In a city known for its sleight of hand, the studio back lot is still a kind of sorcerer’s hat for directors and production designers to create and control the look of a foreign location while remaining in and around Hollywood.
For dueling-magicians drama “The Prestige,” production designer Nathan Crowley chose a distinctive characteristic of Victorian London and used it to transform space at the Universal back lot.
“I realized in Victorian London there was so much text advertising,” Crowley says. “Text advertising was huge during the Industrial Revolution, and we figured we could cover buildings in it, and that would help us in terms of both time and money.”
In the case of the Steven Soderbergh-helmed “The Good German,” a studio back lot was perfect for the film’s aesthetic.
“The back lot was made for this film,” says production designer Philip Messina. “We were going for this look inspired by films like ‘Notorious’ and ‘Casablanca,’ which were studio films made on back lots, and the advantage that we had with this was that we wanted it to feel like it was done in the same way they would have made a film in the 1940s.”
Messina says he scouted the Universal back lot just as he would any other location.
“I went around and found places that could be transformed here and there,” Messina says. “We figured out that we could arrange rubble to hide things and use a facade on the front of a generic European building and have it give us the look we wanted.”
Messina also dressed a building used in “Spartacus” to look like a fascist government building from the time period of the film.
“I went into this a little afraid, because you see back lots on sitcoms and you don’t necessarily want your movie to look like that,” Messina says. “But you discover there’s nothing to fear, and you just get used to dressing the area that’s going to be on camera and positioning things so no one can see the wrong street a few feet away when you’re trying to create Germany.”
There are certain precautions you have to take when doing back lot shoots, of course. Camera position is especially key, Crowley notes.
“I always say that if you have a set, you should never pull back enough to show its actual size and edges, because that keeps the audience in the mystery of the film,” Crowley says. “The minute you go high and wide with the camera, you give away everything you’ve been trying to hide.”
Thomas A. Walsh, president of the Art Directors Guild and production designer for “Desperate Housewives,” cautions that using back lots can mean working harder to disguise that you’re not on location.
“It’s easier if you’re doing a period piece or you’re doing something that they have right there so you’re not creating from scratch, because that can be very costly,” Walsh says.
Despite the creative challenges, studio back lots offer a production many advantages.
“Productions are required to pay crew additional fees if they leave the 30-mile zone that’s called the ‘Studio Zone’ around Los Angeles,” Walsh says. “A back lot can help you deal with those budget issues.”
Back lots remain vital for re-creating U.S. scenes as well. Jack G. Taylor Jr., art director for “Flags of Our Fathers,” says the back lot at Universal provided the setting for “that whole Chicago brownstone look of 61 years ago … that just doesn’t exist today.”
The back lot also was key to creating a controlled environment, which helped the production schedule, he says.
“Because this was a period piece, you want to go with a place that can become the location as much as you need,” Taylor says. “If we had chosen downtown Los Angeles or Chicago, we would have had to deal with the movement of all kinds of people. (On the lot) we were able to stage the movement of crowds without worrying about that.”
And sometimes the studio shoot is not only the best option, it’s the last option. Production designer Scott Chambliss relied on a soundstage when faced with a last-minute location change on “Mission: Impossible III.”
“I had to match a location I’d only seen once before, and we had only six weeks to do it,” Chambliss says. “When you’re on a deadline like that, having a closed environment you can control is a necessity.”