Anthony's Film Review

Movie Studio Tour: Warner Bros

July 16, 2016

In my previous commentary piece, I presented a retrospective account of my tour of Sony Pictures, and I mentioned that it was such an inspiring experience that I would take a tour of the Warner Bros. Studios not much later. Well, if you are curious about that, wait no further. I definitely have a good story to tell, as you will soon see. Like my Sony Pictures tour story, the purpose of this article is to inspire you to sign up for a public tour of a major film studio in the Los Angeles area. (Note: I am not employed by any movie studio. I'm simply a movie-loving guy who enjoys seeing movie magic up close when possible.)

Before I begin, let me make a few important notes. As of this writing, Warner Bros. offers two types of tours: the regular tour and the deluxe tour. The regular tour is about three hours long, whereas the deluxe tour lasts approximately six hours and features stops that are not offered on the regular tour. To really get the best possible experience, I went on the deluxe tour. It does cost a whole lot more, almost $300, but it's truly worth it.

As for photography, the policy at Warner Bros. is that it's allowed unless stated otherwise. Therefore, I will let you know if parts of the tour have photo restrictions. All pictures featured on this page were taken in areas without photography restrictions, and given that Warner Bros. allows pictures to be shared on social media, I'm assuming that pictures in this article are OK too. Still, if you are a Warner Bros. representative who feels certain content on this page may infringe on copyright and privacy, please let me know and I will make any necessary edits.

With that, I hope you enjoy reading about my deluxe tour of Warner Bros., which took place in early February 2016.

Start of Tour

Warner Bros. is a massive studio lot in Burbank, CA, located a short distance from the Ventura Freeway (California State Route 134) and bordered by Olive Avenue in the west, the Los Angeles River in the south and east, and Cordova Street and Warner Boulevard in the north. I entered the north part of the lot by going east on Cordova and continuing on Warner. Then I parked in a lot across from the building where the tour started, which is the building you see at the top of this page. I got out of my car and proceeded to the building, greeting statues of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck along the way.

After checking in for the tour, I looked around the waiting area. There were plenty of comfy chairs and couches, plus a timeline of Warner Bros.-produced films along a long wall. I also spotted a map of the studio lot and a list of Warner Bros. projects that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. After about 20 minutes, I along with six other people proceeded into a small theater to watch a short introductory video about Warner Bros., hosted by a television celebrity (I won't say who, only because I'm not forcing myself to be super detailed) and featuring Hollywood celebrities sharing good memories of working at Warner. Then the deluxe tour for seven began, led by a very knowledgeable and friendly tour guide.

We walked away from the tour check-in building and toward a tour tram vehicle. Before stepping on, however, we were given a unique photo opportunity. Each of us was given the chance to hold an Academy Award. Not a replica of the Oscar statuette, but a REAL one, made of actual gold! The first thought I had upon holding the statue in two hands was, "Wow." That and the fact that it's pretty heavy. The award I was holding on my hands below was for Best Animated Short Film in 1957, given to "Birds Anonymous," a 6.5-minute cartoon featuring Sylvester the cat trying to suppress his addiction to birds and his ongoing desire to capture Tweety Bird.

Tour Warm-Up

After the party of seven sat on the tram, the tour guide drove it down the street and through a security gate onto the studio lot proper. We were on the lot for just a couple of seconds and already we were given two fascinating bits of movie and television trivia. The gate we had passed was featured in Blazing Saddles, in the hilarious climax where a crowd of characters storms off the Warner Bros. lot filming Blazing Saddles. Then there's an episode of Sex and the City where Carrie, Sarah Jessica Parker's character, goes to Hollywood. A scene of Carrie's arrival was shot near the gate.

There was one interesting sight as the tram proceeded: a building for Warner Bros. Television. After that, the tour guide stopped to give us a brief history of Warner Bros. with lots of cool details. Right now, I can only recall one seemingly minor yet very important detail: the number of Warner brothers. If, like me, you assumed where there were two Warner brothers, you're wrong. There were actually four: Harry, Jack, Abe, and Sam.

