Jereme Arsenault, Owner of Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours, shares his experience working with Disney on the filming of the movie, Togo.
Answering the Call
In spring 2018, we got a call for a one-day test shoot at Fortress Mountain. We didn’t think too much of it at the time because we’d been approached with the concept three times over the past 10 years, each time by a different director. This time would be different. We would be working with Disney producer Doug Jones, who also produced, The Revenant, which was also filmed in Alberta.
The team from Disney set up a massive production studio in Cochrane, just east of Canmore and began their search for a dog actor to be the lead in Togo. To pull off a feature film of this magnitude, they would need four dogs who all looked the same to play Togo. The main dog they cast was Diesel who was perfect for the part. Luckily, the Snowy Owl husky pack had a dog with similar markings named Hugo, although the crew had to add a little dye every few days to get an exact match. It took some work to train the lead dog to be a lead sled dog, but with a lot of persistence—and a bit of persuasion—he performed like a true pro.
Summer Training Camp
With the lead dog cast, it was time to start summer training.
To train the dog actors and get them used to being around our sled dogs, we used a cart with wheels. We also had to teach our sled dogs how to do some new tricks like jumping over ice cracks and sliding down hills. None of the stuff they were filming had ever been done on that steep of an angle. We had to innovate to ensure the dogs were always comfortable and never scared.
We also had to ensure Willem Dafoe, who played champion musher Leonhard Seppala, looked natural when he clipped and unclipped the harness. It was really important for him to understand what words we mushers use and how we use our demeanour and energy to influence the dog’s behaviour.
Fun fact: the cart used in the film was the sixth generation of the design. That’s just one of the many things we respected about working with Disney: how important it was to the director and producer for the story to be accurate to the period. The movie is based on the historic account of Seppala’s mission to transport a life-saving serum across 264 miles in 1925.
Martin Buser, the Wayne Gretzky of Sled Dog Touring
When we first started working with Doug Jones, the film hadn’t been cast yet. Originally, I was supposed to be the musher stunt double for the lead but, when they cast Dafoe, who is around 150 pounds lighter and considerably shorter than I am, they needed an alternate double.
The team brought in Alaskan musher Martin Buser who is famous in the sport of dog sledding. Four-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Buser knows what it takes to complete an epic journey across the ice. He is a speed record holder and an innovator of the sport; the Wayne Gretzky of dog sledding. For the Arsenault family, it was like meeting a celebrity.
Filming Begins with the Puppies
We started filming September 2018. The film was challenging because it shows the lead dog at all life stages and there are loads of flashbacks. They used six identical puppies for filming, each one trained with a different skill set: one was a digger and another was a troublemaker trained to walk along—and eventually knock glasses off of—a balance beam.
I had to laugh at the scene where they are training the puppies to be sled dogs. Traditionally, sled dogs begin their training at six months old, but in the movie they were three months old. The puppies grew so fast, the filming schedule was intense!
Filming in Savage Weather
As fall became winter, things became even more intense.
The director wanted rugged, vicious looking landscapes, so we did a lot of filming on location at Abraham Lake and Fortress Mountain. That winter ended up being one of the coldest, hardest winters on record. In those exposed locations, the weather felt extra savage. I remember one particularly windy day on Abraham Lake when the crew’s vehicles were being pushed around on the ice by the wind.
The team also faced a lot of snow, which made the frozen lake look just like a field. One morning, they woke up to two feet of fresh snow, so they contracted a local helicopter company to hover close to the lake in an attempt to blow the snow away and reveal the ice below.
Why Making Movies is so Expensive
I’ve always loved feature films. Watching movies together every night was a thing in my family growing up. So, it was super special to feel part of the action. Having the opportunity to work on such a well-produced movie felt like winning an award. After working on this production, I have a true understanding of why it costs so much to make a movie. When there are 50 people standing around, there’s a bit of pressure to get it right and to be prepared.
Tennis Balls to the Rescue
The dogs loved filming; they had a lot of fun. When you watch the movie, you might wonder if the dogs found it difficult to run up and down the mountain, or across the ice, but that was easy for them. All they had to do was be sled dogs—they got that.
The most challenging scenes were the ones in which the dogs had to look at the ice cracking and breaking up as they ran across the frozen lake. Of course, the cracking ice is a blend of special effects but the dogs’ reactions are real. They just took a bit of trickery to capture. Sled dogs are taught not to react or respond to distractions; they’re solely focused on running and pulling. We tried everything to draw the dogs’ attention during filming, from firecrackers to having crew members pop out to surprise them. In the end, what worked was tennis balls!
What We Loved Most About Filming
My team had a lot of fun filming too. We’d review the storyboards and scripts to proactively problem solve how to best approach filming each day. One of the things I enjoyed most was the camaraderie between the different units. In addition to working closely with the special effects team, we also worked closely with the person responsible for continuity, who just happened to have adopted one of our retired sled dogs a few years earlier.
Continuity is such an important part of filming. Each day we’d film different scenes, but they needed to look consistent on screen. We had to make sure the teams of dogs were in the same positions for each sled. It was a real challenge with four to five sleds and doubles for each of those teams. We were very lucky that so many of our dogs are siblings—we have lots of doubles!
American Humane Hollywood Program
We also worked closely with representatives from American Humane. Disney has a long history of working alongside American Humane to “ensure the safety and humane treatment of animal actors.”
We loved that American Humane were required to be on-set and that the dog’s safety and well-being was top priority. Of course, it’s the producer’s job to make the best movie possible, so naturally they pushed us, but liaising with American Humane on-site ensured everything was carefully considered. No one could break any rules.
How Many Dogs? How Many Days?
In total, 66 of our dogs were used in the filming of Togo and we filmed a total of 96 long days. It was a lot of hard work, but the whole experience was really wonderful. My two daughters, Ariel and Alice, were able to spend a day on set where they met Willem Dafoe and the other crew. That was really special for them. Honestly, we were treated like royalty from start to finish. The team treated us like the lead actors. Dafoe was fabulous in his role, but let’s face it, the dogs were the stars of the show.
Favourite Memory – Superbowl Sunday Party
My family and I at the Togo premiere in Cochrane!
One of my favourite memories from the experience was near the end of the filming. The director asked me if there was anything I wanted. We were staying at the Goldeye Centre by Abraham Lake in David Thompson Country. It was a few days before Superbowl Sunday, but, aside from one bar in Nordegg, there was nowhere to watch the game. I could have asked for anything, but I ended up asking them to host a Superbowl party for the whole crew.
The next day, people kept coming up to me saying, “I can’t believe you asked for a Superbowl party for us! People always ask for things for themselves, no one has ever done anything like this for us.” Man, did they ever deliver! Within 48 hours, a huge Superbowl party had been planned at Goldeye Centre’s Conference Centre, complete with beer, a nacho cheese fountain and a big screen TV.
You can watch Togo on Disney+ streaming services.
Want to command your own pack of huskies? Take a look at our four different tour options.
Watch the official trailer below…