Photos: Paramount Studios VIP Tour

After doing the all-day VIP tour at Warner Bros. Studios when I was in Los Angeles a few years ago, the 5-hour VIP tour at Paramount Studios was on my to-do list for my visit this past July. Because it was late July we were on the early end of filming for the fall TV season, so unfortunately the streetscapes were off-limits for the day. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D was filming an explosion scene on the main New York street, but we were able to sneak a look as some guys in tactical gear ran out of a building, followed by some smoke and a scaffolding tower rigged to fall. Exciting! I meant to watch the season premier to see if I could catch the scene, but of course I forgot.

With Paramount Studios of the course the big attraction is its famous gate. Though not the main gate anymore it is still a thrill to think about how many Hollywood stars passed through it.

Paramount Studios gate
This is the famous gate at Paramount Studios, from back when it was known as Paramount Pictures.

One of the things I enjoy about studios is the way everything on the lot is made generic enough to be the backdrop for any film shoot a production might need. This courtyard outside the gift shop is a gathering place for studio employees, but the area is landscaped in a way for it to be shot as a park, a backyard or the outdoor courtyard it really is.

A smaller courtyard on the Paramount lot that can be used for outdoor shots.

The area below is built the same way. Studio employees work inside while cameras roll outside when the building needs to be an embassy, hotel or a residence.

Paramount Studios courtyard
Part of the courtyard just beyond the Paramount Studios gate.

And speaking of residences, doesn’t this look like it could be the living room window of a house in just about anywhere? It’s actually right across from the buildings in the previous photo, and it was Alfred Hitchcock’s office.

Alfred Hitchcock office window
The window of Alfred Hitchcock’s office at Paramount.

Here’s another great example: These offices are built to look like a motel. A similar office building at Warner Bros. was used for hotel scenes in Argo.

Paramount Studios office
An office building at Paramount that doubles as apartments or hotels when they need it to.

For more exterior shots Paramount built alleyways on the back of some of its sound stages. On one side they are the large numbered buildings people think of, like this Stage 9 where NCIS: Los Angeles shoots. In the bottom right you can even see an exterior set the show uses for an outdoor entrance.

NCIS LA set
NCIS Los Angeles sometimes uses that entry set for exterior shots.

This is what it looks like just around the corner. Filmed on one side it could be the back of some warehouse buildings; filmed from the other it’s an old apartment building or hotel. The grungy exterior is a paint effect to make it look older. Does anything look a little off? Check out the electric pole. It’s built short on purpose to help sell the illusion. Chances are you’ve seen countless short poles on movies and TV without noticing. Magic!

You can see how a tight shot at night would make this appear like a dark alley. Note the short electric pole.
You can see how a tight shot at night would make this appear like a dark alley. Note the short electric pole.

The brick street, by the way, is kinda fake. Basically a type of plastic.

Fake brick street
Plastic, not brick.

Throw some litter on the sidewalk and this looks like the kind of place you might not want to walk alone at night.

Paramount streetscape set
This streetscape set is build on the back of a soundstage.

As this wider shot shows, it’s just he side of a building. The dirty paint effect is here as well to sell the look.

Notice the electric pole? They build them shorter to be more easily fit into a shot and make the scene more believable.
Notice the electric pole? They build them shorter to be more easily fit into a shot and make the scene more believable.

I put this photo here because the walls here (most likely made of wood, not tile or steel like they appear) have the same wear painted on them as the blue doors on the streetscape above. Maybe you’ll see them in on of your favourite fall shows.

Paramount Studios sets
Some wood panels about to be assembled and believed to be tile walls or a steel door.

This construction shop says NCIS on it, but no one knows why that’s there.

Paramount Studios set construction
Construction at Paramount Studios is a 365-day a year job.

The last outdoor look before we went inside for lunch was at this golf cart, which actually belongs to Dr. Phil. The guys from Jackass stole it and decked it out with flames and the whole nine yards.