Warner Bros. Jungle

The first major stop was the Warner Bros. Jungle. This is a section of the studio lot that has trees, bushes, dirt, and other features to provide outdoor scenery for any movie or TV show. One of the first stops in this area was a cabin for any movie or TV show that needs to film an outdoor scene with a cabin. I should also note that the cabin is a faux cabin, because it's made of plastic-like material rather than actual brick and the inside is essentially empty rather than designed as a real cabin interior. Remember, not everything you see on screen in real. As long as the illusion works, the audience can be immersed.

The tram proceeded along a dirt path, which can be great for any outdoor scene with a dirt path. One great example: Jurassic Park. Yes, that movie was made by Universal, not Warner Bros. But the one thing about the entertainment industry to remember is that there is as much collaboration, if not more, as competition between production studios. In this case, Universal asked Warner to use the dirt path of the Jungle for the well-known scene where a Tyrannosaurus rex chases a Jurassic Park jeep, knocking through a tree in the process. So the next time you see the scene, remember to thank Warner Bros. for the lot lease.

There are two other features of the Warner Bros. Jungle that are of interest to movie buffs. One is a lagoon to shoot aquatic scenes, like those depicting lakes. When I went on the tour, the lagoon had no water, but I could imagine the painstaking process of filling it with water. If you want an example of a movie featuring this lagoon, here's one: Pee-wee's Big Adventure, in the scene where the title character is swinging himself and his bike on a vine over a pond. Then there is a little lakeside cabin that can double for lots of things. Example: a cafe in Million Dollar Baby.

Warner Village

The next area of the lot was the Warner Village. It consists of a street passing by several houses. It may look like a real residential neighborhood, except for the fact that the houses, to a certain extent, look remarkably different from each other. That's because different styles of houses need to be available for filming exterior shots of a house, or perhaps the sidewalk and street directly in front of one. As with the Jungle, the tour guide provided examples of movies and TV shows shot in the Village, with details of the particular scenes shot there. However, none of the examples was something I'm familiar with.

I imagine you're curious about whether the houses are always empty. The answer is no. The houses in the Village function as offices for Warner Bros. staff. On days when shooting takes place right outside or anywhere nearby, the employees do not get time off. They still work as usual. They just have to be quiet during filming.

A Few More Random Sites

The tram left the Village and passed by an assortment of sites. There was the Warner Bros. costume department that designs and manufactures all of the costumes you see on screen, and I believe they store virtually all, or at least most of, the costumes that have ever been made for a Warner Bros. production. The costume department was not a place we were allowed to enter, but at least I could take a picture of the department's entrance and an adjacent window for the room where actors and actresses try on costumes.

Two other spots are very ordinary places but still have connections to something filmed: an administrative building and a parking garage. If I remember correctly, the TV medical drama show ER used portions of these places for certain scenes. So if you're an ER fan, I can imagine that you're smiling right now.

Midwest Area

The Midwest Area of the Warner Bros. lot was a section that allowed tourists to take pictures, but not share them online. For this description, just use your imagination.

Picture, if you will, the space of the downtown area of a small town. In the center is a park with grass and a few trees. This is where the movie Jack Frost shot an outdoor scene that, interestingly, was a winter scene filmed in the summer, thanks to crew placing fake snow and removing all leaves from a tree in the shot. (As for what happens when a summer scene needs to be filmed but the tree's leaves were recently removed, I can't really say.) Around the park, you can see a church, a small grocery store, other small businesses, some houses, and a courthouse. Another piece of cool trivia: the courthouse was used for the final episode of Seinfeld.

We did get to step into one of the houses of the Midwest Area. Given that it's not supposed to be a real house, I was not surprised to see that none of the rooms had ceilings because there needed to be space for lighting fixtures and a lot of metallic structures for the crew the use. In fact, I also saw huge boxes in the rooms of the house, a sign that much work was to be done to get the interior set all ready for filming.

To conclude, I shall present to you one related photo I was allowed to take. Sitting outside the Midwest Area was a mobile gazebo that can be transported from set to set for whatever filming purpose.

