Where They Film: Santa Clarita Valley, California

NCIS mobile truck prop

Hollywood locations of NCIS, CSI, 24, The Mentalist, Star Trek, The Unit, and more... 

Hollywood movies and TV shows are almost never filmed in the real Hollywood, a neighborhood of the City of Los Angeles. Some studios used to be there, but many years ago most production companies moved to other parts of the greater "LA" area. This is why tourists who go to the corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Vine St. rarely see anything interesting. But I do, because I know where to look.

I live in Southern California, and while tourists usually miss the Hollywood they seek, I encounter it all the time. Using a mix of careful observation, educated hunch, friends in the business, and pure luck, I know where to find the virtual Hollywood of studios and back lots and movie ranches and other locations where today's shooting really happens.

Santa Clarita Valley

I bet you've seen Santa Clarita many times, you just didn't know it. Head north on I-5 from downtown Los Angeles, past Burbank, through the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles into the hills. Spanning both sides of I-5, the City of Santa Clarita and surrounding hills and valleys is home to several studios and packed with notable locations.

A popular filming area since the 1910s, Santa Clarita was originally separate rural communities Valencia, Saugus and Newhall. It's still an area of rugged mountains, deep valleys, and dramatic scenery. William S. Hart made westerns there, and his Newhall movie ranch and home is now a Santa Clarita park. In the 1950s, legendary TV series Highway Patrol ("21-50 to Headquarters") regularly shot in the area, including at often-filmed historic Saugus Cafe (stop by for a step back in time and some decent chow). 

Many areas of Southern California offer scenic locations, but Santa Clarita is favored because it is within the Studio Zone or Thirty Mile Zone (TMZ). A production crew can work at any location within the Thirty Mile Zone without subjecting the production company to additional travel requirements and expenses -- a huge benefit. The TMZ is a circular area of diameter 30 miles measured from the intersection of West Beverly Boulevard and North La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles -- roughly the center of old Hollywood. Even though most major studios moved long ago, the original TMZ is still enforced by the industry's unions. 

NCIS -- Just across I-5 from Magic Mountain theme park, in an area of Santa Clarita known as Valencia, is the studio of CBS TV series NCIS. At the corner of Avenue Hall and Avenue Crocker are warehouse-type buildings containing the principal sets. There is a small section of exterior facades in a back corner of the property. The show sometimes shoots city street scenes at Universal Studios, especially shootouts and explosions that are difficult to do in public places. But exterior scenes are mostly shot on location. The show takes place in Washington, DC, which Santa Clarita does not resemble, but somehow they make it work. One day I saw the NCIS prop response van just inside the studio fence, and snapped the photo in this article.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation -- This CBS TV series' original home base is Santa Clarita Studios, also in the Valencia area. While the show pretends to be in Las Vegas, it usually films much closer to the studio, often in hills and valleys that look nothing like the barren desert and hills of southern Nevada.

24 -- Many of Jack Bauer's 24 adventures were filmed in the area, and at times he was said to be in Saugus, an area of Santa Clarita. The main interior sets were in a warehouse in nearby San Fernando Valley city Chatsworth.

The Mentalist -- An episode about a scientist being killed by a radiation leak was filmed in north Santa Clarita in Rye Canyon, a science/technology business neighborhood that has a variety of visually-interesting buildings and grounds. For this episode The Mentalist used the white building at the north end of Rye Canyon Loop that has a dramatic bridge to its semi-round front door. Rye Canyon also has been a location for The Unit and other shows. The Mentalist is primarily filmed on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. The red brick CBI office exterior is a side of an old hotel building in downtown Los Angeles (a block from another classic shooting location, Union Station), while the office interior is on a Warner Brothers soundstage. By the way, California Bureau of Investigation is fictitious.

Movie ranches

An outdoor film lot in "the country" is usually called a ranch, and typically has a Western Street and a variety of rustic and rural standing sets ranging from ranch houses and miner shacks to lakes and mines, tunnels and caves -- and plenty of trees, rocks and trails. Some movie ranches also have modern buildings or entire towns. Santa Clarita Valley has been a film location almost from the first days of Hollywood. 

Melody Ranch -- Now surrounded by suburban houses, this historic movie ranch in the Newhall area of Santa Clarita has been used for fiming since 1915. It was bought in 1952 by singing cowboy star and entrepreneur Gene Autry for his movies and TV shows, including Annie Oakley. In the 1950s you saw it at lot on TV: The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Rin-Tin-Tin and more.

