A backlot is an area behind or adjoining a movie studio, containing permanent exterior buildings for outdoor scenes in filmmaking or television productions, or space for temporary set construction. I will relay how I became familiar with the look and purpose of a backlot.
Back to the ’70s – Learning about Backlots
I visited California for the first time in 1974. My primary/only reason for going was to be in the audience of TV shows – see my post Throwback to the 1970s – In the Audience of Comedy TV Shows. Prior to this trip, my impression of a backlot was very incorrect. I thought backlots were enormous in size, containing entire fully-built cities with real buildings. When I saw the outside of a house or office and the actor went through the entrance, I thought that there was an entire building behind it.
Besides attending TV tapings/filmings in 1974, I took the well-known Universal Studios tour and the lesser-known Burbank Studios tour (formerly and presently Warner Bros. Studios) and learned all about backlots and soundstages. I found the Burbank Studios tour to be a more personal experience.
That is when I realized the scope of a backlot. The “buildings” are just façades. There is nothing behind it. The inside scenes are filmed on a soundstage. The streets are usually very short and often bend and curve. Somehow it appears a lot bigger when it is seen on screen.
Ever since then and continuing today, I am more observant of the visuals in a film or TV show, determining if I am looking at a backlot, soundstage, or an actual location.
I visited California many times since then and took the studio tours again. Also I have taken the Universal, Nickelodeon, and Walt Disney studio tours in Florida.
Not all backlots were at main studio locations, but on land called movie “ranches”. These expansive locations were originally created (for westerns) to provide a more varied terrain (valleys/canyons/foothills) that could not be achieved at the regular studio backlots. They were located in Los Angeles or vicinity within the 30-mile “studio zone” (so production staff would not have to be paid travel expenses – which would be the case if location shooting were done in Arizona). Most of the old movie ranches, as well as many traditional backlots, are long gone, due to the contraction of the movie industry; more location shooting; as well as soaring land values, making it more lucrative to build homes and businesses.
Back to the Future and More
On one tour of Universal (with my wife), there was mention of an upcoming film called “Back to the Future”. Some backlot artifacts stood out: an old-fashioned Texaco sign and a Miller Beer truck. Months later when we saw the film in the theatre, we spotted those artifacts and were so excited that we had seen them in person.
At the Burbank Studios tour, I remember seeing the Waltons’ home façade.
Backlots can represent built-up areas as well as rural areas. The part of the backlot I like the most are the streets lined with homes and businesses. These streets and façades can be “dressed” appropriately based on the production, for different locales and time periods. Usually a backlot has a New York street, a London Street, a Western street, a European street, a street with suburban style homes, etc. Traveling the streets of a backlot is like taking a trip around the world.
Leave It to Beaver
There is a great article from RetroWeb about backlot shooting on “Leave It to Beaver”, with maps and plenty of photos. Looking at a Google Maps satellite view of Universal Studios, I cannot locate some of the streets shown in the article, so there must have been some redesign over the years. RetroWeb has a whole series of pages related to studio backlots and ranches.
Virtual Studio View
I recommend using Google Maps satellite view to zoom in on studio lots. You may see something familiar. The main backlot area in Universal Studios (see photo) is across the top and down the right. For Warner Bros. Studios (see photo), the main backlot area is top-to-bottom just right-of-center. If you zoom in closely on Google, you will see additional backlot façades in alleys between soundstages – an efficient use of space.
Backlot usage is not as prevalent today as it used to be, but it still plays a role in film and TV production. However, my on-set experience has been strictly location shooting.
- Wikipedia – Backlot
- RetroWeb – Leave It to Beaver
- RetroWeb – Universal City
- Wikipedia – Warner Bros. Studios
- Wikipedia – Movie ranch