Why does a scene shot in the "backlot" look so fake?

A lot of TV series and movies need a steret sequence, but instead of blocking off a genuine street, which is expensive and upsets traffic, they decide to use the Warner or Universal backlot, which is a permanent set of various street corners and generic buildings.

But every single time, it is glaringly obvious that this is a fake set. Why?

Here’s what I know:
[li]They aren’t real buildings, and have only a suggestion of interior so there’s some amount of lighting and superficial walls behind the front doors and windows.[/li][li]I think they’re built of genuine construction materials, but I may be wrong.[/li][li]They get redressed and repainted constantly, to look like different streets or cities. Though with an unusual number of New York brownstones.[/li][li]They are really outdoors, so there is genuine sunlight lighting the scene.[/li][li]The streets are narrower than actual city streets.[/li][li]There is no camber to the roads.[/li][li]There are an unlikely number of T-junctions capping very short lanes to hide the short amount of room on the backlot.[/li][/ul]

But these are talented set decorators and art directors at work. Why is it that no matter what they do to it, and what huge level of budget they are in charge of, it still looks like How I Met Your Mother?

I’ve never worked on a lot, but here are a couple of guesses.

Backlots are used, and re-used, and used again. Seeing the same structures repeatedly in several films, especially when you know it’s a ‘set’, makes them easier to pick out.

Try as the set decorators may, they seem to have trouble getting ‘reality’. In an alley or a downtown area, there’s a ‘lived in’ look that the decorators don’t ‘get’. Go downtown and look around. There are cigarette butts, bird crap (looks at OP Heh.), sputum, and all sorts of nasty things. There’s real trash, often wet. Movie trash often looks like so much crumpled paper that’s easy to clean up. The buildings don’t seem to have the imperfections (stains, cracks, grime, etc.) that real buildings do. ISTM that they leave out too many details.

While there is natural sunlight, often the lighting on backlots seems fake. Overlit, like. On a real location there are limits to what lights can be used and where they can be put. Lots are more flexible. You can have banks of reflectors where a building should be. I think the lack of limitations make it too easy to go too far.

These are just guesses, but they’re things I think about when I see something shot on a lot.

Oddly enough I am often struck by the exact opposite - how you see footage of movie or TV interiors being shot, say in a “making of…” and the scenes look so cheap and fake and totally unconvincing. However when you see the actual movie or TV show it looks great.

The ‘making of’ footage and outtakes are usually raw footage, without the colour correction, exposure correction, and other things that go into the finished film.

Also, before non-linear editing became widely-used, ‘workprints’ were made for editing. Workprints were often made on cheaper, grainier film. Once the film was edited, the negative would be cut to conform to the edited workprint. Workprints are often used when other footage can’t be found.

A big reason is the size of the street, as the back lot city streets are much, much smaller than a big city avenue.
While there is redress, there’s not a whole lot of repainting of the exteriors.
I believe that the lack of camber does play a part, as well as the short streets and T intersections.
Universal’s NYC is still being constructed as a result of a fire, but I am willing to bet that it will be spectacular compared to other back lot streets which are decades older.
The property that gets used the most in Los Angeles, however, is probably Los Angeles Center Studios. I can find L.A. Center on the tv, in the form of commercial, episodic show, or movie within 5 minutes of surfing, more likely less than that.

No, really I mean the half hour shot on video puff pieces where, with the different angles and things, you can see how ordinary the interior sets look. And I saw the Star Wars exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum and closeup most of the costumes and props are laughable. Yet through careful visual trickery than can make this not visible on film.

So why so much harder with exteriors? Just an interesting conundrum.

Ah. Got ya. You’re right. It’s visual trickery. Often the things that are in the background look like crap in real life. That’s because they’re not intended to be scrutinized closely. For example, silicon prop guns are unconvincing when you hold them. But usually they’re indistinguishable from real ones when you see them on-screen in the hands of an extra in the background somewhere or in a quick shot. In one of the Raiders films a handgun is dropped out of a car. I’ve never looked close enough to tell it’s ‘rubber’; but there are fans who study every frame who have noted it. But in a quick shot in a chase scene, only the fanboys will notice because they want an exact copy of what was used. Nobody else will.

Structural mouldings and such are often plaster instead of carved wood. Things on film only have to look good enough to be convincing, and things like lighting and depth-of-field cover up flaws in a movie that are exposed when they’re examined closely in a ‘behind the scenes’ closeup.

Oh, another thing. ‘Cheats’. There was a mirror or glassed-in picture in a shot we were getting that showed the camera in reflection. We stuck a block behind one edge so that that edge was 4" away from the wall. But you couldn’t tell because of the angle of the shot. We’d also move things around – ‘cheat’ them – so that the composition looked right in the frame.

If backlot scenes are done well, you’re not really going to notice, are you? It’s like spotting a toupee: everyone notices the bad ones, but for all we know, there might be people walking around with good ones and we would never know.

Not to mention that chromakey is more prevalent these days.

For some of us the layout is so familiar that new facades make it look wrong. I’ve been watching Hollywood stuff for over 40 years, and I can spot the Universal backlot quite easily. It doesn’t help that I’ve taken the tour four times.

Aha. That is a good point.

Thanks for the link! I just watched the video. Wow! About half of it looked obviously fake to me, particularly the ones from that beauty magazine show and others with mismatched lighting, and possibly the camera angles being slightly wrong. Having said that, the other half was really great, and having seen some of the original shows I didn’t realise some of those scenes were faked with a green screen. That was impressive, and miles ahead of the tired old backlots.

For what it’s worth, some of them look a bit creepy in real life as well, but some parts that they use in TV are actually real working buildings.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work on the WB lot in LA. We were installing some network monitoring equipment, and had to meet up at the IT contact’s office. As I walked across the lot, towards the building, I got an odd feeling that I knew this building somehow. I did. I was a big fan of the Lois & Clark, “Superman” series. Of course, I didn’t know how I knew the building until I saw the plaque on the building that said it was the “Star Labs” building. (Superman’s doctor & science expert worked here… yes, I’m pitiful when it comes to Superman shows. :slight_smile: )

The West Wing set was bizzare. “Locations” that you knew well from real life TV events, but in a location that was only 3/4 of a room, and definitely not located in the correct location relative to each other. The big kick there was the “President” riding by on a bicycle after calling the “Marine guards” to attention, and saying “Hi!”.

Both the “Star Labs” building, and the West Wing set, very much reminded me of the first time I walked through Daley Plaza in Dallas (I didn’t know we were going to walk through there on the way from the hotel to downtown), and thinking… “I know this place… how do I know this? I’ve never been here…”

Wow, I didn’t know that this was used so much. Is this supposed to cut costs for making the scenes? It seems to me that it would take a lot of effort to build all of that into a shot.

A lot of it is just photos assembled into a finished image, which isn’t very expensive to do. Though it does take talented artists to create these kinds of matte paintings.

The 3D footage, for camera move shots, can be a combination of 2D and 3D.

Once you have the assets built and textured, you can slot them in anywhere with a lot less effort than having to build every detail from scratch. 50 or so generic vehicle and building models can be placed and animated relatively quickly, and compositing in pedestrians etc, from the library of footage they’ve assembled over the years, makes it faster, easier, and cheaper every year that passes.

I wish I had their resources, though. It’s impressive work.

Neat video.

The music was the same they use for Cold Case. That was distracting.

That’s “Nara” by E.S. Posthumus, BTW.

That was a really interesting video.

But I would’ve sworn you were linking to this video on chromakey.

Cool, thanks!