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15 Minutes of Fame

By Phillip Cohen - Torrance, CA

SCLS crew helps in the filming of "Dig"

Bringing the locomotive into the studio. (click for larger view)

Being a live steam club in Southern California has its perks! The Los Angeles area, besides being over crowded and a giant maze of freeways, is also the world's entertainment capitol. The Southern California Live Steamers is located in Torrance, CA which is a small town located about 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood, the heart of the movie making industry.

On Sunday May 2nd, one of our public run days, we had a special visitor. Her name was Heather Reese and she was working as the Production Designer for a movie that was being made at the USC Film School. This was a thesis movie for writer / director Phil Hodges and would be a short film named "Dig". The USC School of Cinematic Arts has a very impressive history and quite a list of famous directors, cinematographers and others in the film industry including such people as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis to name a few.

Eric applying the final mortar to one of the tunnel sections. (click for larger view)

Heather asked us if we could provide a steam train to use in the upcoming shoot of the movie and asked to see some of our locomotives. We showed her around the facility, and eventually settled on our club's Allen American 4-4-0 locomotive, the Yosemite Valley #613. The train we would use consisted of the locomotive, tender, a stock car which held the propane, and a caboose. We also provided a flat car that could be used as a platform for the camera for moving shots as well as 10 sections of track, some curved and some straight. This would give us a 100 foot run on the sound stage.

Steve Claude laying down the track through a tunnel section.
(click for larger view)

On Friday, May 28th, Steve and I loaded up the truck with the locomotive, tools, fuel and other required goodies and headed out to the "Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts" which is a huge production facility with many sound stages located in downtown Los Angeles. We arrived at approximately 10 am and saw that the sets for our scenes were almost complete. With the help of other crew members we unloaded the locomotive onto a pallet jack and wheeled it and the other cars inside the sound stage. The facility had compressed air and water so we were set when the time came to fire up the locomotive. That would be quite a bit later, as we found out that nothing happens quickly on a movie shoot.

While they were shooting other scenes from the film we got busy putting the track sections together through the tunnel sections that had been built by the Art Director, Eric Cantley. He and his crew did an amazing job with the various sets and under the proper lighting it is amazing how realistic they look. Eventually they finished up with other scenes they were shooting, and we moved the tunnels and track into the proper area in the center of the sound stage so that we had a small run of 100 feet in a gentle arc with tunnels at each end and the station in the center.

Heather (right) and a PA building the train station for the Weasel scene. (click for larger image)
DP Raul with the camera mounted on the flat car ready to go into the tunnel.
(Click for larger view)

There was a small station in the center of the arc where the action would take place between "Merlot", the French Weasel (a puppet) and "Doug" (Justin Tinucci, a real boy). We fired up the locomotive and ran it through the tracks to make sure that everything was ok and we had no problems with derailments etc.. All worked fine and we were ready to go. In the first scene to be shot they only needed to use the flat car to roll into the station from one of the tunnels. A camera was mounted on the flatcar and the Director of Photography, Raul Fernandez, sat behind it. They clamped a GOBO arm to the flatcar so they could push it into the tunnel for the shot. The next shot required just the caboose where Merlot the weasel would be surprised by Doug coming down the tracks after discovering the tunnel while digging. The puppeteers manipulated the puppet while it was standing in the station and also had it jump the train and finally stick it's head out the window of the caboose. It took several takes and various camera angles to get the shot which translated into many hours of shooting and before long, I think the entire script was drilled deep into our brains and committed to memory by the time we were finished for the day as it was repeated over and over.

The American steams through the tunnel in a test run.
(click for larger view)

We had to clear the studio at around 10:30 as the studio was closing for the night and the young actor could only be on the set for so many hours per day due to the various labor laws. So at 10:30 PM we shut the locomotive down and went home for a good nights rest after a very long day. The plan was to come back in the morning and finish the shoot and then head up with the locomotive to the Los Angeles Live Steamers Spring Meet. Well that was the plan or so we thought.

S.C.L.S. club member Charlie Giordano and actor Justin Tinucci (Doug) pose by the locomotive.
(Click for larger view)

Saturday morning two young SLCS club members, Charlie Giordano (13) and Dale Van Ingen (15), joined us to help in the shoot and to eventually head up to the LALS Spring Meet. Neither of them had every been to a sound stage or movie filming so this would be a great learning experience for them. We had to change the configuration of the track to facilitate lighting and added more pieces of tunnel section but we were ready to go. We fired up the locomotive and did a few run through's. The idea being that I would open the throttle and send it on its way and Steve would catch it at the far end and stop the train. Meanwhile the filming and sound recording would be going on as the train either passed through the station or stopped with just the caboose exposed. Marks were put down with tape so that steve could see where to stop the locomotive so that the scene would be correct in the camera's field of view.

Filming with Merlot the weasel and the SCLS caboose in the station.
(click for larger view)

The American locomotive sort of has a mind of it's own and when the throttle was open it decided that it wanted to move, and move it did as it ran through the station at a higher then expected rate of speed. I wish I had a camera focused on Steve's face to see the look of fear and terror as 400 lbs of train came out of the tunnel headed for him to stop! He did it ok and it only pushed him back about 15 feet on the slick sound stage floor. Needless to say we missed the mark that we were supposed to stop at, but they did get some classic footage of a steam engine highballing it through the station. It took a few more tries but we got the bugs worked out and got the engine to do what we wanted at the speeds we required. I think that Charlie aged a few years, he had to go outside, as he couldn't watch his beloved American run down the tracks into the waiting arms of it's catchers. Personally I think he worries too much as there really was no danger. Everything worked out great and we got some amazing shots from all sorts of angles, high and low. After the shooting was finished we moved the locomotive outside and blew it down in the parking lot, let it cool a bit and loaded it and the other stuff back into the truck. It was just getting dark and everyone was beat so we decided that going to LALS was probably not a good idea.

We brought the locomotive and goodies back to the club and unloaded them and put them back in their containers then went for a nice late dinner to relax and relive the excitement of the day. It was disappointing that we didn't make it to the LALS meet, but I think that everyone had a really great time and learned a lot about the magic world of movie making. We all can't wait to help out in another production.We are all looking forward to the release of the film and are sure that it will be a very entertaining movie with the possibilty of becoming an actual feature length film. Now I just have to get Merlot's lines out of my head. Laughing

Some other photographs of the sound stage and all of the people at work creating magic.

Actor Justin Tinucci (Doug) sits on the tender waiting his call.
(click for larger view)

a partial view of the tunnels and tracks on the sounds stage.
(click for larger view)
Merlot the French weasel with puppeteer Mark Villalobos
(click for larger view)

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4635 Views as of 5/30/2010 4:05:28 PM


About the Author:

Phillip Cohen is a former aerospace engineer. Currently a part time professional photographer and full time computer programmer specializing in database driven websites and business applications. Phil is currently the webmaster for Southern California Live Steamers and president of the South Bay Camera Club, also in Torrance.


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Comment Date: 5/31/2010 1:38:00 PM
Comment By: Steve C
From: R.P.V.
Great post Phil, I could not have described it better myself.