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The story behind LA's mysterious yellow and black filming location signs

by Kevin Ferguson | Off-Ramp

Jim Morris is the general manager for JCL Traffic, a sign maker in Los Angeles that makes yellow directional signs for film sets. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Base Camp. Bully. Anonymous. Heima. 

Nonsense written on yellow and black signs all over Los Angeles, each with a giant arrow. Where do they come from? What do they mean? 

If you've lived in Los Angeles for more than a couple years, you probably know the basics already: TV and film production companies use the yellow and black signs you see on the side of the road as directions to film sets.

But it's 2015. The age of the smartphone, the built in navigation system, Waze. Why do the cast and crew need yellow and black signs pointing the way?

Byll Williams is a location manager who works in Los Angeles, and he says it isn't that simple. "Everybody, when they're an individual, is very intelligent," he says. "When they're a group, for some reason, intelligence goes out the window. And they get lost on one way streets."

When I met Byll he was preparing for a Ford car commercial near the L.A. Times building Downtown. As if to prove his point, his phone rings midway through our interview—a crew member needed directions.

Location Managers are a crucial part of the filmmaking industry in Los Angeles. Byll and his colleagues with the Location Managers Guild coordinate logistics for the crew, talk with local officials and, of course, put up the signs.

Location managers are often the first on set and the last to leave. When I met Byll downtown, it was 7:30 a.m. And he hadn’t gotten to bed until 4 a.m. the night before.

He sets up signs pointing to a couple different parking lots—things like TRUCKS and CREW are written on top of the sign, and inside the black arrow it says "Anonymous"  — Anonymous Content is the production company.

Sometimes, though, the production company doesn't want to reveal its name, or the project it's working on. Signs for "The Dark Knight Rises" read "Magnus Rex." "We Bought a Zoo," the Cameron Crowe movie, had the code word "Heima" — Icelandic for home. It keeps the super fans and paparazzi away. Williams says commercial shoots are starting to use the signs, too.

If you need one of the signs yourself, your best bet is to hit up JCL Traffic—one of the leading manufacturers. In their Arts District warehouse, they make traffic signs for every occasion: no parking, road work ahead, lane closed and the humble, yellow-and-black set location signs. 

Jim Morris, JCL's general manager, is a former location manager and says the "location directional" signs, now printed on a durable corrugated plastic, came about as an idea from another scout. Before that, it was the dark ages.

"People would use foam core, which was very expensive," said Morris. "The sheets cost like about $10 a sign. And then if it rained, they would fall apart. They would use old posting signs — anything you could find — paper plates."

Here's how they're made: First comes the message — it's typed out on a computer and then etched in vinyl. Then the message is "weeded out" from the vinyl:

Then—in another part of the building—employees pull out unmarked yellow signs with the black arrow preprinted on them. Like a bumper sticker, the vinyl is rolled out and applied to the sign:

Then, voila! The vinyl writing gets peeled from the sign, and filmmakers now can find their set: 

One employee at JCL estimates he makes about 80 to 100 signs per day and ships them anywhere.

JCL also wants to do more than just location signs and traffic control. In another part of the factory, they have dozens of street signs designed for the city of South El Monte. If you want to buy a sign for yourself, you're in luck: JCL is open to the public.

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