This was really my first and only reason for visiting LA while planning out the trip. It’s not like this is a city full of… you know, it’s not Rome. History in any given american city will only span for about 100/200 years. But LA has made so much out of its last century in terms of entertainment, we had to go see were it all stems from.
At first I was put off when I found out that the tour for Universal Studio lots were part of an amusement park and you had to pay for the whole ticket. – WTF? – I didn’t want to go into a cardboard park to see cardboard actors play the part to me. Hollywood is as fake as it gets, but I still wanted the real fake, not something made specially for the flock of tourists.
We searched for something else and finally I think we took the right decision. After having watched a few Universal tours on youtube, it seemed as dull as drying paint so we finally went on for the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour (3400 Riverside Dr Burbank, CA 91522). It’s not like there’s a cheaper non-VIP version, this is the regular only they call it VIP because we all ought to feel important sometimes, right? There’s a longer tour, including a meal at the Comissary, for $250. But that was certainly over my budget!
So away we drove with our very nice tour guide and a bunch of 10 others in a caddy.
As you can see on the situation map, we entered the lots from the back (hence called Back Lot -yeah) and so we were first introduced to the exterior sets.
Midwest Business & Residential Street
First up, a typical small town square complete with a center gazebo, white church and steeple, courthouse and street level storefronts adjacent to a tree-lined meandering residential street. Practical interiors exist in five houses and several of the business facades.
Home to many productions over the years, this street is recognized as River City, Iowa in THE MUSIC MAN, Rosewood in PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, Stars Hollow in GILMORE GIRLS… EAST OF EDEN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE… and more classics have also filmed scenes on this street!
Notice the trees only have green leaves on the lower portion? That’s all the camera will see, so that’s all it’s needed. For winter shoots the leaves have to be removed. If someone else comes in next that needs a spring shoot, they will have to be stuck up again. But dressing the trees is so costly, hand-applied with twist-ties, that the tree tops are usually left bare. I noticed they are also spray painted green in case the leaves had turned brown over time. Dressing one of the outdoor sets can take three 16-hour days, even for just a couple hours of shooting that ends up on screen for a few minutes. Fun job, huh?
Building that is sometimes used as Town Hall (Rosewood in PLL), sometimes as High School (in GILMORE GIRLS). The signs for “City Hall” and the restaurants/shops are of course, all removable and changeable. The parking meters and lamp posts are also removable.
Other fakery facts include using recycled rubber from car tires instead of wood for the steps to the entrance of houses on the porch. Less of a fire hazard, sturdier and more comfortable to walk on during long shoots and multiple takes.
Embassy Courtyard & New York Park
Leaving behind Midwest Generic Town we could have a glimpse of Rosewood’s High School:
And generic courthouse, seen in Batman:
This location has been used as an upscale apartment, outdoor restaurant and a grand hotel entrance. This exterior was the Raffles Hotel in the television series BRING ‘EM BACK ALIVE and the outdoor café in the long running HOTEL series.
Across the way you will find this tiny green area cleverly used to imitate Central Park, for instance, in FRIENDS when we learn how strangely Phoebe runs.
It’s all about being clever with space. We learned that not only does the camera “add ten pounds” like we always hear, but it adds ten square feet as well! In this set below, the alley that hides behind is actually thinner as it leaves the scene, and buildings in the foreground are bigger than those in the background.
And talking about fake… check out the camouflage of this cutoff street.
Streets, or areas, in the Backlot are presented according to their architectonic style. A block of “European” storefronts including an interior café set from the series GILMORE GIRLS and the toy store from SMALL SOLDIERS. The second story consists of multiple shuttered French windows, some adorned with wrought iron railings. The third level has a mansard roof like with dormer windows. French Street is best known from the feature classic CASABLANCA, because the mustard building from above (right) is the only surviving prop from the movie. Everything else was dismantled and reused because at the time they weren’t expecting such success in years to come.
This street also features in THE BIG BANG THEORY as the entrance to Sheldon’s building, but it’s hardly recognisable because it’s been layered to hide the original storefront. I will be posting more of TBBT later on.
This is another one of the famous streets in the Backlot. Created by art director, Dale Hennesy, for “Annie,” this New York tenement street has four-story facades, large storefront windows and ends at a “T” on the north end of the street, leading off to a long narrow alleyway with numerous fire escapes. This street can be dressed to suit any period. Additionally, Hennesy Street has many large interiors for filming.
You should recognise this street from LMFAO’s PARTY ROCK ANTHEM (above), and it’s also featured as Gotham from Tim Burton’s BATMAN films and Clint Eastwood’s THE CHANGELING, among others.
