Building a town for training foreign agents

A new training center gives US foreign service agents an opportunity to learn how to move and operate in an urban setting:

Take the 19 miles of intertwined roads that replicate virtually every type of automotive interchange, intersection, and interstate likely to carry the federal agents tasked with protecting US diplomats and citizens around the world. They include traffic-free driving circles, twisties, and long highway sections where agents learn to evade ambushes and intercept suspects. The tree-lined labyrinth is both a tempting playground and a post-apocalyptic vision of suburban emptiness.

The nearby off-road course includes a simulated rocky riverbed, a real sand pit, a craggy hill, and cement staircases. Agents weave Jeep Wrangler Rubicons through a field of moguls. Elsewhere on the 1,300-acre compound you’ll find a rappelling wall, an explosives range, and live fire “shoot house.” In the “smokehouse,” agents learn to escape burning buildings. In the tactical maze—a warehouse holding dozens of interconnected rooms—teams of agents practice security missions. They bust down doors and stalk their enemies, while instructors observe from catwalks.

All wild stuff, but nothing compared to the centerpiece of this new training center: the “military operations in urban terrain” simulator. Also known as the MOUT, this is a proper town, complete with back alleys, main drags, and a life-size US embassy compound. The multistory buildings sport rooms, stairs, balconies, and rooftops, all of which can serve as stages for faux bad guys or the agents securing the structure while managing a search, evacuation, or watching over a motorcade. The only thing missing is a Starbucks on every corner—or any other permanent set dressing. The town is a blank, reusable canvas that can be modded to play a global capital or developing nation’s unkempt urban center. Actors interact with agents; networked speakers replicate rumbling tanks, bleating goats, midtown Manhattan traffic, and more…

So much for having fun. A pronounced aura of menace colors exploration of even the empty facility, as I discovered during a visit the day before it officially opened. As I went from door to door and floor to floor at twilight, it was easy to sense what agents will face: uncertainty and unfamiliarity, speckled with chaotic radio chatter, aggressive crowds, small arms fire, even pyrotechnics. “It’s designed to make it as realistic as possible, in order for the brain to really make the synapses kick together and go ‘Yeah, this is real life,’” said facility director Bob Weitzel.

Having a training ground seems to make sense: executing maneuvers in a stressful moment could be easier if someone has tried something similar before. At the same time…

1. How much can a training ground like this really replicate complex communities around the world? Having the physical space is one thing but then adding the layers of people and meaning would be really hard to achieve. The article hints at the ways they get at simulating an experience but I would wonder how much it matches reality.

2. It would be interesting to know how much more successful agents are after training in a facility like this versus learning through other means. How much difference does having a tangible training ground make? How many hours does an agent need in the simulated settings to feel comfortable?

3. I wonder how this setup differs from a Hollywood backlot. Did the creators of the training ground borrow from what movie and television producers regularly do?

Three backlot settings I cannot forget

Vacationing in southern California a few years back, we decided to go on some tours of Hollywood studios. After doing these tours, I started looking more into the different backlots for different studios. Then it hit me: I have seen these settings at least dozens of times. In commercials, television shows, and films. Over and over again. Here are a few of these backlot settings I cannot forget:

1. Colonial Street on the Universal Studios lot. There are so many houses here that have been used. Plus it served as Wisteria Lane in Desperate Housewives. (And also an Ace Hardware advertisement.)

2. The city streets on the Warner Bros. lot, particularly the New York Street set. The street corner featuring a storefront with a subway entrance right in front that is used all the time.

3. Wall Street at the Universal Studios lot. The key is seeing the large building with columns at the end of a shot down a long street.

Once you know what these settings look like, it is easy to recognize them.

Did Central Perk make Friends or did Friends make Central Perk?

Amidst the 25th anniversary of the start of Friends, numerous commentators pointed out the iconic Central Perk coffee shop and hinted at how it helped make the show. Architectural Digest called it an “iconic TV interior.”

But, this raises a chicken and egg problem for television shows: do the settings help make shows popular or critically acclaimed or do people celebrate the settings because other parts of the show are good?

In the case of Friends, much is made of its setting in New York. With six young adults living in apartments, Friends helped make urban living look fun. Would the show have worked if it had been set in San Francisco or Chicago or less dense locations? More specifically, does the coffee shop truly make it feel like New York or more homey?

Or, on the other hand, did the show really not need to involve New York because what really mattered were the interesting relationships between the six young adults plus the situations they got themselves into. If the characters and writing are good enough, could the show succeed even with a lousy or less interesting setting?

For the record, I saw the Central Perk set with my own eyes on a tour of a Hollywood backlot some years ago.

CentralPerk2

Seeing iconic settings like this is an interesting experience: they are both recognizable and not. Because you can see all that is right around the set but hidden on TV (such as the lights, the fake facades) the scenes seem very sterile. On the other hand, it looks like a very familiar place.

Building Chicago its first “true backlot” as filming days grow

Cinescape recently announced plans to expand their Chicago backlot which is featured on several current shows:

Cinespace, the soundstage complex on the West Side that is home to TV shows such as NBC’s “Chicago Fire” and ABC’s upcoming midseason drama “Mind Games,” plans to expand its filmmaking options by building a backlot on its existing 58-acre campus…

“We’re going to put the facades right on the existing buildings,” says Pissios. “One street will be a row of New York brownstones. One will be Chinatown. Another will be a restaurant, a bank and a courthouse.

“So this will help TV and film productions when I can say, ‘This will save you money.’ We have a solid film (tax) incentive but it’s not the best in the country. And there’s big costs when you shoot on location — moving all the trucks, setting up catering, closing streets off, which requires security people. So how about when you’re here, I give (you) the option to just shoot everything on our 58 acres? Instead of going to 19th and Michigan Ave. to shoot those brownstones, they could shoot it right here…

L.A. is currently the only U.S. city with true backlots, so one in Chicago would be unique. Pissios plans to start the project in the fall, with work expected to be completed about a year later. “And if everything goes well, we would love to somehow, down the line, make this a little tourist attraction, where buses could come in and we give people a tour.”

It is a little bit funny that the expanded backlot would help provide settings for other cities. Why not a full backlot of Chicago scenery? At the same time, Chicago has had more film and TV shooting in the city so perhaps this doesn’t matter too much, particularly if the alternative is for people to go to Toronto or Vancouver to shoot “Chicago.” The city set a record in 2013 for the most filming days in the city:

The number of film and television projects filmed in Chicago, jumped 20 percent in 2013 to 2,198 filming days, according to the Chicago Film office.

City officials said it was a new record high, trumping 2012’s 1,808 days.

The filming hours include six simultaneous full-time TV series, three studio features shot back-to-back and 137 commercials…

TV series shooting in Chicago during 2013 included ABC’s “Betrayal” and “Mind Games” as well as NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago PD” and “Crisis.” USA’s “Sirens” also shoots in Chicago.

Studio features filmed in Chicago in 2013 included “Divergent,” “Jupiter Ascending” and “Transformers 4.” All three will be released in 2014.

Good for business but how Chicago are these movies/shows/commercials anyway? Are there lots of shots of iconic Chicago buildings or more of a Chicago culture or not much at all?