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TV's Back-Lot Future

Television seems to go back and forth when it comes to the idea of location shooting. So do movies, but television’s budget and time constraints mean that the producers necessarily have to focus even harder on what type of shooting is the most cost-efficient. Few shows, of course – except pilots and special vacation episodes – can afford to shoot all around the world. But wherever the show does shoot, there may be a choice between shooting on real city locations and staying on studio-owned property. And we seem to be heading into an era where studio and backlot shooting is becoming more prominent:

L.A. is home to dozens of TV dramas like “Franklin & Bash,” “The Mentalist,” “CSI: New York” and “Parenthood.” But, in order to save money, such dramas are filming more days on studio lots rather than on location.

The article says these shows are shooting “more days” on the lot; location shooting (often disguised as another city) is not out. But the amount of work that’s being done on backlot scenery – requiring the producers to find some new way of disguising a place we’ve seen many other times, like the school on the Universal lot that was used in Back to the Future – does seem to be increasing. An article I linked to a few weeks ago, about Warner Brothers’ TV operation, mentioned how many shows are jostling for studio space, or dressing up one set as another. (The re-dressed set is a longstanding TV tradition – a low-budget filmmaking tradition, really – and ever since the era of B movies, producers can often find creative ways of using expensive sets more than once. For example, the directors of the Happy Endings pilot took a bar set and re-used it for the episode of Community where the characters go to a bar: same directors, same studio, so they made it look different enough and got a new episode out of it. It’s a perfectly fine tradition.)

It also seems, though I can’t prove it of course, that the number of fake backgrounds has increased. Sometimes this is not noticeable – remember that video that circulated of all the computer-generated buildings and background elements that we weren’t aware of. And sometimes, as with many car and boat scenes, it’s very noticeable (the Ringer pilot stood out for its terrible green-screen, but it wasn’t the only show where characters are driving in front of a computer-created image). Computerized scenery will be used more and more often for shows as an inexpensive alternative to going out on location: Chris Albrecht, the head of Starz, recently boasted about the fact that Spartacus ”is shot completely inside a warehouse in New Zealand.”

I do wonder if the increased use of backlot or computer-generated scenery will date shows more than they otherwise would date. Computer imagery has advanced a lot, obviously, but as you know if you’ve watched one of those movies with a lot of rear-projected driving, artificial locations have a way of dating faster than anyone expects. (Some things are easier to fake than others, of course, and it does depend on quality and skill: a good matte drawing can sometimes fool us for decades, while a bad matte doesn’t fool anyone from the beginning.) The Universal dramas from the ’70s have dated a lot in a number of respects, but one thing that doesn’t look dated is the L.A. location shooting and the use of real cars for a lot of the driving scenes. Real people in a real car against a real background – even with all the fakery that goes into making it look like they’re really driving – has a way of holding up better than people against a screen.

But TV needs to find ways to hold down costs, and as computer images become more sophisticated, they may get to the point where stuff like the Ringer debacle doesn’t happen as often. As for shooting on re-used backlot areas and sets, well, as I said, that’s a tradition of low-budget filmmaking. If anything, I’d think studios might want to consider the idea more; if The Twilight Zone could make use of the sets from larger-budget MGM movies, it might make sense to look around and see if a TV crew can come in and re-decorate a movie set for their own purposes.