancouver area location shoots in the summer of 2010 to get over a post-Olympics funk.

This series had its genesis when I began photographing Vancouver area location shoots in the summer of 2010 to get over a post-Olympics funk. Film and TV productions like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Fringe, Supernatural and The Killing showcase our city in similar fashion and sometimes put a celebrity actor or two in the frame.

Little is known about Vancouver writer and director Neill Blomkamp's latest sci-fi project Elysium, which has been filming here for the past three months, except that it makes good use of our city's visual effects expertise and stars a bald, buff Matt Damon as some kind of future being.

It's not surprising about the visual effects if you know that Neill Blomkamp dabbled in 3D animation and design as a teen in South Africa and then studied it at the Vancouver Film School when his family moved here. After graduation, he worked as a 3D artist for two local visual effects companies, while branching into directing live-action shorts. He returned to his birthplace of Johannesburg to film his Oscar-nominated first feature District 9 about extra-terrestials ("Prawns") kept in an Apartheid-like government camp. Despite his international success, Blomkamp is still based here and  a proud booster of the local film industry. For example, the post-production work on Elysium will be done in Vancouver next year instead of being farmed out overseas like it usually is.

So what is Elysium about? That remains a mystery but "We're Building the Future and We Need You" signs for a spaceship construction company Armadyne popped up at this year's Comic-Con in San Diego, part of a viral campaign similar to the one done for District 9 at an earlier Comic-Con.  Armadyne dot net is looking for mega-construction engineers, zero g welders, quantum networkers and experts in zero g coupling and multi-generational planning to build a massive space station that can house an entire colony of people -- "Taking Mankind into the Future." Last month I watched Elysium film scenes of a much smaller spaceship, with Matt Damon inside, crash-landing on a mansion facade and lush garden set at a vast gravel field at Kent and Boundary in Vancouver, often used by film crews for green and blue-screen filming.

The blue rectangles are the spaceship, the fake palm trees have no fronds, and the small piles of sand seem to represent the Baja dunes in Mexico. Some might complain I'm undoing movie magic with photographs like these, but the contrast between this raw blue screen scene and what we will see in theatres makes me more awestruck at what a VFX-whiz like Blomkamp can accomplish.

I don't know exactly when construction of this mansion and garden set began at Kent and Boundary but locals walking the Fraser River path began tweeting about it in late June. I guessed it would be for Elysium and confirmed it with some of the crew when I visited a few days later.

Matt Damon and family flew into town on the July 4th American long weekend, almost a month ahead of filming, so that Damon could bulk up for his Elysium role. That week I started seeing tweets about sightings of Damon and his trainer working out at the Hollyburn Club or climbing the Grouse Grind (his Grind time is a not-too-shabby 43 minutes  according to a local grapher). A few days later, someone tweeted about seeing Damon inside The Bridge Studios for a pre-production meeting.

That Saturday, July 9th, Elysium hosted a casting session at the Creekside Community Centre for a large number of Mexican and Hispanic people of all ages to work as paid extras in the movie. They wanted extras who could look like East L.A. gang members, preferably with tattoos, piercings, long hair or shaved heads, as well as other extras who could look like  blue collar workers. I later photographed several of them at the Elysium shoot in Surrey's Bear Creek Park. Some of the beefy, bald, tattooed gang members got ferried to and from set in little golf carts driven by burly teamsters -- an unexpectedly charming sight.

But at the time of that casting call, the July 25th filming start was several weeks away. Matt Damon spent some of that time on family outings with his wife Luciana Bozan Barrossa and their children to the Granville Island Kids' Market,  Capilano Suspension Bridge and other Vancouver tourist attractions. The family didn't get papped until they rented bikes to ride around Stanley Park. Later on during filming, Emily Blunt and her husband John Krasinski from The Office visited the Damons and joined them for a Grouse Grind climb.

On July 25th, Elysium began filming at Vancouver Technical school and then moved to Riverview Hospital for a few days. That Friday night, Matt Damon took a red-eye flight to Washington, D.C.,  where he spoke out for teachers at a Save Our Schools March that Saturday and was photographed with his newly-bald head. Local graphers got autographs and photos with him at the Vancouver airport on the way out Friday night and when he returned around 2 a.m. early Sunday morning. I never got a chance to meet Damon but from everything I've heard here, he has to be one of the down-to-earth, most approachable celebrities around.

Filming resumed at Riverview Hospital that week and then re-located to a real-life mansion at 51st and Macdonald behind Jurassic Park-sized hedges. In the second week of August, Elysium finally gave some an opportunity to photograph some filming when they set up in Bear Creek Park in Surrey. A Flynet agency photographer snapped Damon in character as some kind of human cyborg, running in pain while being filmed with a handheld camera.

Photographers and locals could see dozens of film trailers in in the public parking lot but not the inaccessible set behind a ridge of trees on the other side of the creek in Bear Creek Gardens, where the east LA gang extras were. When I visited, I could hear a director through the trees on a microphone saying, "Stand by for a little rehearsal here. " And later: "Here we go everybody. Helicopters in the sky please. Ok everybody. Places please. Alright guys....shhhhh. Roll sound. 3, 2, 1 Action."  The two helicopters parked on the grass at the south end of the football field during breaks, the yellow helicopter with a camera mounted below to film the blue helicopter as well as the scene.  Bright yellow billboards around the park warned of low-flying helicopters

Meanwhile the first unit had moved to the mansion and garden set at Kent Hangar field on August 10th to film scenes of Matt Damon's spaceship crash-landing on the mansion and garden set surrounded by huge blue screens. I couldn't see much from the Fraser Path but unexpectedly spied the bald Damon being driven from set after he wrapped for the day. Film notices sent to local businesses and neighbours stated filming would continue until August 19th, but it proved to be a hit and miss trying to catch it.  I returned a couple more times, but not when they filmed car chase scenes in the afternoon and sometimes Elysium was filming elsewhere, like the real mansion on Macdonald.

By August 19th, the  temporarily-planted tropical garden, which had been expiring in the summer heat, was gone.

Elysium moved into The Bridge Studios for the remaining month of filming on a vast interior of the space station set, with occasional undetected location shoots like the 2nd unit one in a West Vancouver house off Marine Drive last week. Elysium extras parked at the Gilmore Skytrain station and vans ferried them to studio. I read tweets from local stunt performers about endless late night shoots. The only thing missing in the first week of September -- star Matt Damon who'd embarked on a promotional junket with his wife Luciana for his new film Contagion. The glam couple walked the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival and the New York premiere at the Home of Jazz at Lincoln Centre.

At the end of August, Global TV's Erin Cebula made an on-air plea for a set visit but it seems to have gone unheeded. This sci-fi original is expected to wrap here this week and then move onto Mexico for additional filming -- perhaps in some real sand dunes.

Update: Illness and other issues delayed Elysium's wrap here until mid-October. Matt Damon filmed his last scenes in Vancouver on Saturday, October 15th, dressed in blue prison garb with the same bald head.

Elysium is expected to be in theatres in March, 2013.


Follow Susan on Twitter at, watch her photo stream on her Flickr for daily updates and watch V.I.A. for more from her #YVRShoots series!