Hennesy Street and New York Street

Hennesy Street is another section of the Warner Bros. lot, one that is noticeably smaller than the Midwest Area. It features buildings that are like the kind you see in a city like New York. One part of Hennesy Street has the appearance of an alleyway. It's not just any alleyway. This was where the upside-down kissing scene in Spider-Man 2 was shot. With the different kinds of buildings here, filmmakers have plenty of set options to choose from.

If you think Hennesy Street is good for shooting anything set in New York, you'll definitely like the next section that is called, appropriately, New York Street. There are a lot more building exteriors to capture on film. You can find a theater, a cafe-like building, and stairs leading down into a subway (which actually lead down to pretty much nothing). To really help us appreciate the use of these sets, the tour guide took us inside one set and showed a video on a monitor. We got to see a few clips of movies and TV shows, each accompanied by pictures of the specific Warner Bros. lot points that were filmed. The best part was that the pictures were overlaid on the screen where the building appears in the film, not simply presented side by side. The productions sampled included The Maltese Falcon, Argo, and an episode of The Big Bang Theory.

Foley Stage

Now we get to a part of the tour that was available specifically for the deluxe tour. It's also where photography wasn't allowed, so I hope you like the following description.

We entered a Foley stage, which refers to a soundproof room where sound effects are recorded. It was definitely one of the coolest things I saw on this tour. There was a microphone in the center of the room, and different sections of the floor were made of different materials, like concrete, sand, and grass, in order to produce the sounds of walking and running footsteps. There was also a tub of water nearby for making water sounds and shelves upon shelves with bins containing all sorts of items. Then there was the large video screen that the sound effects specialist watches as he or she makes the sound effects, plus an adjacent room with a window that functions as a control room for the audio engineer.

The two sound effects people who talked to us explained how fun, as well as demanding, the work can be. It's fun because you find interesting ways to produce the sound effects desired. It's demanding because of tight deadlines, the mundaneness of some special effects (like making footstep sounds for someone running in a park), and the need to have the sound match seamlessly with the video. And given how unique this experience was, it was not surprising for us tourists to ask questions, such as, "Is there any educational requirement to do a job like this?" and "What was the most interesting method for sound effect production you ever employed?" So if you go to the Foley stage on the deluxe Warner Bros. tour, make sure you ask a good question or two.

Warner Bros. Water Tower

For the sake of keeping you satisfied with images, here are pictures of the famous Warner Bros. Water Tower, located not too far from the Foley stage I visited.

Lunch Time!

Here's another part of the tour that was only for the deluxe tour and that did not permit photography.

There are two places where one can eat at Warner Bros. One is a cafeteria. The other is a commissary with fine dining. As part of the big price for a deluxe tour, the tour guide took us to lunch in the commissary. I can remember feeling a constant sense of awe while being seated by the maitre d', looking at the menu that many celebrities must've looked at already, and giving my main course and drink order to the waiter. Then I asked the tour guide if he recognized anyone famous sitting in this restaurant. At the time, there was only one he could point out: the director of The Princess Bride, sitting about two or three tables away. He did say that, in the past, he spotted other celebrities in this fine dining room, such as George Clooney and Justin Timberlake.

The entire group and I chatted about plenty of things over lunch, like where we came from and the tour guide's interest in movies and TV. As for the food, it was undeniably delicious. The soup of the day was a smooth and creamy potato leek, something I never had before in my life. The main course I chose was a juicy medium-well slab of steak with a side salad dressed with balsamic. The dessert was an assortment of bite-sized treats on a plate, like mini-cakes and chocolates with cream filling. In the end, I was full, but well rested and ready to get back on tour.

Warner Bros. Mill

It's one thing to see film sets the way they are constructed. It's another thing to see how they are made from scratch.

The tour guide drove the tram through the Warner Bros. mill where pieces of wood are gathered and assembled into bigger pieces. Passing by different sections of the mill allowed us to understand the general process of placing an order at a window, putting raw materials together into components for a set, and preparing these components for delivery to their intended destinations on the lot. This part of the tour may be highly industrial and technical, but seeing it provided a much deeper understanding of how much work really goes into a few minutes, or even a few seconds, worth of film.

Props Galore!

