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Spotlight: Texas/Southwest

Vast Landscapes, Big Prospects

By Mark R. Smith

Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight  Texas/Southwest
Picturesque Bastrop State Park in Texas. | Photo courtesy of Texas Film Commission
The UK documentary Civilizations setting up a shot in Nevada’s Valley of Fire. | Photo courtesy of Brian O’Hare
Arizona’s Monument Valley.

The Southwest is an interesting case study of how production incentive packages are viewed by film offices, as well as by their state legislatures. New Mexico pioneered generous incentives inspiring other states to match its success. Texas boosted incentives last year and is reaping the rewards, and Arizona is hopeful about sweetening its attractive incentive package. Nevada doesn’t offer incentives but as home to the inimitable Las Vegas many state politicos obviously figure that’s enough of a draw for the film industry.

While all four states report significant economic impact from film and video production, the importance of incentives in today’s market is amply noted in their bottom lines.

Locke Bryan Keeps Limber with ATO
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestA two-spot campaign for American Total Orthopedics (ATO), a regional surgery and rehab group, is a recent highlight at Houston’s Locke Bryan Productions (www.lockebryan.com). The campaign focused on “the art of the body on display,” says Kenny Benitez, director and lead visual effects designer. Spots feature a gymnast, ballerina and martial artist, all lensed in the midst of various acrobatic movements as the on-camera spokesman promotes ATO’s services.

The campaign was shot with the Vision Research Phantom HD camera recording greenscreen sequences at 1,500 fps; then footage of the spokesman was blended with the slow-motion takes. Animation was crafted with Autodesk’s 3ds Max. Music for the spots was written by Stephen Benitez, Kenny’s brother.

Keeping It Inhouse in Texas
Since its legislature signed Texas’s new incentive deal into law in April 2009, “We’ve seen a real uptick in film production and TV production as well,” says Bob Hudgins, director of the Texas Film Commission.

The number for Texas spending in fiscal 2009 was impressive: $425 million. “Production companies are happy with our financial incentives,” Hudgins says of the state’s financial ascent. While “our package is not the most generous,” he admits, he’s “finding that the crew capacity is really what sells us — without our having to give away the farm.”

So, perhaps some states go overboard in playing the incentive game?

“I think some states have to,” he says. “Louisiana and New Mexico, for instance, didn’t have much of a program at first. So they had to make great offers to attract films to make up for their lack of experienced crew.”

Texas, he says, is “the opposite. We had primarily lost 30 percent of our work force (an IATSE Local 484 estimate) to both of those states; but when we passed our incentive package last April, they began coming back.”

He thinks the new package is fair. “We now offer a cash rebate on 15 percent of the production company’s Texas spend. A lot of states also include actors’ salaries, like Louisiana and Georgia; but in doing so, they return value to people who are not from their state. We keep the incentive money in our economy.”

The current fund is capped at $30 million per fiscal year, which will end Sept. 1, 2011 (it was funded for two years). Hudgins says the state still has $9 million left in the till, as of mid-March.

As for TV credits, NBC’s Friday Night Lights will begin shooting its fifth year in late spring, and ABC’s new Gen Y series will commence production; both are based in Austin. “The network was looking very seriously at shooting in North Carolina,” says Hudgins of the new series, “but they came here because of our crew base.”

RED Keeps Laszlo Rain in the Black
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestSan Antonio’s Laszlo Rain (www.laszlorain.com) has been focusing on RED ONE production, and president Tom Nador says that its affordability has kept the company competitive, despite the recession. The firm just wrapped principal photography on Nador’s second feature with San Antonio-based director Pablo Veliz, Carteneo y Napalitos (Cardboard Dreams).

Previously, Nador lensed an LA “‘tween” feature, Elle, which he calls “a Cinderella story about a country-pop singer.” Laszlo Rain has also shot numerous spot campaigns with RED Digital Cinema’s RED ONE, notably a national effort for Valero Energy that integrated Super 35mm film footage. “The RED ONE has allowed us to stay above the competition with a host of packages and budget ranges,” Nador says, noting that Laszlo Rain offers complete camera and gear support, plus post workflow services.

Garry Brown, the producer of FOX’s Prison Break, is producing seven episodes of The Deep End, for ABC, plus a pilot for Warner Bros. and NBC called The Chase. Another series for FOX, The Good Guys from Matt Nix, the creator of Burn Notice, is shooting 13 episodes. All will shoot in Dallas.

The HBO Original feature Temple Grandin was shot entirely in Texas which often doubled for other states. “It speaks to the strength of our diversity,” says Hudgins. “We shot (for) Arizona and New Hampshire within 30 miles of each other.”

