Finding a film location fit for a T-Rex

Tasmania is proud owner of the world's last great temperate wilderness, according to material on display at the recent "Locations 2000," a trade show designed to pull filmmakers - and their money - out of Los Angeles and into remote parts of the globe. There's no reason to doubt the Australians' claim. The rugged prehistoric landscape certainly looks like nowhere else on earth.

"Walking with Dinosaurs," a BBC series co-produced with the Discovery Channel to be aired in April, is counting on that fact. It uses this lush but wild scenery as the before-the-dawn-of-time setting for its computer-generated dinosaurs to inhabit.

But if you can create a whole world of extinct creatures through digital wizardry, why not save a few air fares and do the same for the scenery? Indeed, the very skill behind films such as "Jurassic Park," and the sci-fi movie "Final Fantasy" (in summer 2001) which is wholly computer generated, leads to the question, why go on location when you can create an image of virtually anything, animal, mineral, or vegetable, inside a computer these days?

"Real locations actually support the things that computer designers do," says Ward Emling, president of the Association of Film Commissioners International, an advocacy group for location film production. "The actual reality of a place is very important; it's very powerful and not something that can be manufactured inside a computer."

While he acknowledges that computer-generated environments have their place, "at times, they will defeat the very purpose of filmmaking, which is to take you to a different place."

"Magic happens with real actors in real places," says producer Christopher McKinnon. He describes a recent auto-commercial shoot in Japan, saying cars were out on the open road and, quite unexpectedly, the sun bore down through a grove of trees creating a rich, dappled effect. "This wasn't something we would have foreseen, or even dreamt up. It was a spontaneous moment, and it made the shot."

The unexpected possibilities in a locale can range from the odd rock formations in a Jordanian desert, which will stand in for the Mars landscape in next fall's "Red Planet," to a collection of antique guns in Bulgaria. The latter is proudly pitched in material luring film productions to the small Eastern European country, which has recently been a film stand-in for Uzbekistan, Russia, and France.

"We needed [the guns]," says Emile Razpopov, president of Hollywood Global Studios, based in Sofia, Bulgaria. He points out that the small country had stockpiled but never actually used a vast store of World War I and II vintage weapons, "just in case."

Perhaps the most well-loved moment of location serendipity occurred during the filming of the 1930 classic, "All Quiet on the Western Front." In the midst of a tense scene, a butterfly landed on the end of a soldier's rifle. That's just the sort of unforeseen event that fuels a performer's imagination, says Mr. Emling, who has also worked as an actor. "Computer-generated worlds can become very antiseptic without an input from the real thing."

Most of these locales recognize that the lure of the great outdoors isn't enough to draw production companies out of their well-equipped backyards, so they pitch entire packages, including their own special-effects industries. "We have extraordinary computer-effects houses," says Louisa Coppel, director of the Melbourne, Australia, film office. Much of the work on the hit film "The Matrix," she points out, took place Down Under.

Not only does Australia offer a compact menu of terrains - from rain forest to alpine mountains and sandy beaches - but it can all be done at a fraction of the cost of production in the United States. "Our labor is cheaper, and we don't have anywhere near the restrictions on location shooting as big American cities," Ms. Coppel says.

At the same time that Hollywood is up in arms over "runaway productions" leaving town, the film industries in many of these exotic locales are worried about being overrun.

"There is concern about imports taking over our local industry, so we need to support [local productions]," Coppel says. Providing a steady stream of work is one strategy, she says. "Otherwise, they'd be hurting for work much of the time."

Computer-generated imagery is here to stay. But so is local shooting, believers say.

"It may be that a film company will only come to take the stills from which they will work," says Munir Nassar, head of the production unit at International Traders in Amman, Jordan. "But come they must. Something must feed the imagination. It can't feed only on itself."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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