Every month, CION aims to profile a producer who has shot in Northern Ontario. We get their input about the state of the industry and the Northern amenities, services and locations they took advantage of for their films.
“I was one of those kids that grew up ripping everything apart at my parents’ house,” remembers sound engineer Chris Dorota. “TVs, microwaves, toasters…nothing was safe. I must have electrocuted myself at least 100 times.”
Despite his best efforts, Dorota managed to escape childhood without substantial harm. In fact, while that childhood curiosity may have infuriated his mother, it also led the Thunder Bay native to the multi-faceted career he enjoys today.
A love of music also contributed to the journey. Dorota played bass and drums, and when he and his bandmates decided the world had to hear their (obviously soon-to-be-hit) music, they decided to record. It led Dorota to scour his school music and communications departments, scavenging any mic, mixer and patch cable he could find, in order to cobble them together into a recording set-up. The communications class, remarkably, had a full broadcast television production facility, and Dorota was excited about getting his hands into the wires.
“My teacher at the time just let me have it,” Dorota recalls. “He was like, “Do whatever you want if this means you’re interested in it.’”
Dorota was decidedly interested. His engineering education led him to work for Thunder Bay-based Dougall Media, a locally-owned company that operates a media network of radio stations, television stations and news outlets in Thunder Bay and the surrounding region. Today, he is engaged with the critical infrastructure for Dougall’s television and radio ventures, working from design to building to maintenance.
Dorota’s love of music, and interest in recording, never disappeared. After jerry-rigging school gear to record music, he decided to jerry-rig his own. A neighbour built him a wheeled wooden rack for the recording gear that Dorota began to assemble.
“I bought the cheapest gear I could find,” he remembers. “This predates eBay and Kijiji, so I was scouring music stores, pawn shops, all the used consignment places. The one thing of reasonable quality I bought was a computer. It was my most expensive piece of gear between all the mics, cables, pre-amps, and the cheap wooden rack that I built with my neighbour. Man, am I ever glad that’s the direction I went.”
Using his mobile unit, Dorota began recording his own bands, his friends' bands, and any other artists who came to him through word of mouth. Years later, he joined forces with a friend who was purchasing an old house; over time, the house became their studio. They gutted the house, added more studio space, and by Dorota’s estimation recorded around 40 records over the next decade.
Like all good things, however, the studio came to an end when the house was sold. Dorota decided to return to running a mobile studio, albeit one that was much more elaborate than his previous “rickety homemade wooden rack.” Today, Dorota focuses on recording at sites with specific acoustic properties that will best enhance the recording project at hand.
“Let’s say we want to get the right drum sound. I can make phone calls to cathedrals, halls, any spaces that are more acoustically conducive to getting the right tonality. In my own live room and my iso booths, I know exactly what they sound like, and afterward we exaggerate the sound [through production] and make it sound a certain way. Or…we can go to a room that has a sound of its own.”
During the pandemic, using larger spaces obviously has its advantages, allowing him to maintain the aspects of social distancing and “all that other fun COVID-related stuff.” In 2020, Dorota was involved with a project for the Roy Coran Big Band, a traditional 18-peice swing group. Dorota is usually their front of house engineer, but without live performances, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for them to work together. They decided, instead, to present a socially distant Christmas concert.
“We went into this big, cavernous hall,” Dorota explains. “We got everybody sitting six to eight feet apart in a giant arc, with the rhythm section in the middle. We hired a local videographer, Chad Charles Kirvan, who does some amazing video work, so we could put it up on YouTube. Man oh man, is the space ever conducive for sound. It really helped bring the natural vibe and the atmosphere.”
While Dorota has spent some time working in southern parts of Ontario, there’s no doubt that he prefers being where he is, at home in Thunder Bay. “Coming back home there was always that stunning realization that I prefer the pace of life in a population of 100,000 versus 1.7 million,” he says. Cities like Sudbury and Thunder Bay are simply more manageable, he says, even on such basic levels as length of daily commute. At the same time, one challenge for industry and artists in the north is that while the cities are more manageable, the distance between them is not. This is one reason he sees so much value in events such as the Northern Ontario Music and Films Awards (NOMFAs). Dorota has received several NOMFA nominations over the years, and he is quick to express his appreciation for awards and what they stand for.
“Always a nominee and never a recipient, unfortunately!” he jokes. “For it’s not even a matter of winning. I want to put in my name every single time I get a new project out the door just so I can go down and hang out. I’m not on social media, so the nice thing about it for me is getting down to the conference and reconnecting with these people.”
He also appreciates that events like the NOMFAs connect folks from FACTOR and other granting agencies with artists in the north.
“CION covers everything from northwestern Ontario all the way down to North Bay,” Dorota says. “That’s a huge geographical region, and as much as talent scouts for CBC Gem or members for FACTOR, NOHFC or the OAC are travelling, trying to make associations, it’s still a huge distance to travel. In some cases, you might potentially miss a great thing. One nice thing about the NOMFAs is everyone’s in the same place. All of a sudden, it‘s not a matter of writing grants or writing letters—it’s a face-to-face conversation.”
“It’s one of those places that acts like a hub and a bit of a lightning rod,” he adds. “It attracts all these different artistic disciplines together and keeps everybody’s head up instead of staring at their feet.”
Dorota is one of many in the music industry who live and work in Ontario's North—but the secret is out, and more and more productions are moving to the North. To discover everything Northern Ontario offers producers, or get help setting up your production here, contact CION's film supervisor, Rob Riselli.
Find out more about how CION can help your production in the North. Check out our guide for producers, regional resources and services, crew database, and the Hotlist of films currently in production.