Dr. Phil's golf cart
Dr. Phil’s golf cart after the guys from Jackass got through with it.

We ate a catered lunch on the set of Dr. Phil. This was the only sound stage we got to enter, which is a stark difference from the Warner Bros. tours. At Paramount you can only get into studios your tour guide works on. Ours, an aspiring screenwriter, works as what is essentially a stage hand at Dr. Phil. Prior to the show he and other workers go through the line of visitors waiting to get in to watch the show and gives them cards that were dictate where they sit. It works exactly as you think it would: Attractive people in the front, ugly people in the back. Hollywood.

One question came up from multiple tour groups as we were eating: Are the guests real? Everyone who worked on the show insisted they are. Our guide told stories about confrontations back stage and even having to once chase guests as they ran right off the stage and out the door of the studio.

I should also note the stories about chaos behind the scenes on the Dr. Phil show. 

We weren’t supposed to take any photos, no studio lets you do that. But I did.

Dr. Phil set
The set of Dr. Phil, minus furniture.

After lunch we got a look at some of the props used in Paramount’s films and a walk through its archive.

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The last image in the slideshow is the back of a wall build around the outside of the archive building. Here’s the view from outside. As you can tell, it’s painted to look like the sky. The cars are actually parked in what serves as Paramount’s water tank for large outdoor shots that need to look like they’re on the ocean or a lake. You can see along the bottom where they’ve built the walls up to hold the water in. In part because of the drought, but mostly because of the cost, the tank hasn’t been flooded in years.

Paramount Studios water tank
The water tank is rarely flooded and has been a parking lot for years.

It’s tough to tell unless you click through to the full-size image and zoom in further, but this is the only studio street in Hollywood with a clear view of the Hollywood sign. And yeah, those are some crazy clouds back there. They looked like the famous spaceship scene in Independence Day, except they were a bazillion times bigger. It looked like doom. There was a storm north of the mountains that never quite got over them, much to the dismay of communities stuck underneath it. I’ve lived in the Midwest my whole life and seem some pretty epic storm formations. But nothing like this.

Paramount Studios Hollywood sign
The street on the Paramount Studios lot that lines up perfectly with the Hollywood sign in the background.

The last real sight on the tour is this courtyard, and it was one of the most interesting. I didn’t know this, but Lucille Ball played a major role in Paramount history. Her office, dressing room is the building with the blue windows on the left. She had the grassy area installed for her kids so she could show that a woman and mother can work in Hollywood without neglecting her family. This blog from a costume designer who works in the building is a worth a read.

Ball and her husband, Dezi Arnaz, were major players in Hollywood, far more than I ever knew. As this blog explains, their idea to film with multiple cameras changed the way television was made (sitcoms are still shot this way) and they were instrumental in bringing Star Trek and Mission: Impossible to life.

Lucile Ball courtyard
Lucile Ball had this big courtyard built for her family to show she could run a studio and be a mom.

Paramount Studios offer a shorter tour if you don’t want to shell out $175 for the VIP experience. The Warner Bros. VIP tour is $250, but it’s a full day and you do see a little more than Paramount. If you’re hardcore and don’t mind spending the money, I would recommend Warner. If you want to se a little more than the standard tour, but don’t want to go all out, Paramount offers a great option.

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Props, Etc

Part 5 of 5

Part 1: Photos

Part 2: Studio Tours

Part 3: Exteriors

Part 4: Sound Stages

Say you sign a deal to film your show with Warner Bros. You’ll need sets. Warner has a full construction shop to build all your interior and exterior sets. Sets are designed and built in the shop, then taken apart and rebuilt on their sound stage. This sounds inefficient, but it is better than having construction crews spread out across the entire lot.

