Let me start by saying this is absolutely the best tour I have ever been on in my life. Yes, Paramount Studios is iconic and everywhere we turned we saw something from an iconic TV show or film, but it was more than that. The tour itself was several hours long, we never felt rushed, our tour guide was so amazing I gave her a $50 tip. Most importantly, “backstage” meant exactly that. Let me walk you through it!
First, we arrived at Paramount and parked across from the gate in visitor Lot A. Just seeing the gates was pretty special, and we had a short walk down to the tours building.
Right when we walked in the tour it was very exciting. We got VERY nice tour laminates and they had some memorabilia, including Oscars, the Maverick helmet, and my favorite: Star Trek. Paramount has been around for a really long time (since 1912!) and in the past it merged with Desilu studios, acquiring the Star Trek franchise. Walking in and seeing the uniforms gave me tingles. Oh, and did I mention we got to hold a real Oscar? Well, we did, and weighing 8 lbs it is heavier than you expect it to be, just like everyone says.
After the Oscar pics, we walked outside in our small group (there were 5 of us along with a guide) and went to our golf cart. It was a nice one and there was plenty of room. The VIP tour came with complimentary drinks and I will caution you to avoid coffee. Everyone who got the coffee struggled with it on the cart, but I got iced tea and it was perfect. Then we started off on our tour. I don’t really know what their pattern was (but there definitely was one, so I am just going to show you what we saw in the chunks we saw them. Our guide kept us away from the “Hot” or actively shooting areas, but we were close enough that it was possible we would see someone famous. The day we were there they were shooting the Rookie, but unfortunately no Nathan Fillion sightings. That would have been awesome! The deal is by the way if they approach you…great, otherwise just watch and don’t be a nuisance.
One of the other things I really liked about the tour was as we walked around the tour guide showed us iPad clips from shows filmed in these places. One interesting one was an added scene to Top Gun (the original). The preview showing had a lack of chemistry between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis so they had this scene on her “porch.” It actually was filmed in a tiny corner behind a snack area. Crazy but as soon as she showed the clip you could see it. Here’s the clip, and you can see the actual location below.
What struck me the most is how much of a community this lot is and how much history. Each Stage had a list of major shows and films that had filmed on it and the crew (who was actively working that day) knew each other and the tour guides. Mainly we tried to get as close to the action as possible without getting in the way and it was fun zipping around. I will say the VIP Tour has quite a bit of walking (which is a good thing!!!), just be prepared for it.
The one set we got to visit was Dr. Phil’s. This is the longest running show on the Paramount Lot and he’s got quite the setup. I wasn’t supposed to take pictures but grabbed a couple, but honestly all I could think about was how Lee made Public Access Television with a 20th (a 50th) of what Dr. Phil has. And in my opinion most of it was much better television.
One of the coolest things we did was visit the sign shop. There is a union sign shop on the property (all departments are different unions) and they make signs for both this studio and others. The person who spoke to us for a long time grew up in the trade and his father was one of the last people who hand paints signs. Today most signs are computer printed but there is still a calling for the old fashioned painting on occasion. He explained how they are required to follow up the 20% difference rule for any product they are using that isn’t licensed. The brain tricks you usually when you are just glancing at something. Let me show this as an example. Just glance at the picture below and then really look at again.
Sure if you really looked at the sign you would get it but filmmakers controls that. They decide how long a shot is or how blurry so its not like they are going to stay on the picture too long. The whole thing was super interesting and they spent a ton of time talking to us which we really appreciated.
Around this time I was getting pretty hungry but they were prepared for that. We had a nice sit down lunch in the executive dining room that had wedge salad, chicken piccata, desert, and vegetables. Seriously it was REALLY good and I had seconds. We spent some time getting to know the others in our group and the tour guide and then we headed back out. The main reason we bought the VIP tour was it included some of the props area and we headed to the backlot. First we stopped and saw all the places they shoot scenes and I have to say I was blown away. Lee could explain this better, but the buildings are designed to support all kinds of camera angles and tricks (ie: forced perspective) and every part could be used in multiple ways. I’m going to have to show you but it was pretty great, especially with Lee there to explain everything. The tour guide was good but Lee knows a lot and even the tour guide seemed impressed. When I explained to the other guys in the party Lee watched movies like they watched sports they seemed to get it. He wasn’t showing off he was just really excited to be in his element.
My favorite thing for some reason was this tiny skyscraper. I don’t know why but I guess they shot these scenes in real downtowns (and maybe sometimes they do) but I loved this. Movies is magic.
After the back lot we went into the film restoration area. Paramount is working on digitizing all its old film and we saw reels for Pulp Fiction, Star Trek, and many other shows. This is extremely important work for the film industry because film does disintegrate over time, but certainly not as flashy as some of the other trades.
On the second floor above the film transfer there were some props. I wish I could describe how haphazard it all seemed and I am sure there is a method to their madness but I didn’t get it. It’s important to note we only saw a very small portion of the props/costume collection but I really appreciated one person’s office that had tons of jewelry. Her job was to try and match the jewelry to the movie which in the case of some of the older black and whites is no small feat. The whole thing was really cool and being that close to so many props was pretty amazing. No fancy glass cases here or museum quality lighting just stuff everywhere with simple signs to say what it is. These aren’t “top tier” items by the way those do go into museums (like the Smithsonian) or collections but cool enough for me.
After the costume/prop area I thought we were done but there was more to see. Next stop is the water tank/parking lot. OK I don’t even know how to explain this but there is a section of parking lot that slopes and has concrete sides. At one end there is a giant sign that can be painted to look like the horizon. This water area is 4-1/2 feet deep and take a day to fill and a day to drain. The parting of the red sea scene in the 10 commandments was filmed here but they also filmed the Whale scene in Star Trek Voyage Home as well. All I can say is amazing.
A few last things. Seriously this tour wiped me out but in a totally good way. We went into a huge warehouse with loads of gear which Lee really loved. Again everything is union so its not like you can just get a job but I think he would be in heaven if he could work someplace like this. The warehouse is not only for Paramount but also the other studios in the area.
Our last thing was a prop room with lots of large props. The best thing about this for me was they had a Star Trek Turbo lift and I actually got tears in my eyes when I stood in it. The tour guide was very sweet about my rush of emotion but for me that was as a very special moment.
My advice is if you are ever in this area do the Paramount Tour AND pay the extra for the VIP version. It is so very worth it. Holding an Oscar, seeing props, seeing the backstage lots, and a wonderful tour guide and lunch. Definitely best tour I have ever been on in my life. Of any kind.
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