Another strong component of the Texas pastiche is the motion picture work of celebrated Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez — who almost went out of state to shoot Machete, an independent feature, then The Predators, a feature for FOX. But since the incentives package passed, virtually all work was kept instate.

An upcoming film is being shared with New Mexico: the remake of True Grit, this time starring Academy Award-winner Jeff Bridges and directed by the Coen brothers. Texas will serve as the backdrop “for the part that’s supposed to be Fort Smith, Arkansas; New Mexico will be the setting for the mountain scenes,” Hudgins reports. The production is currently based at Austin Studios.

Texas boasts significant soundstage infrastructure. The Studios at Las Colinas are busy with The Deep End, and Spiderwood Studios, located in the Austin area, is working on its own animated feature on a greenscreen stage. It has plans to build additional stages in the near future.

While the film and TV markets get plenty of lights, cameras and action, Texas also stands out in the video game sector. “We’re the third-largest video game developer in the country, with 95 companies and smaller concerns growing incredibly fast due to our workforce,” Hudgins says. “They can include retail or online games, and even classified projects.”

Janimation: Studio Undercover

The big news at Dallas-based Janimation (www.janimation.com) is an untitled pilot that’s in production and shooting with the Vision Research Phantom HD camera on Janimation’s greenscreen stage. The project is flying under the radar right now; what CEO/chief creative director Steve Gaconnier can disclose is that VFX director Lyn Caudle and his team are creating “a futuristic sci-fi storyline with heavy sex appeal. It’s a cinematic endeavor utilizing a complete digital pipeline.”

Janimation’s new 16,000 square-foot production facility provides the creative solutions and technologies to produce in just days what once took weeks. Gaconnier also reports that Janimation has benefited from the state’s incentive program and “is primed to enhance any project coming to Texas” with its production, VFX, animation, titling, editorial, and sound design/ADR offerings.

Production Nirvana
Happily for many a producer and New Mexico crew member — and the state’s comptroller — listing the productions that have used its scenic backdrops would be too time- and space-consuming to include here.

Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Plaza Blanca landscape in Abiquiu, New Mexico.
Plaza Blanca landscape in Abiquiu, New Mexico.
Photo courtesy of New Mexico Film Office

So what does New Mexico Film Office director Lisa Strout have to say about this happening scene? “We’ve seen, during the past couple of months, a real increase in production.”

Must be nice, huh?

Strout actually reports there was “a bit of a lull last spring, but the steady flow has picked up again.” Just let it be said that last year’s workflow — which included 24 major productions for an economic impact of a whopping $836 million — would be a winner by anyone’s standards. And that figure could rise for 2010.

The locations are varied in New Mexico, where films might set up in rural areas like Carrizozo, where part of the 100 percent in-state The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington, was shot. Then there was What About The Morgans? with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker, part of which was lensed in the small town of Roy.

The Sound of Native America at Austin Soundmine
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestAustin Soundmine (www.austinsoundmine.com) recently recorded location audio, music and sound effects and smoothed the dialogue for the pilot for Homeland Nation, a series about Native American reservations from First American Productions LLC, in which owner Peter Blackwell is partnered. “Mescalero Apache” concerns three Apache tribes (Mescalero, Lipan and Chirahuaca) that reside on the land nestled in the Sierra Madres of New Mexico.

The pilot episode was directed by Peter Mervis and shot with a Sony EX1 camera. Austin Soundmine recorded its audio on a 4-track Edirol RD-44 via three mics: the Rode NP4 for stereo with Rode NT5s on each side. “We used the same machine to record the Native American groups singing to each other,” Blackwell says, “which marked the initial recording of some of the songs.” The company, which moved to downtown Austin 18 months ago, is shopping for a TV outlet for the series.

Strout says that New Mexico is seeing an uptick in TV production this year as well, including the first episodes of a new series, Scoundrels, for ABC, which is shooting in Albuquerque. On the cablenets, Starz’s Crash and AMC’s Breaking Bad wrapped seasons two and three, respectively, and USA Network’s In Plain Sight is in production on season three.

New Mexico is graced with significant soundstage infrastructure. Garson Studios was willed to the College of Santa Fe by the late Hollywood star Greer Garson, a longtime New Mexico resident, and Albuquerque Studios boasts eight major stages. Both are very busy with a variety of features, TV series and productions for the state’s first cablenet, Reelz Channel, according to Strout.

So it’s easy to see why she’s grateful (and a bit relieved) that the state legislature kept the incentive package intact. New Mexico (like most states) is facing major budget issues, and production incentive packages can be viewed as an expense in various quarters.

