Soundstages evolve in digital era

Albuquerque Studios offers fiber-optic pipes, space

Who needs soundstages anyway?

Digital production, it seemed, was going to make those big barns a thing of the past. “300,” after all, was shot almost entirely with greenscreen, with mostly virtual sets — even virtual exteriors. Go greenscreen, young man, and save.

Yet demand for stages continues unabated, especially for studio tentpoles. The vast Long Beach, Calif., hangar that once housed Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” continues to host shooting, most recently on “Iron Man.”

“I don’t think stages are ever going to be obsolete,” says Nick Smerigan, chief operating officer of Albuquerque Studios, which bills itself as the first American studio complex built in the 21st century. If anything, a rise in greenscreen technology calls for more stage work, not less, Smerigan says.

To keep up with the latest in filmmaking, though, soundstages are having to evolve.

When most of the stages in Los Angeles were first built, high-tech communications was a direct-dial telephone on a single copper wire. In those days, it was relatively simple to put up a soundstage. Build a tall, wide barn with big doors, high ceilings and a grid to accommodate rigging and lighting. Run a massive electrical feed in. Soundproof the heck out of it and add air conditioning — lots and lots of air conditioning.

Nowadays, film and TV productions need real-time video feeds to offices near and far. Satellite dishes and fiber-optic Internet hookups are a must. Most of all, today’s soundstage designers know the future will bring demands they can barely dream of today.

“We still don’t know what’s going to come in 2010,” says Smerigan. “It’s all about allowing space to grow into whatever’s going to happen.”

Today’s high-tech soundstages, new and old, have those fiber-optic pipes and high-speed connectivity. The new Albuquerque campus was designed with three times as much conduit as it currently needs. For older facilities, those upgrades were a lot of work and inconvenience, says Smerigan, who once was part of the management at the former Warners Hollywood lot.

“Everything has to be dug up, which means you’re digging up your parking lot and drilling through your walls or digging under the floors of your buildings.”

One new consideration is sustainability and the environment. Albuquerque Studios is promising rainwater collection, solar power and efficient chilled-water cooling. It even has a deal with Habitat for Humanity for recycling of lumber.

Albuquerque offers another amenity that’s rare in the entertainment capitals: space. The facility is built big, using a 28-acre piece of land to install six big stages with high ceilings, while reserving another 26 acres nearby for expansion.

Albuquerque Studios’ new tenant, USA Network series “In Plain Sight,” will occupy one 24,000-square-foot stage, and may even do an exterior build, starting a backlot on the property.

Even films that are using “300”-style greenscreen production like having elbow room, says Jeremy Hariton, Albuquerque Studios’ executive director. “All the shows that we’re talking to have some element of that in it. They’ll use the massive space and hang green silks all around, but they still want to build a piece of the set.”

NBC Universal subsidiary New Mexico Lighting and Grip is already on premises to provide blue- and greenscreens to local tenants (as luck would have it, “In Plain Sight” is a Universal Media Studios production).

But now that Albuquerque Studios has been built, will they come?

Sony Pictures Imageworks, the first long-term tenant to commit to the new campus, plans to put approximately 300 staff at the Albuquerque facility, using the New Mexico location as both an extension to and backup for its Culver City HQ.

For SPI, state-of-the-art office space was a plus, but so was Albuquerque Studios’ distance from Hollywood: It’s near enough to reach in two hours, but far enough that if an earthquake, power outage or other disaster should ever knock Culver City offline, even for a day, everything that SPI is working on will be backed up in New Mexico, and work can shift to the Albuquerque facility.

With visual effects growing more important and deadlines growing tighter, that’s a major plus for SPI.

“Having a redundant location — having operations both in Culver City and in New Mexico — will provide a real margin of safety we don’t have now,” says Tom Hershey, SPI’s senior VP of operations.

“There will be things in 11 years we’ll wish we had done differently,” he muses. “The technology always changes, so the best thing you can do is look at what you have and look at the medium term as to where you think the technology is going. We’ll be better off in the process.”

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