New York Street
Originally built in the 1930’s for the classic gangster pictures of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, this downtown business district can be dressed to represent virtually any major city in the world. New York Street was home to the Daily Planet in the television series LOIS AND CLARK, the hospital ambulance entrance in ER, the chaotic futuristic streets of BLADE RUNNER and the theater marquee for a pivotal scene in THE ARTIST.
Dark and dangerous alleys are also filmed in the New York area, like here in SPIDERMAN or Christian Bale singing Santa fe in NEWSIES:
At some point of the tour, the guide surprised us with one of the highlights: a walk-thru of one of the garage warehouses, filled with familiar classic and new cars and other vehicles seen in WB film and TV. The entire Batmobile collection was there waiting for us!
There was also the car from THE MATRIX and the Scooby Doo wagon.
But my favourite has to be the car driven by Tom & Daisy Buchanan and Gatsby in the latest Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of THE GREAT GATBSY. This is one hell of beautiful.
Clint Eastwood’s fully-restored Gran Torino from the film the same name was nowhere to be seen, although I’ve read that he owns it and stores it at the lot. When he’s with it, no tours are permitted in the garage and no one else can drive it without his permission.
Another fun fact is that Ford requested all logos be removed from this Lancia used in Harry Potter, because it’s shown crashing (after flying!). However, once the film took off, Ford was happy to trumpet its appearance.
Not as glamorous, but very important in the filming process are the wagons where actors get ready for the shooting. Make up and dressers are also held inside wagons to avoid unwanted noises in sound stages. Actor Lyle Waggoner reportedly hated his trailer so in 1975 he launched Star Waggons, a high-end production trailer rental company that’s now a film set staple, catering to the comforts of actors during their downtime.
Warner Bros Museum
A visit to the “official” Warner Bros museum. This was like a secret storage lair of some of the most iconic props and costumes in film history! A small example: Christian Bale’s BATMAN uniform and weapons, Heath Ledger’s Joker outfit, plus production sketches, Monica & Chandler’s (from FRIENDS) wedding gadgets -including Joey’s speech, Charlie’s piano from TWO AND A HALF MEN (plus his ashes too)… Bogart’s suit and Sam’s piano from CASABLANCA, costumes from THE GREAT GATSBY, INCEPTION and THE LAST SAMURAI, SYRIANA and various TV shows like MAVERICK and THE WALTONS. Costumes for everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Zack Galifianakis in THE HANGOVER, posters from the 1920s to the present and more than I can hope to recall.
Fun fact: These mannequins are two sizes smaller than the original actor, so that clothes don’t wear out.
But magic also happens inside. So we got to see the interior of a few different sound stages. Those stages where iconic shows Friends and ER were filmed had a plaque at the door (above). Those two shows have been the longest for WB, running for 10 and 15 seasons respectively.
The first thing one notices when entering a sound stage is that it is freezing cold inside. Temperature is kept low to compensate for the heat from the lighting when filming. But still a jacket is recommended if you ever go to see the filming of a show. For instance, this is were Ellen DeGeneres films her TV show:
Our first sound Stage was the set of THE MENTALIST. Not a fan myself, but I found very interesting the things the tour guide had to tell us. We couldn’t take pictures here, but I can illustrate (above) with some I obtained from a promotional video WB did when this set was constructed. It took two months to create while the show was already running. You’d think there’d be time for a guy to set up the electronics so that things actually work… but then you’re wrong. There are no two hours to spare in attaching a switch to the elevator button or a few wheelies for the automatic doors to open/close. It actually takes someone to push/pull the door from behind the set, and there is always someone, in synch with the actor in the shot, in charge of lighting up the elevator button when pressed. Nuts.
Also, as expected, the backgrounds and skylines seen from windows are all fake. The interesting part is that to transform a day backdrop into a night backdrop, instead of having both – which would be so expensive – they do the following: paint the back of the daylight photo dark where there should be no light at night, and light (yellow/white) where you’d like to have light and then simply light it from the back and there goes a night skyline scene ready.
We also went into the interior of all the girls’ rooms from PRETTY LITTLE LIARS. I have no pictures to show it but they are all attached! You just keep walking from one into the next and the color of the wood and decor will tell you you’re in a different room.