Golden Oak Ranch -- Owned by Disney since 1959, this ranch of 800 acres mainly has outdoor sets and settings. You've seen this ranch in Old Yeller, Pirates of the Caribbean II and III, CSI, Spin and Marty, The Shaggy Dog, Pearl Harbor, The Parent Trap, The X-Files, Bones, American Idol, Murder She Wrote, Lassie, and many more. Disney is planning to expand it into a full studio by adding 12 stages, mainly for Disney-owned ABC Studios production.

Blue Cloud Movie Ranch -- If you wondered how far CBS series The Unit traveled to film in Afghanistan, the Middle East, or Latin America, the answer is, just to Saugus, on the east side of Santa Clarita. Blue Cloud Movie Ranch has a variety of towns, villages, military camps and even military gear -- helicopters, trucks and more -- just right for filming adventure and battle-oriented scenes. You've also seen it in Without A Trace, JAG, and CSI. There's also a 1950s town used for period and small-town films. The countryside of Santa Clarita Valley has many more ranches, hills, valleys, rocks and interesting roads where TV series are shot.

In the area

West of Santa Clarita along California SR-126, the towns of Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula have appeared in many films. The countryside has the orange groves of movie Chinatown, and the field where Howard Hughes crashes in The Aviator. The railroad line and classic train stations have been used for decades, as have several ranches in the area -- see Seabiscuit, for instance.

Just south on I-5, down the hill in the San Fernando Valley, I've spotted older buildings, streets and alleys used by CSI to simulate funkier parts of Las Vegas. North of Santa Clarita just off I-5 are two major lakes (reservoirs) you've seen in films, Pyramid Lake and Castaic Lake.

Southwest of Santa Clarita, just north of CA-118, is the former location of some of the most spectacular movie scenes. Porter Ranch, Iverson Ranch, Corriganville, and other private property had vast expanses, fabulous rocks and wide valleys reguarly used by producers. You've seen these locations in war movies, westerns, and all kinds of "cast of thousands" productions. TV shows filmed there include Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Fury, Wanted Dead or Alive, Combat, and Bonanza.

Unfortunately, these historic movie ranches are now mostly gated communities, apartments and golf courses. Corriganville was a regular location of B movies (Jungle Jim), serials (Commander Cody), and TV westerns (Rin-Tin-Tin). It is now a public park, so the often-filmed terrain can be explored, but the sets are long-gone.

The most startling change might be at the north end of Chatsworth, just off CA-118 -- Lone Ranger rock. At the beginning of every episode, the Ranger astride his great horse Silver rides up to this unforgettable boulder. This famous scene would be difficult to film today without showing the cluster of apartments across the street! 

Vasquez Rocks

Of special note is Vasquez Rocks County Park, near the village of Agua Dulce, just off I-14 a few miles east of Santa Clarita. It's "the most commercially photographed boulders on the planet" according to The Los Angeles Times, and I second that statement. I have a standing "bet" with my wife that at least once a week we'll see Vasquez Rocks on our TV screen, and we always do -- in a TV show, in a movie, even in a commercial.

You've seen the bizarre slanted, jagged rocks many times in Star Trek. Remember Captain Kirk battling the Gorn? He's scrambling around Vasquez Rocks. The unique shapes were later used in several more Star Trek TV shows and movies. You've also seen this location in Monk, CSI, Numbers, any number of sci-fi and western shows and movies, fashion photo shoots, even in CGI (computer-generated images) where the artists use Vasquez Rocks as inspiration.

On the east side of Vasquez Rocks is an open dirt area that is primarily a parking lot. But sometimes it has a Hollywood set. For a while it had a fort set, built for a movie, then used in various TV show episodes including the original Mission Impossible TV series.

You can see filming at Vasquez Rocks in a CBS.com video called "Get a sneak peek of special features from NCIS Season 6". They don't name the location, but there's no doubt where Mark Harmon's character Gibbs is chasing the bad guys

Every time I go to Vasquez Rocks, someone is filming something. One day, it was me -- my wife posed me and our dog Bailey in front of the rocks. Fortunately, we didn't encounter the Gorn. 

If you go to Vasquez Rocks, don't use I-14, take Sierra Highway (but note that it doesn't go anywhere near the Sierra Nevada mountains). It's a nice drive through the countryside, and the road itself has been in many movies too.

