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Studios and Soundstages


From big-budget features to commercials and independent films, these four western studios thrive on Hollywood heritage, diverse and expansive facilities, and a creative use of practical effects.

By Christine Bunish

9/11, Thurs. 9/12 & Fri. 9/13
[Clockwise from Top Left]
Practical effects for the destruction of the railroad trestle bridge in The Lone Ranger was shot at 32TEN Studios.
New York streets on the backlot at Fox Studios during the shoot for Water For Elephants.
The new Reno Tahoe Studios are located in Reno’s massive convention center.
Garson Studios’ two-wall greenscreen cyc, the largest permanent greenscreen in New Mexico, in Studio A.

In the western United States, studios and soundstages often come with a distinguished Hollywood heritage. In Santa Fe, N.M., Garson Studios was founded by an Academy Award-winning actress. In Hollywood, Fox Studios carries the cachet of one of the legendary major studios. Moving north, the stages of San Rafael, Calif.’s 32TEN Studios once hosted Lucasfilm blockbusters, while the new Reno Tahoe Studios in Nevada seeks to establish its own heritage as production incentives promise to attract film and TV business to the state.

Boutique-style Garson Studios Draws Longmire, Indie Features

Located on the campus of Santa Fe University of Art and Design, Garson Studios (www.garsonstudios.com) brings an Old Hollywood heritage to what has become, in recent years, one of the country’s film-friendliest production centers.

A star during Hollywood’s Golden Era and a long-time New Mexico resident, Greer Garson “wanted to create filmmaking opportunities for young people” in the state, says Paula Amanda, director of Garson Studios and associate chair of the university’s film school, which Variety named one of the top 15 in the nation. In 1989, Garson built the studios that bear her name; the three “boutique-style soundstages” share a building with the film school – “a very unusual paradigm” for producers and students alike, Amanda notes.

Independent film Odd Thomas, based on the Dean Koontz novel, readies a greenscreen shoot at Garson Studios.
Independent film Odd Thomas, based on the Dean Koontz novel, readies a greenscreen shoot at Garson Studios.

“The close proximity of the film school with working soundstages creates all kinds of opportunities for our students,” she says. “Producers like the energy of young people, and they enjoy mentoring them – they want to give back. There’s student involvement on most productions.”

Garson Studios features three soundstages: Stage A with 14,000 square feet and the largest permanent greenscreen in the state; Stage B with 7,500 square feet; and Stage C with 2,800 square feet and a small greenscreen. The facility also offers production offices, a fenced lot and additional production office space on the campus.

“We’re constantly upgrading the studios,” Amanda said. “We remodeled the offices, replaced and upgraded the sound insulation on the stages, installed new AC units and a new roof. The entire building has been replastered, painted and has new signage.”

The Red Pony bar on Longmire is a large set on Stage B at Garson Studios. Pictured, left to right: Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charles S. Dutton. Credit: ©2013 WBEI. All rights reserved.
The Red Pony bar on Longmire is a large set on Stage B at Garson Studios. Pictured, left to right: Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charles S. Dutton.
Credit: ©2013 WBEI. All rights reserved.

Garson Studios are the oldest soundstages in the state, she says; Santa Fe Studios is situated outside of town and nearby Albuquerque has Albuquerque Studios and I-25 Studios. But Garson Studios’ location in the center of Santa Fe is a big draw. “Producers enjoy being here – there’s high-end housing and restaurants in town, yet they like the buffer of being on a campus,” Amanda said.

The A&E series Longmire, now in its second season, has called Garson Studios home since its pilot. Although the western mystery show shoots extensively on location in New Mexico (see Markee, July/August 2012), it has large sets on Stages A and B. Stage A hosts the sheriff’s station, which comprises a staircase, foyer, bullpen with jail cells and a separate sheriff’s office, plus the interior of Sheriff Walt Longmire’s cabin. Stage B contains the set for Henry Standing Bear’s Red Pony bar.

The series makes use of other space on campus: the university’s welcome center doubles for the office of lawyer and powerbroker Jacob Nighthorse and the facilities office serves as the tribal police station. “We also have 80 acres of potential locations and back roads,” Amanda pointed out.

She said that Longmire “has been incredibly accommodating to our film school,” doing “campus-wide casting calls for students and staff,” paying the student interns on the production and hiring a number of alumni for positions on the show.

Studio B at Garson Studios measures 7,500 square feet.
Studio B at Garson Studios measures 7,500 square feet.

When Longmire was on hiatus, the feature 2 Guns, starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, came in for pick up shots. “We have been storing sets for Longmire on Stage B so we have less space to offer than before,” said Amanda. “We like to have local, independent filmmakers on Stage C when we can,” such as the new thriller Serpent in a Bottle.

