Part 3 of 5
The Warner Bros studio tour takes you around their backlot, which you can see on Google Maps. The streets with fake buildings are the exterior sets and what look like little barns are the sound stages. The lot is also home to the mixing stages where they put the sound and video together for shows and movies, employee offices and one of the world’s most advanced theaters.
The tour starts with a drive thru the exterior sets. Each one has a theme to mimic a city like New York or a setting like government buildings or apartments. Really, though, as you ride thru them all the differences start to fade.
Most of the houses are what the types call “functional sets.” They’re wood buildings with exteriors made of wood or, if it is supposed to be concrete or brick, a fiberglass “skin.” You can walk right up to it and for all the world it looks like brick. Then you touch it and it is obviously not. Studios got by with that for a long time, but the advent of HD television forced them to start using the real thing for close-up shots. Why use skins in the first place? If they need to alter the way a building looks, fiberglass is a lot easier to take off and put back than brick.
The interior of a functional set feels like walking into an empty apartment. No furniture, nothing on the walls, empty kitchen. None of the walls are load bearing so they can be taken down or moved as a shot requires. When you look up, instead of a ceiling you see the structures for hanging lights or, if need be, a temporary ceiling. None of them have power, so enormous tubes run through the building to pipe in air conditioning. The night before a shoot they will crank the temp down to the 50s. By the time the lights, equipment and people are on the set the temperature gets back to normal. Even still, if it is hot like the 97-degree day last week, they have to keep the air coming in between takes for it to be tolerable.
One of the things the tour guides emphasize is that everything on the property is built for being filmed. Offices have generic fronts that can be made to look like schools, hotels, even apartments. The building highlighted in this Google image has an entrance on either side of the street. One is built right on the curb so it can be shot as a hospital emergency entrance. The other is set back from the street like a hotel or convention center. Inside is an employee coffee shop, which they used for Alan Alda’s character in The West Wing finale. Everything is a set.
Some exterior sets aren’t there any more. The ambulance bay for ER is long gone. My family got to see it and the diner built outside of it. Like other skins, it was fiberglass instead of concrete. To the horror of many, our tour guide back then planted her white pants right on the wall and proceeded to rub her bum all over it. Even the dirt and grime on the walls was painted on. For the inauguration scene in The West Wing finale, they built over a parking lot. Years earlier the parking lot housed a full-size basketball court for Michael Jordan to practice on while he filmed Space Jam.
Walking around the exterior sets as the guide rattles off a small fraction of the things that used this building or that house, you wonder how they get away with using these same facades over and over again. There is a big difference between what you see with your eyes and what a camera sees thru its lenses.
Look at this screenshot from the Hardee’s ad again. You only see a small section of the exterior wall and a short part of the El track, all of which are slightly out of focus in the background. Or take the scene from Seinfeld. You’d never even think to take note of what’s in the background.