Olivia
Could someone please tell me when filming for NCIS takes place?
John L. Hawkins
I don't know about NCIS in particular, but TV shows are produced year-round. However, series that are broadcast from late September through May usually shoot August to April. It's an intense schedule, especially for one hour dramas that often take 8 or more days to produce -- yet a new show airs every 7 days. So they get started early, and get a bit of help from re-runs that help stretch the schedule. To give you an idea of timing, in early October 2009 I was at Warner Brothers in Burbank and ran into The Mentalist shooting on the back lot. That episode aired several weeks later in mid-November. When the primary TV series is on hiatus (not in production), which for classic September-to-May series is approximately May through July or August, actors and crew often do other projects, such as movies, live stage ("summer stock"), or one-of TV shows. So, if you hear of a series lead doing something else, you can be certain the series is not in production. However, many series run in a variety of periods of the year, especially the leading cable channel series such as Burn Notice, Some of these are shot during other times of the year, as can sometimes be observed via the weather at the shooting location. Weather is a big factor for the many "other" schedule series that are not shot in Southern California. Many of these shows are produced in Canada, notably Vancouver or Toronto, pretending to be a U.S. city. Nikita, Falling Skies, Alcatraz, Ringer, Psych, Eureka, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate (all versions), Rookie Blue, Flashpoint, and Covert Affairs are among the many Canadian productions. Vancouver often stands in for San Francisco, such as in Fairly Legal and the late, great Monk (eventually Monk moved to Universal Studios in L.A). Some head for other hills. In Plain Sight filmed in Albuquerque. Longmire, set in Wyoming, also films in New Mexico. Burn Notice really is produced in Miami, using the Coral Gables convention center for exterior and interior sets. The Glades fudges a tad, pretending to be in the Tampa area but actually filmed on the opposite coast of Florida, in the north side of Miami. In contrast, CSI:Miami was shot thousand of miles away, on stages in the Redondo Beach area of Los Angeles, plus nearby locations such as Marina Del Rey and Long Beach (where I ran into them). They mixed in a little bit of Florida location shooting, often generic scenes that can be interspersed with the L.A. footage. Unusual for a cable show, The Closer drama about Los Angeles cops actually filmed there, with permanent sets at Warner Brothers secondary lot in Burbank (formerly a Columbia Pictures lot that still has the house exteriors used in Father Knows Best, Bewitched, Partridge Family and other classics). If your hope is to discover NCIS on location, you could hang out by the studio, hoping to follow the crew. But often the crew goes to work directly at the location. Sometimes easiest to spot is cars on trailers -- "hero" vehicles being transported from the studio to a location. When a vehicle actually appears on camera, especially driven by actors and used in close-ups, it is often carried on a truck or trailer, both to protect the vehicle and to comply with union rules. If a vehicle is critical to production, they might haul two or more identical models to a location; Dukes of Hazzard reportedly used more than 200 of what was supposed to be the one and only "General Lee" 1969 Dodge Charger.
Olivia6155
John, Thank you so much for the info. I will try a little loitering by the studio. I presume that is where you snapped the shot of the NCIS truck, I'm guessing that they would start pretty early in the morning.
Visitor
they are off now but will resume in a month or two for season 9 I believe
Sally
Thanks for the information. To tell the truth I also thought that the majority of TV shows are filmed in Hollywood. I was surprised to find it out. Well, I don't care much about Hollywood, I think this attitude came after I watched the film Network. After watching it TV lost its attraction to me.
Sean
I am looking for the name of the artist who painted the pictures of Guns and Girls in the hitmans house, in newest episode of NCIS Los Angelos? The Episode was called Greed. Can someone please help me?
Robert
Hi all I would like to know what would my chancers of meeting the cast I am coming from Australia to hopefuly see or meet them and to see them film. I will be over next year. Thank you
John L. Hawkins
While a drive around certain Los Angeles areas on a week day might find a TV show or movie on location (50% of the time in our experience), it's not easy to meet the cast or even get close to the action, for several reasons: 1. Actors are at work, a serious job. Time is money (lots of money once you see the massive crew and equipment), so taking time to visit with tourists is usually frowned upon. BUT when shooting is in a public area, the public can sometimes get close enough to watch, but usually hundreds of feet away. 2. When shooting at a studio, actors are difficult to get to because movie stages and lots are behind guarded gates. BUT, actors are people too and also can be spotted at local stores and restaurants. BUT, being out and about doesn't mean they want to be approached. 3. When shooting on location (especially around Los Angeles) the activity is surrounded by trucks, crew, guards, etc. Again, they are conducting business and don't want to be disturbed. BUT, sometimes you can get close, just don't be disruptive. 4. Many actors are not what you expect. Remember, they are performers who pretend to be someone else. Often the real person is very different from the character you see on-screen. They want to be known for their professional work, not their pretend persona. 5. If you actually get close to an actor, somehow, somewhere, you might not get the reaction you desire. Sometimes it's that they are focusing on the job, sometimes they try to avoid attention, sometimes it's a "bad" day, and sometimes they are simply not friendly people. BUT some of them are much warmer than others, just don't expect anything more than a smile or wave -- not a chat.