“We still have no cap per year or per project and continue to grow, despite our state’s budget deficit,” Strout reports, noting that 3,000 crew jobs, 7,000 residual jobs and 250 companies have resulted from the state’s investment in the film industry. “It’s crucial to note that the lumber yards and rental car companies,” for instance, “have avoided layoffs due to the economic impact of our industry.”

(Hold the Spaghetti) Western from HDNM
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestThe new motion picture Doc West was produced by Anselmo Parrinello and New Mexican Luca Ceccarelli (who also line produced) and unit managed by Eileen Street for the Italian network RTI and worldwide DVD release; Ceccarelli and Street are both with Santa Fe’s HDNM Entertainment (www.hdnm.com).

Santa Fe and environs served as backdrops for the western that stars Italian icon Terence Hill, Paul Sorvino and Ornella Muti. It was shot with a Panavision 35mm camera, transferred to HD at Deluxe then edited on Final Cut Pro with After Effects, Motion and Autodesk Flame finishing at three facilities, including HDNM. The company hired 95 percent of the crew in state as well as 85 percent of the talent, including 75 speaking roles. Doc West is a DAP-Italy/The Fremantle Corp. coproduction, in association with HDNM Entertainment and will be distributed by Lions Gate Home Entertainment, Tri-Coast Worldwide, Fremantle Corp. and Grindstone.

Strout also points to how the state’s Workforce Advancement Program benefits New Mexico. “We’ve had it for six years,” she says. “It involves crew members who have the skills to advance in their jobs. If a film company moves a New Mexican up to a higher position in the field, the company gets half of that salary back as reimbursement from the state. That also helps us compete for talent that works in the bigger markets like New York or LA.”

Another interesting offshoot of the state’s marketing efforts is the Green Filmmaking Program that’s very keen on recycling; used lumber from productions and sets is turned over to Habitat for Humanity, for example.

The most recent collaboration, however, is between the state and legendary actor/director Robert Redford and Milagro at the historic Los Cisneros ranch in northern New Mexico which offers a series of workshops and events to nurture underrepresented cultural voices.

“That’s where we will work with Redford and Native American and Hispanic filmmakers using the arts as an economic driver,” Strout reports. “It’s a commitment between two forward thinkers: our governor, Bill Richardson, and Redford.”

Cox Communications Promotes Advanced TV
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestAt Cox Communications Arizona (www.coxtelevideo.com) in Phoenix a two-spot campaign for Cox Advanced Television was in the mix at the cable provider’s creative services department, which also produced the commercials for the Hispanic market. Project manager Peter Costello and company used a RED ONE camera on Cox’s greenscreen stage and also employed a Chapman PeeWee dolly.

“We used six Space Lights to light the green cyc, two 2K fresnels for backlights and two 12K Mini-Brutes for the key,” says Costello who added 8x frames with half-stop silks as diffusion and a 5K with a full stop silk for the fill. The facility also offers a 45×45-foot stage for rent; it’s the setting for Game Time, a live pre-game show that airs before each Phoenix Suns NBA game.

Fingers Crossed in Arizona
There’s going to be some news emanating from the Arizona Film Office by July 1. Hopefully, it’ll be good news.

That looming date concerns a bill that calls for the state’s production tax credit to be changed from transferable to refundable status. If passed, that would allow the state to refund a production’s incentive money directly to the production instead of employing a third party, such as a broker, to do so.

Aside from that possible change, the package will remain somewhat similar to what Arizona has on the table today. The state allows the current tax credit for 20 to 30 percent of all expenditures instate — with the requirement that 50 percent of the crew be Arizona residents.

Under the new bill, the number of state residents required to work on the film would drop to 25 percent; also, the program would be uncapped annually. “The proposed program would allow more producers to come here to take advantage of our offer,” says Arizona Film Office executive director Ken Chapa.

Economic impact results won’t be available for 2009 until the end of April; however, the state estimates nearly $75 million in economic impact for 2008 (with $45 million directly attributed to the incentive program). In addition, more than $100 million in credits are currently available for 2010.

Some of the higher profile projects that shot in Arizona during the past two years include Piranha 3-D, Away We Go, Middle Men, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Snappers and The Family That Preys.

Still, Chapa stresses that commercials “are the lifeblood of the business” in Arizona, accounting for “up to 70 percent of our production days.” Last year, campaigns were lensed for Ford Motor Company, Lamborghini, Dodge, Mercedes-Benz, Wells Fargo Financial Services, and Applebee’s.

