Fact or faked?
The other day I was watching an old film on TCM. It was a Hollywood film made in the 1930s. Most of the film takes place outdoors among rolling hills, trees, grass and fences—a typical idyllic spot for a picnic. Only thing—it wasn’t outside at all, but completely fabricated indoors on a sound stage. Hollywood used to do that a lot in the old days; no one ever seemed to notice how fake the trees looked or how phony the clouds were on the backdrop.
If they noticed, they didn’t care.
It was very common back then to replicate everything in a controlled environment.
Inside a studio sound stage, the conditions were perfect to shoot a scene—the weather, the sunlight, the privacy—all were under control.
When the script called for an outdoor scene that absolutely had to be filmed outdoors, like a street scene or a lake scene, it was then filmed on the studio back lot. Every studio had one. They built complete land-scapes, covering many acres, surrounded by high walls. There was always the New York Street, complete with fake office and apartment building facades, sidewalks with fire hydrants and parking meters. Extras would be sent down from Central Casting to populate the scene and give it life. Somehow though, when you look at those scenes now, they all seem too sterile and neat to be genuine New York City.
Every studio back lot had a Small Town USA, a wonderfully-imagined small town with a park, drug store, court house and cute homes on a tree-lined street. Although there were other exteriors—contemporary European Village, old European village (think Frankenstein)—everything was filmed under the hot glaring California sun that seemed out- of-place in what was supposed to be Old London or Paris. Somehow, sunshine in California isn’t like sunshine anywhere else. It’s ‘way too bright, and well, too … California-looking.
Westerns were usually filmed a few miles East of Hollywood on a ranch that was fitted with Old Western streets and buildings. These ranches were and are still owned by private people who rent out the space. For serious outdoor filming, there was a place about 150 miles East of Hollywood called Lone Pine, named, of course, for a lone pine tree that stood there for years. Thousands of Westerns were filmed there. It had magnificent scenery—Mount Whitney in the distance, great desert vistas of Death Valley and best of all, it was near a major Highway with all the creature comforts—food, drink, lodging, transportation.
Today, Hollywood is different. Movie makers know today’s audiences won’t be fooled. Everything is shot at real locations, in towns and cities. Newer photographic equipment needs less lighting. Whatever special effects they need are now done with computer graphics and integrated with green screens that make you swear you’re on a different planet or in the middle of a train wreck.
Now, because of budgetary constraints, many films are shot in Toronto, Vancouver, and Rumania, all ably substituting for the good old USA. Not too long ago Hollywood studios began to dismantle their back lots. As they were rarely used for movie making, the studios sold off the valuable acres to developers of condos and shopping centers.
Even the site of that magnificent crane shot of wounded soldiers lying moaning in pain on the railroad tracks in Gone With the Wind is now a strip mall in Burbank California.
And you can get your hair cut, buy a latte at Starbucks and scarf down a Big Mac where that old wagon, carrying Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, once sped through burning Atlanta.
Ric Pantale writer and director, is an independent film maker. His latest film, Delilah Rose, is scheduled for release soon.