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.
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.
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.
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?