After nearly a decade, it was time. The old fire was still burning, sure, but technological advances meant the flame could be brighter, the sparks a little sparklier. And so in the driving rain, exactly seven weeks before Christmas, a crew of four (plus one mysterious cast member) descended on a rustic homestead on Vancouver's North Shore, to build – and record – a fire.
They were there to carry out the Christmas wish of their cable company executives, who dreamed of subscribers cozying up to their flatscreens and smartphones in even higher def, with even more pixels.
It was time to shoot a new fire-log video.
First, however, there had to be a fire.
"We had some challenges that day," confides Shaw creative director Carmen Salerno. "For about two hours we struggled and struggled with trying to get a pristine flame."
To make it happen, not unlike the big event itself, a guy had to get up on the roof and work some magic with the chimney.
The first Shaw Fire log – Canada's answer to what had been a sensation in New York since the 1960s – dates back to 1986; a way to broadcast content on a round-the-clock channel in Edmonton so employees could take Christmas off. Every year, Shaw's vice-president of community programming invited his employees to his house for a party, and they taped a new fire log, which ran on a continuous loop over the holiday. It caught on elsewhere.
Building on its weird and increasing fame, Shaw tried to expand into Thanksgiving territory with "Turkey TV" – a video of a cooked turkey – as an experiment in seasonal programming. But even with all the fixings, and regular bastings, it was a bit of a, yes, turkey.
"It didn't prove as popular," offers Mr. Salerno, diplomatically.
But the fire log – wow. A now ubiquitous cross-network sensation, it even caught the attention of Steve Carell back when he was a correspondent for The Daily Show. "Would you burn anything for the sake of ratings?" he grilled a Shaw programmer in Victoria.
Shaw has since launched a pun-filled Twitter account (from "log on" and beyond) and this year introduces an app that lets users fire it up or extinguish the embers using the touchscreen.
Shaw has also now produced a Christmas spot around the fire log: A boy, concerned the televised flames may cause injury to Santa, calls a cable technician for help. (And receives what has to be the fastest response any subscriber has ever received in the history of Canadian cable providers.) With the new spot, a decision was made to reshoot the fire log.
"We had a great opportunity to … make sure that fire log is as bright and fantastic as it can be," says Lara Johnson, Shaw vice-president, advertising.
It was shot at a cozy 600-square-foot North Vancouver log cabin that has had more than its 15 minutes of fame. It was Richard Dean Anderson's place on Stargate, the park ranger's cabin in the Kokanee beer commercials, and is now being used for Bates Motel.
The setting – fronting a pond and tucked under enormous evergreens – is spectacular. And there's a fireplace right in the centre.
On-set, the District of North Vancouver's film co-ordinator Alice To delivered the inevitable fire log request. "We all said, 'Can we be the hand that just pokes the fire?'"
The answer was no.
There's one on-air poker and his identity is top secret. According to Shaw, it's the same plaid-shirted fellow who tweaked the fire back in '86, and again in 2005. They won't say much else beyond: When offered his old shirt or a new flannel this time around, he opted for the new duds. He "probably" had a manicure before the shoot. And he knows his way around a fire.
"The minute the fire started … he was solely responsible for administering to the fire as he saw fit," Mr. Salerno says. "So that was adding kindling, adding logs. He would poke when required. That's his thing."
But getting that fire started proved tricky. During the at-times stressful trial-and-error afternoon, the cabin filled with smoke repeatedly, sending everyone running out into the rainy afternoon for fresh air, and eliciting opinions from all on-set.
Finally, a crew member who had arrived for the commercial shoot got onto the roof, extracted a pipe from the chimney insert, and presto – "we were in the fire business," says Mr. Salerno, whose coat – despite being Febreezed – remains in his garage, still unwearable with the stench of smoke.
They then worked to capture the perfect 30-minute shot for the on-air loop. "There were a couple of attempts where the fire wasn't glowing just right; a couple of times when the log fell over," Mr. Salerno says.
The last shot of the day, he says, was the keeper.
"We readjusted the lighting a little bit and we just got this absolutely beautiful glowing warmth from the fire and everything just lined up beautifully," he says. "And we all knew in the room that that was the magical one."