Your sets will need props. Boy, does Warner Bros have props. If the construction shop is like a Menard’s, the props department is the ultimate home furnishings store. It is a very well organized maze of desks, lights, cabinets, utensils and everything else you can possibly imagine that a set might need. Your contract with Warner allows you to use most of what you find, but some pieces cost extra. These props are typically rare or from a famous film, such as these exceedingly expensive lamps.

You’ll probably also need post-production. They have that, too. This is the kind of thing you don’t think about when you’re watching a show or a movie. Most of the dialogue is captured during filming, but maybe a helicopter unexpectedly flew over the set during the take with the best visuals. The actors will head into a studio for Additional Dialogue Recording, or ADR. They’ll repeat their lines and that audio track will be synced with the video. Sometimes on a TV show you’ll notice a line that doesn’t sound like the rest of the conversation, usually from a character who is off screen or has its back to the camera. That’s most likely ADR.

Think about the scene from the Lost pilot when Sawyer shoots the polar bear. Other than the dialogue, most of its audio was not captured on the set. The grass rustling, bear screaming and gun shots were most likely recorded on a foley stage. The music was recorded by a live orchestra on a scoring stage similar to the Eastwood Scoring Stage we got to visit at Warner Bros.  The front of the room features a full-size movie screen to display video for the directors, editors, actors and other technicians who are mixing all of the sound with the video on several editing bays. A simple Google image search for “Eastwood Scoring Stage” will bring up several photos of the room during recording.

They don’t show something neat about the room that you see when it’s not working or doesn’t need a live orchestra: The pool table and the ping pong table. Before things went digital, there would be extended breaks during the editing while someone loaded a new reel of film onto the camera. The people involved in the project would play games to pass the time. Eastwood would often bring in a gym to get his workouts in. Everything streams off servers now and loads instantly, so the tables are more of a nostalgic throwback than anything else.

The last stop on the tour is the Warner Bros. Museum. There’s no photography allowed and security guards are posted everywhere to make sure you don’t photograph or touch anything. The second level is all Harry Potter, meaning I didn’t go up there. The main floor features a lot of costumes and a few props from historic shows and movies and some revolving exhibits that feature pieces from current films. Having seen Man of Steel, the exhibit with the Kent’s mailbox, costumes from Kevin Coster and Diane Lane and the Superman suit was fun to see. Some Batman things were neat, as was the area featuring costumes and novelties from some of Ronald Reagan’s movies. But for me, the coolest thing by far and the highlight of the day was the Fringe exhibit that included the tulip note Walter sent to Peter in the series’ final scene. I loved that scene so much and thought it was the perfect way to close the show, seeing the emotional focal point was very, very cool.

I’ve done Warner Bros. twice now and got to be on the set of ER and Friends, two shows I watched religiously when I was younger. I’ve seen sets and props that my favorite president used during his movie career, two Superman suits, the Fringe tulip, the Growing Pains house, $3 million worth of lamps and so many other cool parts of movies and TV shows I’ve watched. If you’re a fan of a television series or movie and you’d like to see where it is filmed, find out if it shoots at a studio that offers a tour. You’ll enjoy it.

Sound Stages

Part 4 of 5

Part 1: Photos

Part 2: Studio Tours

Part 3: Exteriors

Part 5: Props, Etc

One of the highlights in the long and short tour is going onto the soundstage for an hour long television drama. By go on the soundstage I mean you get to walk on and around the sets. This is very cool. Unfortunately, but understandably, they don’t allow photos. This time my tour got on the set for CBS’s The Mentalist. This screenshot from yawgurt.com shows the office set we got to walk thru.

This, and the hospital set from ER my family got to go on in 2002, look and feel like a real office or a real hospital. As the tour guides explain how scenes are shot you start to get an appreciation for all that goes into making a TV show.

As you can see in the Yawgurt image, the sets are built 360-degrees around. That helps them appear more realistic but limits them to using only one camera. Any more and they would have a hard time avoiding being in another’s shot. How many times do they have to film the same scene with one camera? The tour guides pick out two people and goes thru a simple dialogue scene.

