Amplifying Calgary’s Arts Scene

Amplifying Calgary's Arts Scene

Amplifying Calgary’s Arts Scene

Three behind-the-scenes companies inject imagination, talent and dollars into Calgary's creative economy

For every cultural production, whether it be public art, a theatre show or a film production, a lot goes on behind the scenes to get them green-lit, let alone brought to fruition. All of this work injects capital into Calgary and Alberta’s creative economy. In 2021, the Calgary Economic Development agency forecasted 13 per cent growth for the creative industries, a sector that already employs upwards of 24,000 people and generates $3.85 billion of economic activity for the city.

Dollars aside, creative businesses also build our reputation as a cultural city — attracting and retaining not only industry talent, but residents who simply enjoy living creative lives in a creative place. These companies help raise the profile within and beyond the city of what’s creatively possible, extend the reach of our talent beyond our borders and bring more projects to Calgary and Alberta. See how three of these boosters contribute creatively and economically.

F&D Scene Changes

While F&D is a set fabricator company that has a hit list including Cool Runnings, The Last of Us and Rat Race, it is theatre set production that its crew really loves most. Not surprising, as theatre is where F&D first gained a foothold — Theatre Calgary was one of F&D’s first clients when it was founded in the early 1980s. But as the city grew, F&D grew with it. When the Olympics came to town in 1988, F&D was commissioned to build sets for broadcasters, paving the way for film and television becoming a staple of its business.

F&D also keeps busy with public art projects, theatre sets in the U.S., and installation work everywhere from the Calgary Zoo to theme parks in China. With a core staff of 80 people, F&D’s contractors can swell that number to 140 depending on the workload. Over the last year, F&D has completed $17 million worth of projects, with 88 per cent of that revenue coming from American clients, demonstrating the impressive reach of this local company.

“We pursue work with many American and international clients, in addition to our local ones,” affirms Nicole Messner, a project manager for F&D.

A recent project that’s created a lot of buzz for the company and for Alberta is the Giant Cheeto statue sculpted last year on behalf of PepsiCo. The statue went viral — surprising, given its installation in the tiny hamlet of Cheadle, Alberta, just east of Calgary. The notoriety gained with the first Giant Cheeto led PepsiCo to commission a second from F&D, which is on tour, including a stop in Calgary during the 2023 Stampede, winning awards and dazzling crowds at events like the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

“I hid under my desk for two days, we were snowed under with media inquiries,” recalls Messner. “I knew it would be popular, but I didn’t think it would be on Jimmy Fallon and the talk shows.” Now F&D is well on its way to being the big cheese.

A photo of a large sculpture in a grassy outdoor area. The sculture shows a partial thumb and two fingers emerging from the bottom and holding a giant orange Cheeto.
Giant Cheeto sculpture | Photo courtesy of F&D Scene Changes

The bent-wire sculpture designed by Jaume Plensa, Wonderland, aka the giant head, at the foot of The Bow is one of Calgary’s largest permanent public art piece to date — and Heavy’s most recognizable fabrication. Now 60 employees strong, Heavy clocked its 20-year anniversary this past September, and director of creative Connor Hayduk reflects on how that monumental contribution to Calgary’s downtown was far from preordained.

“We started as a fabrication company with just a handful of people building foam props and doing theming work for retail clients — cartoon characters and random stuff like that,” says Hayduk. “From there, we evolved into facilitating large-scale public art pieces and custom architectural installations.”

“We can take a napkin sketch all the way to the final construction and installation,” Hayduk says, adding that out-of-town projects are built in Calgary before being reassembled elsewhere under Heavy’s supervision. “There’s been a real drive in architecture for this kind of placemaking.”

Another example of Heavy’s work is its energy-efficient, decorative cladding that will envelop the Glenbow Museum. This innovative exterior allows the museum to reinvent its visual identity and dramatically alter the cityscape without having to tear down the original building. The trust Heavy has built with developers and city hall has earned it work on significant public art pieces across the country, including Tidal Beacon in Halifax, Inverted Lake in Toronto and Kigumi in Vancouver.

Photo of Decorative cladding around Glenbow
Decorative exterior cladding around Glenbow | Photo courtesy of Heavy Experience
Polyscope Productions

Jason Wan Lim’s path to film director and studio owner was anything but straightforward. He was 37 before he decided he needed to shake up his life as a bartender. Wan Lim enrolled in film and video production at SAIT, but it was actually one of his service industry customers that gave him his first investment for a feature film. “Because of that investment, I was able to quit my job at the bar and go into full-time filmmaking and never look back,” Wan Lim says. “The skill set I gained in the service industry is very complementary to managing the commotion of 40 people on a film set.”

Polyscope Productions was initially incorporated in 2011 by Wan Lim as an administrative matter, a single-purpose corporation required to claim funding and expenses. At the time, he didn’t see it lasting past the life cycle of his early projects, but Polyscope now puts together “tip-to-tail” productions with film editing and audio services available. Wan Lim’s early low-budget features required him to develop an intimate knowledge of how to shoot in Calgary plus a strong local network of support; he also had to do everything from script writing and location scouting to film editing and audio. As a result, he can now offer all of those services to his burgeoning number of clients.

And Polyscope’s astronomical growth is reflected in the numbers. While its first six years netted less than $2 million of investment, the last five years have seen $68 million pour in. This means employment for Calgarians, and last year’s $12 million worth of film production resulted in more than 500 contract jobs.

Jobs aside, Polyscope’s dedication to filming in Calgary raises its profile as a film-friendly city, encouraging more projects and talent to lay down roots here. “In 2021–2022, we did 11 feature films and we shot all of them here in the city,” Wan Lim says, adding that a return to the director’s chair increased his satisfaction with the work. “The one I’m most proud of is Rent a Groom. I’m not a romantic-comedy guy, but it turned out really cute.” 

This article was originally published in the 2023 edition of Create Calgary, an annual magazine launched by Calgary Arts Development in 2022 to celebrate the work of artists who call Mohkinsstsis/Calgary home.

You can pick up a free copy at public libraries, community recreation centres and other places where you find your favourite magazines. You can also read the digital version online here.