WHILE MUCH MOVIE MAGIC happens inside large studios and enormous environmentally controlled warehouses, California has a special advantage that makes it the ideal home for the movie industry: an incredibly diverse landscape. With such a variety of terrains, it’s no surprise the Golden State has been such a titan on the silver screen for the past century. Just check out this map Paramount Studios released to investors in 1927, to demonstrate how much of the world they could fake without leaving their own backyard.
You might think the entire industry is situated in Los Angeles (Hollywood), and perhaps in a satellite location like San Francisco, and for the most part you’d be right. Yet, there’s a whole lot of California (163,696 square miles to be exact), which means a multitude of other places those cinematographers visit when they need to get the perfect shot, be it of desert landscapes, less-recognizable cityscapes, plains, or prisons. Places like these.
1. Lone Pine
If you haven’t heard of Lone Pine, that’s probably because you’re either not native to the area, or aren’t filming a Western. Located in Inyo County, in eastern California square between Sequoia and Death Valley National Parks, Lone Pine is home to only 2,035 people and is considered “frontier” land by the US Census Bureau.
Historically a mining town, Lone Pine (and its “Alabama Hills”) became a key location for major motion pictures about the Old West in 1920, during the filming of The Round-Up, and subsequently was used as the backdrop for hundreds of commercials, television shows, and films. Recent films shot in Lone Pine include The Lone Ranger (2013), Gladiator (2000), and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).
2. San Diego
When I think of San Diego, I think of two things. First and foremost, San Diego Comic Con, that massive annual convergence of nerd culture I’ve tried to attend every year since I was 12 and still haven’t made it to; and of course, that infamous scene from Anchorman where Ron Burgundy describes the origin of the city’s name.
This makes it painfully apparent that I’ve never personally been to San Diego. On the coast of Southern California, San Diego is home to approximately 1.33 million people, seating it as the eighth-largest city in the United States, and the second largest in California. Some key films shot in San Diego include: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) (coincidentally, the first Anchorman, set in San Diego, was actually filmed in Long Beach), cult classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978), Top Gun (1986), and True Lies (1994).
Nicknamed the “Endurance Capital of the World” (thanks to Auburn State Recreational Area, the premier location for endurance-based sporting events), Auburn sits northeast of Sacramento, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, just an hour or so from Lake Tahoe.
Due to its frontier landscape and the old-timey feel of Old Town, Auburn has been an ideal filming location for such films as: The Phantom (1996), Phenomenon (1996), The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), xXx (2002), and The Ugly Truth (2009).
The only sizable settlement in Tuolumne County, in east-central California, Sonora is home to just under 5,000 people (as of the 2010 census). Once a mining and timber city, Sonora, with its proximity to Yosemite National Park, is now almost exclusively a tourism town.
Described by the Tuolumne County Film Commission as “one of the country’s most versatile locations,” and as the backdrop to over “300 film and television series,” Sonora has been the go-to location for everything from the A-Team series to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., with a majority of the film traffic being television shows from the ’30s to ’70s.
Sonoma and Sonoma County are in the heart of California’s wine country and can be considered the birthplace of the state’s viticulture, with a history of winemaking stretching back to the 1800s. Ranked the 32nd county in agricultural production in the US (2002), Sonoma County sees more than 7.4 million tourists each year.
Due to the diversity of its landscape, both the city and county became key shooting locations for classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), cult horror film Scream (1996), American Graffiti (1973), and The Farmer’s Daughter (1947).
Located on the southern edge of Monterey Bay, Monterey County and Monterey have been a significant arts and culture hub for the state since its founding. Affectionately nicknamed the Language Capital of the World and California’s ‘First’ City, the city was home to California’s first theater and a number of the state’s first public institutions.
Over 200 films have been shot in Monterey, from pieces of cinema history like Hotel Del Monte (1897), to movies set in Monterey like Turner and Hooch (1989), to those that take advantage of Monterey’s resemblance to other places, like Louisiana in The Muppet Movie (1979).
I’m not going to lie — despite my extensive love for California and all the research I’ve done about the state, I had literally never heard of this place. Apparently located in the northwestern tip of Santa Barbara County, and with a population of just over 7,000, Guadalupe is probably best known for the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes (the largest remaining coastal dune system south of San Francisco), which crash right into the Pacific Ocean.
The dunes alone draw filmmakers to the area, and are featured in The Ten Commandments (1923), The Odd Couple II (1998), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), and Hidalgo (2004).
The 100,000 or so residents of Ventura live on the southern coast of California, northwest of Los Angeles. Ventura has a little bit of everything — surf, sun, shoreline, oil fields, wineries, mountains, farm fields, and a harbor make it an ideal location for filming.
Home of the Ventura Film Festival, it has been the site for the partial and/or complete filming of such titles as: The Rock (1996), The Aviator (2004), Erin Brockovich (2000), Chinatown (1974), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and Swordfish (2001).
So much more than a color and a fruit, the city of Orange, in Orange County (surprise), is considered unusual due to the proportion of preserved homes built prior to 1920. Founded in 1869, it has become a major modern shopping destination, but the city’s Old Towne area retains many features that speak to its history.
It’s exactly that “old-timey” feel that much of the film industry comes to take advantage of, though Orange is also home to Chapman University, which draws a different group of filmmakers. As a result, some of the films shot in the city include: Gumball Rally (1976), Crimson Tide (1994), Black Sheep (1996), Small Soldiers (1998), Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (1999), Big Momma’s House (2000), American Wedding (2003), and Accepted (2005).
Barstow, in San Bernardino County, is home to 22,000 people and possibly my favorite In-N-Out in California. Historically dependent on the gold and silver mines sprinkled throughout the Mojave Desert, today Barstow stands largely as a military hub, location of the Fort Irwin Training Center and Marine Corps Logistics Base.
As an oasis of civilization surrounded by miles of desert, it’s a key base camp for long shots of flat red sand and tumbleweeds, such as those in: The Time Travelers (1964), Roadside Prophets (1992), Broken Arrow (1996), Power Rangers in Space (1997), and Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004).