First they set up a shot with both actors. This might involve taking out a window, as it often does in The Mentalist.  All of the windows are built to easily pop out or swivel to accommodate this or times when a window will cause a reflection. The camera films a shot that shows both actors going thru their lines. That’s one. The director says cut, everyone breaks and they reposition the camera over one actor’s shoulder. The actors repeat their lines again. That’s two. They move everything again to shoot over the other actor’s shoulder. Three. Now they have a wide shot and close-ups of both actors saying and reacting to the dialogue. It probably took a few hours.

Now imagine a scene from Criminal Minds when the team is discussing a case as seen in this image. (It doesn’t film at Warner Bros.) Seven actors exchanging lines and reactions around a table. You can see how long that must take for just two or three minutes of screen time. And they’re not even moving! A 42-minute drama takes several days to shoot, and they don’t do it in the order you see in the finished episode. It’s a really cool perspective on what goes into a show that makes you appreciate editors who stitch together scenes shot days apart from multiple angles into one coherent string of footage.

A sitcom is set a little different. Their sets only have three walls so that everything can face the studio audience. Without a fourth wall it is easier to accommodate multiple cameras, so they film from multiple angles at once. With retakes and rewrites a 22-minute sitcom can take 5 hours or more.

Warner Bros’ Stage 16 is one of the tallest in the world at 65 feet and boasts accommodations for 2 million gallons of water. All kinds of famous scenes filmed in Stage 16. For me, the t-rex scenes from Jurassic Park are the most notable. You can see more about Stage 16 and layouts for all of the stages on Warner’s site.

Exteriors

Part 3 of 5

Part 1: Photos

Part 2: Studio Tours

Part 4: Sound Stages

Part 5: Props, Etc

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.

Studio Tours

Part 2 of 5.

Part 1 – Photos

Part 3 – Exteriors

Part 4 – Sound Stages

Part 5 – Props, Etc

Many of the biggest Hollywood studios offer the public a tour of their studio facilities. Sony, Paramount and Warner Bros have them as stand alone features, Universal includes it as part of its theme park attraction.

When our family took Christmas a trip to southern California in 2002 we did a two-hour tour of Warner Bros studios in Burbank. It was a fantastic experience during a time when great shows like Friends, ER and Everybody Loves Raymond filmed on the lot. No one was working over the holiday, so we got to go into sound stages and see the sets for Friends and ER that were normally closed. We also did the Universal tour, which consists of a tram ride through some recognizable areas of the studio’s backlot and some amusement stages showing fake earthquakes, fires, floods, etc. It’s neat to see places where they filmed Jaws and Back to the Future (which unfortunately burned down a few years ago), but you don’t get to leave the tram or enter any of the working stages. Warner and Universal have a separate, longer tour that goes into more areas of their lots. I took the Warner tour.

The day-long Warner Bros tour includes the same backlot tour and soundstage visit as the shorter tour, but the extra time allows them to stop the tour cart and let you wander around in the backlot to see some of the practical sets. They also take you into the set construction area, mixing stages and prop shops as well as feed you in Warner’s fine dining restaurant. Famed director Richard Donner sat down for lunch at the table next to ours. I was tempted to lean over and tell him his Superman 2 was better.

Taking a studio tour also gives you a different look at how the entertainment industry works. A majority of work at Warners’ lot right now is television because it is more profitable than movies. Its website describes what it all does far better than I could. Hollywood is a damn big business.

Warner is not tied to any broadcast network, so it can play host to shows from across the guide. ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars films there along with several CBS shows such as The Mentalist, Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly. HBO’s True Blood was set to film an outdoor scene last week. NBC hits Friends, ER and The West Wing filmed there at the same time. In fact, if you look up a show on IMDB.com you can see all the studios involved in its production. The list for Criminal Minds shows how much work it takes to film, edit and distribute a primetime drama.

Next up, Part 3: Exteriors