After a period of uncertainty – when Gov. Martinez came into office – regarding continuing the state’s generous production tax incentives, New Mexico has increased the rebate for series TV production to 30 percent of a producer’s total qualified spend in the state. Feature films also are eligible for a 30-percent rebate on resident labor if they use a qualified production facility and a 25-percent rebate on other expenses. As a result, Amanda believes a growing number of productions will once again consider shooting in New Mexico.

Producers are sure to find strong infrastructure and an eager student body at Garson Studios. “The students are separated from the soundstages by one door,” said Amanda. “It’s an amazing feeling to step right from the classroom into the commercial world. In the beginning, I thought I was pushing our way into production when I asked producers coming in if they had anybody who could speak to our classes, if the students could visit the stages or shadow the camera department or crew. But they’re thrilled to interact with young people who are excited about coming into the industry. I’ve only experienced a real sharing and giving attitude.”

Independent feature Bless Me, Ultima shooting at Garson Studios.
Independent feature Bless Me, Ultima shooting at Garson Studios.

Fox Studios Scores Full House For Fall

Few soundstages come with the pedigree of Fox Studios, Los Angeles (www.foxstudios.com), whose 50-plus-acre facility offers 15 production stages with a total of 300,000 square feet of rentable space. Six of the stages top 27,000 square feet each, and one of them boasts a 500,000-gallon tank beneath its floor.

With 10 single- and multi-camera TV series on the stages this fall, “we’re cranking,” reports Hal Haenel, senior vice president and general manager of studio operations. “Having a full house isn’t unusual at this time of year,” he noted; the roster is likely to thin out as shows are cancelled, but Fox Studios will fill the stages with features, pilots and, starting in December, commercials.

The sign shop is one of many backlot support departments maintained by Fox Studios.
The sign shop is one of many backlot support departments
maintained by Fox Studios.

ABC’s acclaimed Modern Family is on Stage 5. “A show like that would normally take several stages, but we’re able to get all three of their home sets on one stage, which cuts down production time for them,” said Haenel.

Also shooting at Fox Studios are the returning Bones, New Girl and How I Met Your Mother, plus the new shows Gang Related; Dads; Friends with Better Lives; Crazy Ones, starring Robin Williams; Enlisted; and Back in the Game.

Uniquely, Fox Studios still maintains all its backlot support departments, some of which are staffed by second- and third-generation professionals. “Most of the studios have closed many of these departments,” Haenel noted. “They’re a critical piece of the pie [for us]. Our Studio Supply Store sells over $2 million annually in everything from lumber to office supplies.

“Couple that with signs, drapery, print services, grip, set lighting, costumes and transportation departments, and you have a true one-stop shop,” he continued. “The old studio model makes things more efficient. It gives us an advantage over some of the independents where you have to run all over town for services.”

The drapery department, located in the same historical building it started in, is currently making “three yurts for an episode of Bones and hundreds of quilted panels for a space ship interior for a local Christopher Nolan feature,” Haenel said.

Although Warner Bros. and Universal have larger backlots, some producers prefer the smaller Fox backlot “because you can dress it quickly, shoot and be out – yet it’s still big enough to do a car and bus loop,” Haenel said.

Fox Studios practices a number of green initiatives in conjunction with parent company, 20th Century Fox. “We bought electric lawnmowers and blowers – and with a 55-acre facility we have a lot of green space,” Haenel reported. The facility also is equipped with solar panels on the roofs of the Post Production Complex and production support building.

An entrance to Fox Studios, whose illustrious history dates back to Hollywood’s Golden Era.
An entrance to Fox Studios, whose illustrious history dates back to Hollywood’s Golden Era.

“Like everyone, we’re dabbling in LED lights,” Haenel added. “We have Litepanel 1×1 bicolor LEDs; they’re efficient and can be used in a lot of different applications. Two years ago, we started using LEDs as work lights for set construction. Now we’re interested in seeing if we can do table reads on stage without dropping in new lights. The quality of LED lighting is great. It cuts down on energy consumption and every year they get smaller and more powerful.”

A rainbow of gowns and other apparel items in the wardrobe department at Fox Studios.
A rainbow of gowns and other apparel items in the wardrobe department
at Fox Studios.

A new four-story building is under construction as part of the Fox Studios’ Post Production Complex. It will have three floors of picture post-production space, plus a 95-seat, ground-level theater – the ninth theater on the lot. It will be available for rent and features a Dolby Atmos sound system.

Atmos retrofits are underway in two more locations: the Howard Hawks and John Ford dubbing stages. Both will have Atmos and Barco Auro 11.1 systems to support the two immersive sound formats.