Crew West Headlines Super Bowl-winning Saints
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestWhen CBS Sports commentator Shannon Sharpe interviewed Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints for The Super Bowl Today to discuss his career and his feelings about playing in the championship game, the segment was lensed on three Panasonic VariCams, two of which were handled by Crew West of Phoenix (www.crewwestinc.com). The audio was recorded on a Sound Devices 442 field mixer with Electro Voice and TRAM wireless mics.

Crew West also set up several 200-, 400- and 800-watt HMIs, scrims and flags at the New Orleans-area location. “That it was an outdoor shoot kept it simple,” says audio tech Matt Radlauer. In addition, Crew West supported an inside interview shoot for the pre-game show featuring Saints players Will Smith, Darren Sharper and Jonathan Vilma and CBS talent Lesley Visser.

In addition, various shows for cable networks shot around the state. They included Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World for The Travel Channel, Comet for the BBC, Maneater for Lifetime, and SIS for Spike.

Many of Arizona’s Indian reservations also impact the production industry. “Some are very active in the film and television market,” says Chapa, “such as the Navajo Nation, Gila River and Salt River” communities.

Chapa’s office also works closely with the local film offices in the state. “That’s important here due to our topography and size,” he says. In fact, he’s now working on Everything Must Go, a Will Ferrell feature, with the Phoenix Film Office.

Piranha 3D is another good example,” he points out. “Lake Havasu doesn’t have a film office, so I worked with the local government to ensure that the entire production shot there.”

Thrills at the Park for South Coast
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestSouth Coast Film & Video’s (www.scfilmvideo.com) cameras rolled recently at the Kemah Boardwalk amusement park near Houston for the first installment of a spot campaign that was tailored in post to various markets. Lensed with the Panasonic VariCam 2700 P2 HD camcorder, it included two legacy film shots. To capture extra emotion, director/DP Everett Gorel rigged a small Panasonic HBX-200 to the Drop Zone ride to highlight the riders’ shock as they plummeted 260 feet.

The next project at Houston’s South Coast, which is expanding its studio with a kitchen and second client area, was a PSA for the Rainforest Cafe chain that conveyed environmental consciousness; it is pegged to run during PBS broadcasts of the classic children’s show Curious George. Once again Gorel’s camera of choice was the VariCam 2700.

But today, Chapa’s hopes are high concerning the possible sweetening of Arizona’s incentive package. If he gets the high sign, he wants to start marketing the state more intensively.

“We have a good image in other countries,” he says, noting that production companies from England, Germany, Japan and Italy have worked in Arizona in recent years. “Our topography seems very exotic to them.”

Increasing Arizona’s exposure wouldn’t be limited to international marketing efforts, however. “We will strive to get more exposure on the East Coast, aside from just the ad agency business in New York,” he says, “and look to establish a balance, like we have with Southern California, with feature and television markets.”

Levy Rocks Out RADD for PSA Campaign
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestAn extensive PSA campaign for RADD (Recording Artists, Actors and Athletes Against Drunk Driving) that focused on non-judgmental, hip and positive messages was directed by Ron Scheffer and produced by the Levy Production Group (www.levyproductiongroup.com) in Las Vegas.

The company provided all of the production and post for the campaign that was shot with a Sony EX3 HD camera. It encompassed two :30 spots and 12 :15s starring Mirage Hotel & Casino headliner Terry Fator.

“We’re really beginning to embrace the whole tapeless workflow,” says Mike Levy, a partner in the facility. “After the shoot, all raw media was transferred to our server and then backed up on an external drive. Online was done in our Avid DS10 suite and post audio in our Pro Tools HD suite.”

Production Rolling in Nevada
While the state legislature hasn’t played the incentive game, Nevada Film Office director Charlie Geocaris is more fortunate than most film czars with that predicament: The state still served as the (partial) backdrop for recent cinematic endeavors like Up in the Air, 2012 and Percy Jackson & The Olympians.

“We had 23 movies shoot here last year, but the majority just shot certain scenes,” he says, noting that they often employed the famed Las Vegas Boulevard (“The Strip”) as a backdrop, “and that sells the city and the state.”

But it was Nevada’s reputation as a hotbed for TV production that boosted its revenues in 2009 to more than $100 million ($102 million, to be precise) for the 10th consecutive year, with shows like “CSI and tons of reality programs,” Geocaris reports.

Interestingly, more screenwriters are writing about Vegas due to its film and television exposure, he says, citing films such as The Hangover (a suite named for the flick can be found in Caesar’s Palace) and Percy Jackson, both of which shot last year; and earlier efforts, like Knocked Up and Race to Witch Mountain.