Besides raw materials for construction, film sets require another essential component: props. This is where the Warner Bros. prop house comes in handy, and I mean REALLY come in handy. That's because it's a massive warehouse storing tons of things on four floors: the ground floor, two upper floors, and a basement. The place is so gigantic that the tour guide took us through just the ground level. I don't remember if part of the reason had to do with the uniqueness and preciousness of certain props, but it doesn't matter. Walking through just one floor of the prop house was exhausting enough. To see the other three floors might just be repetitive.

So what did I see along the way? Well, for one thing, there was a check-out counter where all items from the prop house are documented whenever they are taken out to a film set, similar to checking out a book from a public library. We then saw rooms and shelves full of religious artifacts, telephones and radios from different time periods, trophies, seals related to U.S. political offices, furniture for the Oval Office of the White House, samurai costumes, chairs, musical instruments, and much more. There were so many things that the photos below are only a sample of what I saw.

The Batman Movies

Next stop: the Warner Bros. Archives. Not to learn about what work goes on in this building, but to check out two movie-related exhibits.

One was related to Batman. Because the superhero was created in 1939, the 75th anniversary of Batman had passed. Hence, there was a display of Batman comic covers over the years. But the purpose of the exhibit was to celebrate not the Batman comics, but the Batman movies. Most of the first floor of the Warner Bros. Archives building was a showcase of all of the Batman movies from Warner Bros., from Batman in 1989 to The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Each display had notable costumes and props actually used in the movie, so what you see below is the real deal. Plus, there was a display of different Batman facemasks used over the years.

At this point, I'm going to temporarily fast-forward to stay on topic. In a separate building during a later segment of the tour, we were taken to a building that houses various vehicles from the Batman movies, plus a Bat Signal spotlight. Check it all out below.

The Harry Potter Movies

The other exhibit in the Warner Bros. Archives building was on the second floor: costume and props from the Harry Potter movies. I saw costumes for Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley worn respectively by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint in multiple Harry Potter movies, from the first to the last. Other notable things on display included costumes for other characters like Severus Snape, fake troll legs, the Marauder's Map, a giant spider, and a recognizable wanted poster. Oh, and there was the Sorting Hat, which, when one put it on his or her head, was accompanied by a random voice recording that announced what house of Hogwarts to place the person in. Plenty of visitors had fun with that feature.

Passing by Soundstages

The tram passed through the area of the Warner lot dedicated to soundstages. There were plenty of stages we passed by, which often had plaques noting what major films and TV shows had been shot there. For the sake of brevity, I'll provide just a small sample.

First off, Stage 24, which is also called the Friends Stage because the hit television sitcom Friends, which aired on NBC from 1994 to 2004, was taped inside.

Next is Stage 16, where two notable film scenes were shot. One was the campfire/bean/fart scene from Blazing Saddles. Then, roughly four decades later, Stage 16 provided a set for The Hangover Part III, specifically the close-up shots of Bradley Cooper and Zack Galifianakis climbing down the top of Caesar's Palace using a makeshift bedsheet rope.

The last photo I'll share is the entrance to the set of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, a daytime talk show. The tour guide even mentioned that the parking space to the right of the door is reserved for Ellen DeGeneres herself. (Looking at the photo I originally took before reducing its size below for display on this webpage, the empty parking space has the "E. DEGENERES" label partially visible.)

On the Set of Two TV Shows

OK, time for another segment of the tour where photos were not allowed: visiting the sets of two television shows.

One was the soundstage for Pretty Little Liars, a drama series centering on a group of four young girls. This is a show I never heard of and know nothing about. The same might apply to the other men in my group. On the other hand, the ladies in my tour group (ALL of them!) expressed great delight in stepping onto the set of this show, and that excitement amplified when the tour guide allowed them to sit on a couch that is part of the set and, therefore, seen on the show.

The entire soundstage for this show consists of multiple fake rooms, each with their own unique design and do not always physically connect with each other. We were also shown a kitchen and given the explanation that, because there is no running water here, water pumps are used to create water flow from a sink if needed (a fact I already learned from my previous tour of Sony Pictures). It was all interesting for me to hear, though not as much as for the ladies in the group who marveled at every room they entered.

