Alberta’s Sharkasaurus returns to terrorize the Badlands

One film just wasn’t enough to contain Sharkasaurus, with production now underway for the sequel to the 2014 Alberta monster movie that garnered a cult following.

But it comes with extra precautions, and not to protect the crew from a 17-foot-long shark-dinosaur hybrid that swims in the dirt and runs on land.

Rather, the temperature checks, washing stations, plentiful sanitizer and required masks are all in place to keep the cameras rolling on The Ballad of Sharkasaurus during a pandemic.

“The film industry needs to be safe, and one of the most challenging things we’re doing right now is actually filming during COVID,” said co-writer, producer and director Spencer Estabrooks.

“Film sets are family. It’s like 30 to 50 people that live together for a couple days. So it’s really hard for us to adjust to it, but we are. And we’re persevering, and we’re being safe and we’re proceeding with caution, and we’ve got protocols in place.

“And I’m really happy to say that, you know, we’re holding it together.”

Uncertain industry

Alberta’s film and television industry was forced to shut down in March as cases of the virus started to rise. Work ground to a halt on all movies and series being shot in the province, leaving thousands of Albertans out of work.

Its reopening was included under Stage 2 of the provincial government’s relaunch strategy. The government released a three-page guidance document for the industry covering everything from production logistics to infection prevention and control.

This new Sharkasaurus is an upgrade from the puppet that was used in the first film, and was designed and built by Brian Cooley, a dinosaur sculptor whose previous (and very lifelike) work can be perused at the Royal Tyrell Museum. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

For Estabrooks, taking every precaution to make sure the cast and crew feel safe on the set of The Ballad of Sharkasaurus is essential — and with the entire film shot outdoors, he said they already have an advantage.

“I just want to try and tell our stories when I can, and be safe, and treat people with respect,” he said. 

“I think it was really hard for artists in the time of COVID. Everyone had this idea: we’re going to get a ton of stuff done, and then none of us did, and now we’re scratching our head, trying to figure out what to do next.”

Huge step

The original Sharkasaurus was the first project to come out of Telus Storyhive, and the eight-minute film went on to tour the world and spawn a graphic novel.

This next instalment is a western set in 1880s Drumheller, where protagonist Betsy Tyrrell must stop Sharkasaurus after coal miners accidentally dig too deep and unleash the monster on the town.

Masks, temperature checks, sanitizer and washing stations are part of the production’s pandemic safety measures. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The Alberta Foundation for the Arts liked the concept and have granted Estabrooks’ team $15,000 to get started, while a fundraiser added more than $10,000 to the pot.

“It’s a huge step,” Estabrooks said of the sequel. 

“Sharkasaurus started me on the path … and along the way, I’ve made a lot of friends and I’ve been working with a lot of crew that enjoy working on my projects, because they’re fun and weird and silly.”

Old school

That money helped the production invest in the film’s showpiece: the monster suit.

This new Sharkasaurus is an upgrade from the puppet that was used in the first film, and was designed and built by Brian Cooley, a dinosaur sculptor whose previous (and very lifelike) work can be viewed at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

“[Cooley] has been doing dinosaur sculptures for 30 or 40 years,” Estabrooks said.

“I pitched him the idea … and he’s like, ‘Spencer, we’re retired, so we’re either really busy or we love the project. You fall into the latter category.'”

To get the monster right, Cooly said he started with sketches to bring Estabrooks’ vision to life. Next, a skeleton was created with plastic pipes, which was fitted with a rubber skin.

“I like it because I’m old school,” Cooly said of the experience.

“As much as I’m trying to learn the computer stuff, it doesn’t come naturally to me, and this is what I’ve been doing for 40 years. So, it’s a gas.”

No mask needed in dino-shark suit

The crew experimented with making the suit as light as possible, so that the puppeteer inside could operate and carry it. 

Michael Roik, the man inside the machine, has been puppeteering for 15 years. For all his experience, he said there hasn’t been a puppet like Sharkasaurus.

“I’ve never operated such a giant and complicated puppet, with so many complexities in moving it,” Roik said.

“I have to contort my body. I have to kind of get my feet strapped in, and then my legs — and then I kind of crawl up into it.”

Sitting inside the Sharkasaurus suit isn’t exactly comfortable.

“It’s really hot and it smells like rubber,” Roik said.

A closeup of Sharkasaurus, who was upgraded to an animatronic monster in the second film. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

But at least it creates enough of a barrier that he doesn’t need to wear a mask inside.

“[Roik] has been incredible. We basically put him in, like, a ski boot … with these controls and mouth hinges,” Estabrooks said.

“As we speak, he’s been set up with a bunch of large air-cannons that are going to set off around him to this orchestra of, like, explosions that are supposed to be dynamite.”

The puppet might be complex, and the conditions inside hot and cramped, but out of all of Roik’s projects, he said this one ranks No. 1.

“It’s been marvellous,” he said.

Sharkasaurus a hero?

Under the hot Drumheller sun, masked crew members dab paint onto the tail of the animatronic shark with dinosaur feet, who leers at the camera through bloodied teeth.

Kyra MacPherson, the key makeup and special effects artist on The Ballad of Sharkasaurus, has seven years in the industry and teaches special effects and prosthetics.

Movies like these are why she’s in the business, she said.

“The more that I can create monsters, make blood, make the gore — that’s really kind of what it’s about for me,” MacPherson said.

Key makeup and special effects artist Kyra MacPherson touches up the new Sharkasaurus. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The effort to maintain a safe environment for the cast and crew made for a welcome return to film after the shutdown, she said.

Before the pandemic, the industry in Alberta was trying to push forward after suffering grant cuts; during the pandemic, it froze with uncertainty about moving forward.

“Everybody really made sure that they had their extra certifications, people were getting tested before going onto set. Everybody’s really respectful of one another with their [personal protective equipment],” MacPherson said. “So it’s just been, honestly, positive.”

As for the film itself, MacPherson is hopeful The Ballad of Sharkasaurus is going to make an impact.

“My hopes for Sharkasaurus are so big,” MacPherson said. “I think Sharkasaurus truly is the hero we didn’t know we needed right now. I feel like we want to take this as far as he can go.”

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