Behind the Scenes at Degrassi

Given the number of characters in Degrassi: The Next Generation, and the crazy situations they find themselves in over the course of a season, one might think that the show’s list of shooting locations would take cast and crew far and wide.

Not so!

Despite plotlines that skip from Emma’s basement to Craig’s house, from the mall to the bus stop, the magic of Degrassi all happens within a 1.4-square-kilometre area at the studio complex of Epitome Pictures.

“More than ninety per cent of the show is shot here on our set,” Chris Jackson, Epitome’s director of digital media and merchandising, told CTV.ca. “It gives us instant access to so much of what we need. Whether that’s wardrobe, equipment, crew, or tutors for our cast-members — it’s all right here.”

Jackson was leading a tour around the Epitome grounds, the maze of indoor studio space and outdoor sets that both Degrassi and Instant Star call home.

Housed in what used to be a warehouse for telephone directories, the main building looks like the high school we know and love from the outside (even featuring a sign reading “First semester exams are coming, are you ready?”).

Inside what viewers know as Degrassi Community School, however, is an almost-endless and seemingly nonsensical maze of sets and storage space.

A step inside the front doors is the school’s lobby, bearing signs reminding the visitor exactly where they are — or rather, where they’re supposed to be. A familiar mural covers the far wall, and today, the lobby is filled with cast members and crew shooting a webisode parody of “The View.”

“Welcome back, Degrassi grads!” exclaims a large sign over the doorway to the location best known as the Degrassi gymnasium. Really, though, the gymnasium is a soundstage that today is still recovering from what looks like one heck of a prom — with winter wonderland banners, garlands and coloured sashes askew in all directions.

From there, a set of doors leads right into the mall where the show’s characters can be seen doing their shopping — or checking out any one of the fictional movies, like “The Winnipeg Prophecy”, at the theatre that employed none other than Paige and Alex.

The likeness to a genuine palace of commerce is uncanny, with familiar stores such as Garage and La Senza located across from food court stalwarts Pizza Pizza and Timothy’s Coffee.

From the mall, it’s only a few steps right to Emma’s basement bedroom, and then a few more to the main floor of her house — apparently, in studio-world, basements are not underneath main floors; they’re beside them.

The sets are so detailed that a look around the Nelson/Simpson household reveals childhood photos of Emma, wedding photos of Snake and Spike, and plenty of knick-knacks that depict the home’s residents perfectly.

“I’m constantly amazed by our set designers and set dressers,” said Jackson. “They think of everything. Elements of the living room dcor hint at the characters’ past world travels. Leftovers in the fridge… I mean, every real house has leftovers, and our crew makes sure this one does, too!”

Of course, then there’s the rest of the school — plenty of hallways, lockers and signs bearing messages such as “When presentations are in progress, please enter classrooms quietly” and “Medieval Society: Kick it old school.”

But one of the most phenomenal parts of the set is not the interior, but Degrassi Street itself.

A short walk around the corner from the school’s front steps is The Dot, the caf where many of the characters spend many an afternoon mulling over textbooks, exchanging advice, or just living the inevitable drama that is teen life. The Dot sits at the foot of Degrassi Street, beyond a row of very lifelike houses that include the homes of Craig and Emma.

All of the homes are built slightly smaller than they would be on a real street, but are big enough to make the Epitome lot look like an average street in a middle class Toronto neighbourhood. This stretch of roadway, barely 100 metres long, has seen a lot of action, from Paige’s destruction of Spinner’s car to the untimely and gut-wrenching demise of J.T. Yorke.

Like I said, it’s not exactly what one would expect from watching the show.

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