Universal Studios unveils rebuilt backlot after 2008 fire

Universal Studios unveiled four acres of newly rebuilt New York Street backlot locations today, two years after a fire destroyed the sets.

"This is a proud day for Universal Studios," said its president and chief operating officer, Ron Meyer. "The opening of New York Street shows the company's commitment to film and television production in Los Angeles, and to supporting filmmakers worldwide."

Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg was part of the creative team that designed the new sets, which consist of 13 city blocks of buildings. He was joined by production designer Rick Carter, who won an Oscar for "Avatar" and also crafted the look of "Back to the Future."

They called the construction "The Phoenix Project."

Aside from the original main street, new sets include a modern New York City block with a glass and steel look, Paris Square, London Square and Central Park.

Spielberg said a backlot can be used to portray "not just New York but London and anywhere else your imagination takes you, because a backlot can be anything an art department and a director and a writer put in our imaginations."

"This backlot is a fertile basis for everyone's use, everyone's imagination, and I think this'll be around forever, especially with a new improved fire system that has been installed here, which has been fantastic," he added.

According to the studio, the overall design concept concentrated on detail work that would cater to modern filmmaking needs.

For example:

– the facade heights were increased to 40 to 50 feet to give the set a big city downtown feel;

– the width of the main street was narrowed so cameras can film both sides of the street in the same shot;

– the new facades have unobstructed interior shooting spaces so productions can shoot both interiors and exteriors without returning to a sound stage;

– long vista shots through archways are now possible to give added depth to scenes;

– for chase sequences, cameras can be positioned on the reinforced facade roofs or mounted on a crane to follow the action;

– the new Courthouse Square has a fire station large enough to hold a full-sized fire truck;

– as an added touch of realism, the manhole covers can emit special effects steam; and

– London Square has chimneys rigged for special effect smoke.

"I am so proud that the heart of the entertainment industry is right here in California, and I am committed to making sure it remains here," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"This site at Universal Studios offers a wealth of creative opportunities for Hollywood moviemaking and television production here in Los Angeles, and it will draw tourists from around the world to satisfy their curiosity and fascination with the behind-the-scenes magic of the movie and television industry," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said.

The new sets will become part of the University Studio tour. Meanwhile, a new King Kong 360 3D attraction created by Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson will open this summer, to replace the old one that also burned in the fire, along with a video vault.

"With the arrival of the highly anticipated King Kong 360 3D, taking the 3D experience to a powerful new level, and the completion of the iconic New York Street locations, we're offering a more compelling behind-the-scenes experience than at any time in our history," said Larry Kurzweil, Universal Studios Hollywood's president and chief operating officer.

To show its gratitude to the firefighters who put out the blaze that destroyed the original sets, Universal Studios will donate $100,000 over five years to local firefighting departments so they can buy additional equipment to ensure firefighter safety.

The studio also worked with the Los Angeles County Fire and Building & Safety departments to create new guidelines for fire safety on the new sets. All have fully automatic sprinkler systems, central fire alarm system, built-in fire separation areas and a separate water supply infrastructure.

A fixture in Hollywood for decades, New York Street has been the setting of countless commercials, television shows and movies such as "The Sting," "Blues Brothers," "To Kill A Mockingbird," "Back To The Future," "Frost/Nixon" and "Bruce Almighty." It burned in an accidental fire on June 1, 2008.

At the height of the construction, 500 workers were employed on the project daily. By the end of construction, on June 30, more than a million work-hours will have been completed.

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