Just because Fox Studios has a century of history behind it doesn’t guarantee soundstages that are fully booked, Haenel noted.

“Twenty-one out of 26 new, one-hour dramas are shooting out of state. They’re chasing rebate dollars, and the incentive states have a leg up on California. We still have to win the business like anybody else. For us, it’s about creating relationships and making sure we have our team behind them when they need it.”

Stage 19 is one of 15 production stages at Fox Studios, which offer a total of 300,000 square feet of rentable space.
Hybrid production trucks on the lot at Fox Studios.

32TEN Studios’ Practical Effects Expertise On Display in its Main Stage

A different kind of industry heritage belongs to 32TEN Studios in San Rafael, Calif. (www.32ten.com) The production facility and practical effects services provider, which is 100-percent employee-owned, is based on the site of the former ILM Model Shop.

“Our building at 3210 Kerner Boulevard has a real legacy in the industry,” says president/CEO Tim Partridge who reopened 32TEN Studios with Greg Maloney in early 2012. “Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Back to the Future were all shot on this stage.”

The company’s historic main stage measures 6,000 square feet, 30 feet to the walkable grid with a four-foot deep, 16×16-foot covered pit in the middle and 60x30x20-foot two-wall greenscreen cyc. The drive-in stage has a wooden floor.

It’s raining on the main stage at 32TEN Studios where practical effects elements are captured.
It’s raining on the main stage at 32TEN Studios where practical effects elements are captured.

A new 24×48-foot insert stage features a 10×12-foot greenscreen. Grip and electrical equipment, including 10- and 4-ton grip trucks, are available along with make up and wardrobe rooms and production offices. A 135-seat luxury screening room has been outfitted with 3D digital projection and is available on a rental basis. Nine other production-related companies form a “creative community” in the building comprised of editors, cameramen, and commercial and corporate production companies.

“Our main stage is large for the area,” notes Partridge. In addition to attracting commercials, 32TEN draws independent films and industrials. “We tend to get the big Silicon Valley companies with larger productions than their own stages can accommodate.”

The core business of 32TEN Studios, however, remains practical effects. The facility sports a model shop across from the main stage entrance, wood shop, machine shop, ventilated paint booth and 3D printers. “We have a resident licensed pyrotechnician who’s renowned in the industry,” Partridge said. “The union labor pool that was formed here thanks to Lucasfilm and ILM is incredibly experienced and still available.”

32TEN hosted a number of summer blockbusters for practical effects on its main stage. For the “mecha” versus “kaiju” tale Pacific Rim, 32TEN worked with ILM on two stereo 3D shots. The primary scene involved the interior floor of an office building, filled with fully dressed cubicles at one-quarter scale, which were destroyed by the giant fist of a Jaeger mecha – a large, armored robot-like machine.

Shooting a dirt explosion for practical effects elements on the main stage at 32TEN Studios.
Shooting a dirt explosion for practical effects elements on the main stage at 32TEN Studios.

“The model shop built the office cubicles and assembled them on stage. We put together rigs to pull the Jaeger fist and RED Epic cameras through the office and added pyro,” Partridge explained. “It was a four-week build and a one-week shoot.”

32TEN also created several one-quarter-scale rows of seats in a soccer stadium that were blown apart by a concussion wave – created by air cannons – when a Jaeger drops onto them from the sky. The company also contributed practical effects elements such as a roiling cloud of dust racing down a street in Hong Kong and falling panes of glass.

32TEN reteamed with ILM for the dramatic train trestle bridge sequence in The Lone Ranger. “We built three pieces of the bridge at one-fifth scale, so they were still very large models,” says Partridge. “One piece was shot in a water tank for the low-angle initial explosion to capture the water interaction. The second model was shot at train level to show the collapse into the canyon, and the third piece was shot falling towards camera as the bridge collapsed down on top of it.”

The sequence was shot using high-speed Vistavision with pyro, hydraulics and mechanical rigs creating the destruction; 80×32 foot greenscreens were draped across huge shipping containers in the backlot.

The main stage at 32TEN Studios once hosted Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Back to the Future.
The main stage at 32TEN Studios once hosted Indiana Jones, Star Wars
and Back to the Future.

Early in the production of the sci-fi feature Elysium, when the 32TEN model crew was still operating under the Kerner Optical banner, they shot the spaceship crash, which had to be replicated on the live-action set. “They needed our model shot first so they could see how it landed, how it was oriented so they could recreate that on the set in Mexico,” Partridge explained. Working with a model spaceship and not CGI, “we were dealing with the chaos and real physics of practical effects,” he reminded us. “How the spaceship landed was a bit left to chance.”

When Elysium was in post-production, producers returned for explosion elements in zero gravity, “a technique developed here for Star Wars,” Partridge pointed out.