Finally, we got to see the sound stage for a sitcom with audience… THE BIG BANG THEORY! This was a surprise. I wasn’t expecting to get this close to one of my favourites. Again, we couldn’t take pictures as it is a show in progress, but I have found some online that will illustrate how it was. As with everything else, space-is-so-strange. Angles are never 90º because it is a show staged for an audience, so it’s more kind of theatre like and you can see from one side of the room to the opposite. This is not new, I mean, we all know how this stuff is recorded, but I find it really odd now to watch an episode. I’m not immersed in the room where the scene takes place anymore, but instead I feel the theatre staging and acting more. It’s weird in a weird way.
Taping for the show can last hours, as there are emergency rewrites if the audience doesn’t laugh at all the gags. A comedian usually keeps the audience entertained, and sometimes they’ll even bring in pizza for everyone while they wait.
Right in the entrance of the stage there’s a cabinet showcasing a few iconic objects, one being Sheldon’s Doppler Effect costume. Awesome!
We didn’t get to see HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER’s set or 2 BROKE GIRLS, but these are pictures of how it’s usually put together.
Not all scenes are shot in Sound Stages, sometimes some of the few backlots with capable interiors are used instead. This shot is from FRIENDS, on a flashback to when Ross took Rachel out for the prom.
One of the hangars is bigger than the rest. At 3.000 square meters, Stage 16 is one of the largest studio structures in the world. It contains an upper water tank (59x35m) to hold 940.000 gallons of water and a lower tank for 1.350.000 gallons. The other stage with a water tank is stage 15, but it is a far smaller one. Some feature films here include THE PERFECT STORM, INCEPTION, BATMAN RETURNS, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, THE BIG SLEEP, GIANT, THE MUSIC MAN, GHOSTBUSTERS, THE GOONIES, JURASSIC PARK, OCEAN’S THIRTEEN…
As big as it is, it is not infinite, so production is aided with these green screens (green for inside, blue for outdoors). If you want to know more about how THE PERFECT STORM was shot, check out this link. Insane.
On the other hand, some hangars are used for carpentry purposes. Here’s where all the work for the stages is done.
To round up, we made a private visit to the “Central Perk” closed-door set of FRIENDS. The set has been moved and preserved just for tours. We were instructed to stay on the wooden floor at the front so the carpeting doesn’t wear out. As usual, the room is surprisingly small compared to what you see on the show. If you watch reruns, you can notice that most of the time when someone walks in, there’s a cut or something else to distract you from seeing it only takes a couple steps to get to where the gang is.
I missed a place we didn’t get to see, that’s why the tour is always different. It was probably being used and we were not allowed, I guess. That is, the Jungle/Lagoon.
The Jungle/Lagoon and Roadhouse
This location includes a large lagoon which can be heated and filtered with a shore-side cabin. It can transform from a tropical paradise to a murky swamp to a lush forest. The jungle grounds also have a practical house and barn set, used in TRUE BLOOD. Merlotte’s Bar & Grill is inside this jungle. This is were most of the time is spent when in Bon Temps. Other films here THE LAST SAMURAI, MILLION DOLLAR BABY…
And if you’re wondering about other special locations not found in these lots, like FRIEND’s iconic fountain from the opening credits, those are shot 5 minutes from here, at Warner Bros. Ranch lots.
To wrap up, back to reality: we’re tourists, we’re consumers… so here’s the souvenir shop from the beginning to buy presents and off to Hollywood!
– The Media Archive Services Building, better known as the Vault, holds more than 65,000 television episodes, 6,000 features, and 20,000 shorts. To protect the film, the storage area is kept at a teeth-chattering 2ºC. Warner Bros. has other film storage facilities around the country, including still-functioning salt mines in Kansas and Pennsylvania. All 27 cans of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, are stored in the Media Archive Services building.
– Jack Warner (one of the early studio heads) insisted on using everything for production wherever possible. So the production offices are actually within sets. One of the commissaries can double as a bank, another office building looks like a hospital, and so on. The employee parking garage, of course, is used for a parking garage. All have back exits in case the front is being shot and anyone working inside needs to leave. Private houses adjoining the studio are also used for productions with the owners’ permission. This parking lot was used for the landing of a helicopter back in the times when ER was filming:
– Need the front porch of a house for a shot? Roll it on in. The actor walks up, opens the door, then cut to a sound stage for the interior. (There’s also rolling walls of leaves used for jungle/forest shots).
– There’s no plumbing of course; water in sinks are just a big bucket pumped thru a continuos loop.
– You’ll see this “subway” entrance everywhere, including SEINFELD. Want it to look busy? Get five extras to walk up, five to walk down simultaneously. Once out of camera, they change clothes and walk back up and down, so ten people can look like fifty. Change the sign in front to make it any subway entrance in almost any city.