The other set we visited was for an entirely different show: the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory. It consists of three sections from left to right: a small apartment, a stairwell, and a large apartment. The stairwell is only for one floor, meaning that scenes of characters going up or down stairs require filming of the same stairwell multiple times, redesigning the stairwell each time to provide the illusion of a different floor. It's neat how a show can do so much with just three interior locations.

Also, this is a sitcom with a live audience, so there is a large seating area spanning the same length of the three-part set. There are microphones to capture the audience's laughter and TV monitors to provide a view of the set in case a scene is filmed at one end of the set and audience members are sitting at the other end. Another thing to know is that the writers of this show want to generate genuine laughter in response to their written jokes. If the audience fails to laugh adequately, the writers and actors will actually work to rewrite the scene until it's funny enough.

Winding Down to the End

The tour guide took us to our last tour area, which was a self-guided tour in a building. Therefore, the tour guide said goodbye and made sure that each of us received a gift bag, which was also part of the tour price. Every one of us thanked the tour guide with utmost praise and appreciation, because we saw and learned so much. After the tour guide left, each one of us tourists said goodbye to each other before proceeding through the final tour segment at our own paces.

At this point, I have to mention the bad news. I don't have photos for this section, not because they weren't allowed to be taken or shared online, but because the battery in my camera had run out shortly before this point of the tour. So if you go on the deluxe Warner Bros. tour, bring TWO cameras just in case. For now, use your imagination once more.

The first few exhibits provided an overview of screenwriting and casting, because choosing which script to produce and which actors and actresses to play certain parts require much careful evaluation and decision-making. Next was something completely different: a replica of the set of Friends, with some stuff about the final episode of the show. After that, there was an area where you can act in front of a green screen and have a little film featuring yourself. There were three options for that: riding a magic broom from the Harry Potter movies, riding a Batpod from The Dark Knight, or being an astronaut in a space station disaster in Gravity.

Nearby, there was a small exhibit exploring the perspective techniques involved in making Hobbits appear small and Gandalf appear large in the Lord of the Rings movies and the Hobbit movies. Although I still do not fully understand the trick, I at least visualized the result. I sat in a chair on one side of a table, and on a nearby video monitor, I looked small like a Hobbit. Then I sat in a chair on the other side of the same table, and on the monitor, I looked big like Gandalf. I imagine two people can do this together and be amused by the results.

Lastly, there was a short presentation on sound mixing. It's very easy to comprehend, because it involved watching and listening to four versions of the same movie clip: the scene from Gravity where Sandra Bullock's character is stuck to a chunk of a destroyed space station that is spinning like crazy. The first version only had Bullock's spoken lines, the second only had sound effects, the third only had music, and the fourth combined all three. Pretty neat.

End of Tour

After the Gravity presentation, I entered the Warner Bros. gift shop, though I didn't buy anything. In fact, I barely browsed around, because I was exhausted. I exited the store and stepped into a tram that would take me back to the parking lot.

During the ride, I opened the gift bag to look at what I received. It was a biographical book, titled The Brothers Warner: The Intimate Story of a Hollywood Studio Family Dynasty, as told by Harry Warner's granddaughter Cass Warner Sperling, with Cork Millner and Jack Warner Jr. It was definitely an appropriate gift item and one that anyone visiting Warner Bros. would enjoy. (As of this writing, I have read the whole book and thought it was good. It has plenty of interesting insights into the Warner brothers' notable film business achievements as well as their private lives, accompanied by photos and some words from a variety of people other than the four Warner brothers.)

Once I reached the parking lot, I got into my car and rested for a little while. This was one incredible movie studio tour, like the Sony Pictures tour but magnified by a factor of at least three. It was such an awesome experience that I am strongly recommending that you take the tour yourself, especially because you will see things that I did not describe here and because being there is still much better than just reading an account of my tour. I do have a feeling that the Warner Bros. studio tour business will continue to succeed.

With that, I drove my car out of the Warner Bros. parking lot and headed down a freeway to meet two people for dinner. That was when they asked about what I did earlier in the day, and the story I told absolutely amazed them.



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