California Lake Location Lures Productions Despite Long-Term Drought

Astroturf lawns. Drought-tolerant gardens. Even class warfare — as in the use of social media to shame the wealthy into draining their pools.

That’s what four years of minimal rainfall have visited upon California.

But for filmmaking in the state, Amy Lemisch, executive director of the California Film Commission, says she’s not aware of any direct negative impact.

There does, however, happen to be one location where the four-year drought has, with a little creativity, actually created a new filmmaking opportunity: the Sierra Nevada mountains in eastern Fresno County.

Huntington Lake, at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, has gone completely dry. The change hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Fresno County Film Commission, which is now promoting the non-lake as a place to shoot.

“What we’ve got is an alpine lake with no water in it,” notes county film commissioner Gigi Gibbs.

“The lake bed sort of looks like a desert surrounded by pine trees. It’s a very unique look, and kind of a whole new area for us.”

“That’s very clever,” said Lemisch when informed of the lake’s proposed use. “The dry lake beds in the desert areas of the Inland Empire are often used for car commercials and high-fashion shoots because they’re very photogenic.”

Huntington Lake used to be one of California’s premier sailing areas. A 103-year-old reservoir that’s nearly five miles long, it’s surrounded by mountains on three sides, and on its western end by three dams.

The lake has been perhaps best known for the High Sierra Regatta, organized by the Fresno Yacht Club. It ran over two weekends in July for 60 years until it was cancelled last summer when the lake was at a third of its normal level. This summer’s regatta was scrubbed in March.

The drought has also created a strange twist in the permitting process. Normally, filmmakers who want to shoot at Huntington would contact the lake’s owner, Southern California Edison. That’s no longer the case, Gibbs notes.

“While Edison controls Huntington Lake, and would be responsible for permitting filming on the lake itself, the land underneath the lake is the property of the U.S. Forest Service,” says Gibbs. As a result, the Forest Service is the entity responsible for filming permits in the lake bed.

“Producers are familiar with working with Forest Service personnel,” she added. “We would also consult with Edison with respect to water levels in the lake surrounding any potential shoot date. Anyone looking to film in the lake bed can easily start the process with our office to ensure everything is covered.”

Fresno County, located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, has been the occasional home to commercials, TV and feature films, offering an array of agricultural, small town and mountain vistas.

A camping scene in Adam Sandler’s “Click” and reality shows “Endurance: High Sierras” and “Capture” were shot at Shaver Lake, just to the west of Huntington Lake; and Chandler Field near Fresno doubled for the 1950s-era Peruvian airport in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

Fresno County usually books about 100 shooting days per year, according to Gibbs.

She and associate Kristi Johnson are hoping that California’s expanded tax credit program, which has more than tripled in size to $330 million this year, can spur a jump in production.

Drought or no drought.

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