Coming up for 32TEN are element shoots for a 2014 summer blockbuster – “more pyro, water and explosions,” he said – and additional feature work is in the bidding stage.

Practical effects “is such a specialized niche, the field is so small” that 32TEN’s core business is likely to remain the primary draw for its stages. “We’d like to attract more live-action stage work, but that tends to leave California for the incentivized states,” Partridge noted. “There is some location shooting [for features and TV] in northern California, and for that we can offer cover sets on our stage if they need them.”

Reno Tahoe Studios Builds Legacy in Northern Nevada

Reno Tahoe USA (www.filmrenotahoe.com) is hoping to establish a new legacy with the opening of Reno Tahoe Studios, a 300,000-square-foot facility inside the convention center in Reno, Nevada. Reno Tahoe Studios is a division of Film Reno Tahoe, the entertainment-industry marketing arm of Reno Tahoe USA, which aims to attract TV and film production to Reno, Sparks, North Lake Tahoe and other northern Nevada locations.

The studios comprise three large stages, numerous support rooms and furnished office space inside the massive and often under-utilized convention center. Chris Baum, president and CEO of Reno Tahoe USA, an industry veteran who launched Film Detroit and helped grow Michigan’s production revenues from $6 to $320 million in two years, cites the wisdom of the convention center/studios model. “Through our Michigan experience, we knew of several businesspeople who started ‘studios’ and then were not able to cover their expenses in the early days of the industry,” he said. “Reno Tahoe USA owns and manages the convention center/studios, a fully-functioning, 500,000-square-foot building. So we enjoy the financial flexibility that operating an existing facility gives you.”

Halls one and two at the convention center are the busiest with trade shows, so halls three, four and five have been made available as Stages A, B and C, each with dimensions between 50,000-70,000 square feet. “The stages are 34 feet to the grid, column-free, with elephant doors and office space above,” said Baum. “Productions can build multiple sets on one stage and have wardrobe next door. Other than the major Hollywood studios, this is about as big as film and television stages get.”

The convention center itself is so huge that “a convention can be going on at the far side of the facility and you won’t even know they’re there,” he pointed out. “Everything is compartmentalized for privacy and security during shoots.” Catering and extensive parking are available on site, and grip and electric gear can be provided through an equipment partnership.

The huge halls in Reno’s convention center are ideal for soundstage use as the new Reno Tahoe Studios attest.
The huge halls in Reno’s convention center are ideal for soundstage use as the new Reno Tahoe Studios attest.

Baum hopes that the new Nevada production incentives, which take effect Jan. 1, 2014, will help spur interest in shooting in the state – and in the Reno-Tahoe area in particular. The “middle-of-the-pack” incentives require that 60 percent of a film or TV show be shot in the state for a base 15-percent transferable tax credit. Productions outside Las Vegas qualify for an additional 2 percent credit, and productions with 60 percent or more of their crew sourced in Nevada get another 2 percent back for a maximum of 19 percent. There’s an annual pool cap of $20 million, and unused funds can be rolled over to the next year. The annual per-project cap is $6 million, so small- to medium-size productions stand to benefit most.

“The incentives are not quite as big as we hoped,” said Baum, but they should fuel production in a region whose proximity to Hollywood is “a real plus. We’re a little over an hour’s flight from LA or eight hours by car.”

The Reno-Tahoe area not only offers beautiful Lake Tahoe and Sierra Nevada locations, but also a diversity of landscapes. “We have tree-lined neighborhoods and older towns with generic architecture, so we can look like the Midwest and East Coast,” Baum said. “Our university campus looks like an Ivy League school. The different climate and terrain in the area makes it possible to ‘cheat’ for many other locations.” He reminded us that the region, in pre-incentive days, served as a backdrop for Marilyn Monroe’s iconic The Misfits, the bowling-themed Kingpin and Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act.

Baum says Film Reno Tahoe spoke to “independent production companies and studios during the incentives debate, and the feedback we got was very enthusiastic. They love the ‘next door’ convenience factor.” Now that the incentive package has passed, Baum, Southern California-based National Manager Julie Greer and Film Reno Tahoe Film Liaison Jeff Spilman, who helped write the Nevada incentive, have been actively touring and entertaining location companies, studio executives and film and TV producers. The popular music group Savvy, which has headlined the Starz cable series The Wannabes, will be shooting a feature-length pilot for a new spin off in northern Nevada locations and hopes to utilize Reno Tahoe Studios if the series is picked up. Baum previously worked with series producer Spilman and the band in Detroit.

“Word is really starting to spread about Nevada’s new incentives and Reno Tahoe Studios. We’re off to a very good start,” Baum said.

September 3, 2013