Field and Frame Serves Local Community and High-Profile Visitors
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestAlbuquerque’s Field and Frame (www.fieldandframe.com) rentals has catered to local commercial producers, documentarians and independent filmmakers since 1987. Owner Alan Fulford offers 8mm and 16mm cameras and a wide range of HD cameras, including the in-demand Panasonic HDX-900, Sony’s XDCAM and EX1, Panasonic’s HPX500, and its HVX200 and AVC lines plus compatible plackback systems and Panasonic 8- to 26-inch HD monitors.

The company also stocks a line of smaller HMIs, Kino Flos, ARRI tungstens, doorway and skateboard dollies, a full line of expendables and has 1-ton and sprinter grip packages. In addition, Field and Frame offers a line of compact audio recorders, Sennheiser and stereo mics, Sound Devices and Shure mixers, DAT machines and Nagra reel-to-reels. Although the local community remains the company’s primary market, it has rented to cable’s Breaking Bad, In Plain Sight and Crash and the feature Swing Vote.

That’s just a hint of what could happen if the Nevada legislature ever makes incentive money available. “We might reach $200 million in annual revenues if we had them,” Geocaris says.

He laments the lack of production that goes on in Nevada outside of Vegas. “We have beautiful smaller towns here, like Lake Tahoe and Reno, but no one shoots there anymore,” he observes.

However, addressing the realities of his circumstances has equated to a healthy bottom line. “We started pursuing TV shows, especially in the reality category,” he says. The History Channel’s Pawn Stars often shoots from The Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, and Sin City is also famous in small screen circles for its gaming programs, like NBC’s Poker After Dark and ESPN’s The World Series of Poker. Happily, the producers of those shows come to town and hire locals for their productions and bring other staff who use local services.

DK’s Turn at Bat With “Teddy Ballgame”
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestA browse through the vault at DK Productions (www.dkproductions.com) in Las Vegas resulted in quite a find — footage from a 1997 interview that the company financed and produced with arguably the greatest hitter in Major League Baseball history, Ted Williams. Conducted with Boston sportscaster Bob Lobel at Fenway Park, it has now been released on DVD as The Lost Interview of The Great Ted Williams.

“It was the only time he opened up to talk about his baseball career,” says executive producer Kimberlie Chambers of the man nicknamed “Teddy Ballgame.” The project was shot on Sony Beta SP and edited and color corrected in Apple’s FCP Studio 3 with additional enhancements via Adobe After Effects (editor Joseph Campanale pictured above left with executive producer DImitri Sotirakis). Next up is a documentary about college baseball phenom (and Las Vegas resident) Bryce Harper.

Then there’s CSI — which has spawned a $5 million tourist attraction at the MGM Grand. The crew comes to town a few times a year to shoot along The Strip and around Southern Nevada. CBS also resurrected the classic game show Let’s Make a Deal, which shoots at the Tropicana Hotel, and Bravo!’s Top Chef shot around the city for several months last year.

In addition, awards shows, like The American Country Music Awards, and The Miss America Pageant (both airing on TNT) often blow into town and hire local crew.

National car spots are part and parcel of the local scene, too: The Strip and the desert areas close to nearby Hoover Dam and the Valley of Fire are often favored by Hyundai, Lexus and Toyota.

All told, a great deal of production still happens in Nevada; the pie is just divided differently.

“The film/TV split used to be 50/50 five years ago. Ten years ago, TV was just 25 percent of what we did; now, it’s 75 percent,” says Geocaris. “But what’s great is that there’s generally something shooting somewhere in Nevada every day — and for that, we’re thankful.”

Panavision Helps The Good Guys Streamline Production
Clear-Com's V-Series matrix intercom panels at Spotlight Texas/SouthwestPanavision’s Dallas-Fort Worth office (www.panavision.com) is providing the crew of the new FOX series, The Good Guys, from Burn Notice creator Matt Nix, with four Sony PDW-F800 XDCAM packages to facilitate shooting 13 episodes of the first season in Dallas (camera prep pictured right).

“The interesting thing to me,” says John Schrimpf, general manager of the rental house, “is that the network is using XDCAM for a drama; it’s disc-based, so the producers simply FedEx the disc back to Hollywood every night for post. That’s good, since they set out to avoid on-set data management. Also, DP Brian Reynolds has been very happy with the look.”

The office offers a complete range of 35mm film and digital capture cameras, including Panavision and non-Panavision 35mm models, Panavision Genesis and Sony’s F35 digital cinematography camera.

December 17, 2012