Celebrating the 85 year history of Elstree Studios
As the UK’s Elstree Studios celebrates its 85th birthday, we were lucky enough to look around the place where The Shining and Star Wars were filmed…
It’s hard to believe that a gigantic, empty room could inspire such a rush of geeky joy. But then, this isn’t just any empty room – this is stage eight at Elstree Studios, and the spot on which I’m currently standing, grinning like a lunatic, is where, among many other films, 1981’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark was filmed.
Remember the moment when Indy ran from a gigantic rolling boulder, or the bit where he was lowered into the snake-filled Well of Souls? That was shot here. The sand and snakes are all long gone, of course, but somehow the magic still remains, a miasma that hangs in the air, transforming this enormous yet unassuming space into somewhere utterly remarkable.
Once that rush of geek joy subsided a little, it then occurred to me just how incredibly quiet the stage is - a room this large should surely echo like a concert hall. “It has to be soundproofed to keep the noise in,” says my guide, Tanya Reed, Elstree’s Publicity Consultant. “A lot of bands play here.”
Indeed, the sound proofing - what looks like loft insulation held roughly in place with chicken wire - probably also suppresses the noise from outside during filming. Elstree’s other studios are the venue for such television shows as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Big Brother. It’s weird to think that, while a rowdy audience cheers as the latest Big Brother housemate is evicted outside, stage eight could be playing host to anything from a Hollywood film production to a band rehearsal – Muse and The Who are a couple of the groups who’ve used Elstree as a practise space.
Built 45 years ago, stage eight is but one of Elstree’s nine soundstages, and with an area of 7,550 square feet, it was once the largest, until stages one and two were built in 1999. Everywhere I look, there’s a rich patina of age; a hand-painted sign spells out the studio floor procedure (one bell means a rehearsal is commencing, while three bells is a warning that shooting is about to take place).
The wooden floor is criss-crossed with an extraordinary array of scratches from a legion sets hurriedly built and deconstructed. Exit signs and switches are flecked with telltale spatters of paint. “It really is incredible how quickly these sets are built and taken down,” Tanya tells me. “They can be up and then down again within a day.”
Most recently, stage eight briefly contained a Victorian steamboat, with two decks constructed for the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game Of Shadows – but again, this is all long gone now. In one corner a bright blue cherry picker sits, waiting for the next production to commence. It’s a vibrant splash of colour in a room of muted blacks, greys and oranges, and it’s notable that this hulking piece of machinery is dwarfed by this vast room and its 32ft high ceiling.
Overhead, long chains – used for lighting and supporting sets – hang down ominously, illuminated by extraordinarily bright rectangular lights. In each corner, huge metal stairs lead up to a long gantry suspended high above the ground.
The stage’s water tank, nine feet deep, has been used for everything from Raiders to a French advert for Cointreau. Right now, it’s covered up with a wooden floor, its expanse picked out with a great rectangle of white paint. As I walk across it, thinking about Harrison Ford groaning, “Snakes, why’d it have to be snakes?” I can feel the hollowness of the huge drop beneath my feet.
In the summer of 1976, George Lucas transformed the stage into a distant galaxy in Star Wars, and over the next 29 years, would return to Elstree again and again to shoot its sequels and prequels. When the final shots on Revenge Of The Sith were completed in 2005, producer Rick McCallum said of the studio, “Elstree’s our home. Even when we’re not shooting, we have a production office there. We always come back.”
Lucas returned with his friend Steven Spielberg, shooting the first three Indiana Jones pictures on the same stage. Stanley Kubrick shot The Shining here, constructing the interior and exterior of the Overlook Hotel – at the time, the largest movie set yet built. The list of films shot at Elstree reads like a genre geek’s dream: The Dark Crystal, Return To Oz, Labyrinth, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Willow, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Kick-Ass, to name but a few.
In fact, Elstree’s been a popular venue for filmmakers since the golden age of cinema, beginning with Paramount’s period drama, Madame Pompadour, in 1927. Alfred Hitchcock shot the first British talkie Blackmail here two years later. These studios have played an important part in movie history ever since.
Outside studio eight, it’s a crisp December day. Tanya leads me around the rest of Elstree’s grounds; past the colossal George Lucas stage, currently out of bounds due to an ITV game show shoot, and through the Big Brother village, which is like a little self-contained world in itself. Signs point the way to mobile buildings labelled “Chill out room” and “Stationery”. I’m led round the outdoor stage area, where bleary-eyed contestants are ushered in or out of the Big Brother house to cacophony from the freezing crowd.
Then I’m taken just a few yards from the Big Brother village, to the workplace of supervisor John Schoonraad. His workshop is strewn with movie history, and for the second time today, I’m left awestruck. Every wall is lined with the plaster visages of actors and celebrities, whose likenesses he’s cast for TV and films. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Marlon Brando and other famous names too numerous to list all hang here, their expressions spookily serene. A dusty cast of Darth Vader’s helmet sits high up out of reach. Behind it, the face of Jeremy Clarkson comically peeps out.
Glass cabinets contain an extraordinary array of fake guns, knives and other weapons. I’m given a crowbar to handle, so expertly painted that it looks heavy and incredibly dangerous, yet it’s soft and almost weightless. On one shelf sits an exquisitely wrought alien, coiled up like a foetus - it’s the model used for Alien 3’s distinctive poster design.
There are instantly recognisable props and models everywhere. On one shelf I spot the Jedi training ball that zaps a young Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Before I know it, this precious object’s placed in my hand - an artefact I once naively thought existed in a galaxy far, far away as a little boy is right here in front of me, and for a second, I’m a wide-eyed child again.
I keep spotting new things. A scale model of the Batmobile from Tim Burton’s Batman. The distinctive features of Beast from X-Men: First Class. Schoonraad tells me about the history of some of these remarkable objects, and how so many of them are cut up and recycled after a film’s finished. Han Solo’s carbonite-entombed body from Return Of The Jedi? Gone. The Ark of the Covenant from Raiders? History. Well, almost.
Perhaps sensing the absurd amount of geek glee emanating from your humble writer, Schoonraad leads me upstairs to a mezzanine floor. On yet another shelf sits a plaster cast of one of the Ark’s angels, its head down, wings stretched forth. The gleaming gold of the big-screen version’s gone, but it’s immediately recognisable. Truly, it is a thing of beauty.
I’m shown a photo album that archives some of Schoonraad’s past projects. Here he is standing with the cast of Black Hawk Down, a young Tom Hardy smiling for the camera. Here’s Tom Hanks, mid-body cast for Saving Private Ryan.
If you’ve winced at an unpleasant wound or killing in a movie from the past 25 years, it’s possible you have John Schoonraad to thank. He’s worked on the prosthetics for such movies as Highlander, Event Horizon, 28 Days Later and Nightbreed. Remember the extraordinary number of decapitations, lopped-off limbs and gory gunshot wounds of 2008’s Rambo? Schoonraad and his team of artists were responsible.
Later, I’m looking at some behind-the-scenes photos of Stanley Kubrick and his crew working on his vast movie sets – The Shining’s Overlook Hotel is among them. I notice how the construction behind the set itself, the bits we never see on screen, is just as complex and remarkable as the bits we do see. And this sums up Elstree, I think. Far from the Hollywood hills, in a quiet part of Hertfordshire, sits a studio that, over its long history, has been turned into a terrifying, haunted hotel, a trap-laden temple of doom, and the interiors of fantastical spaceships. For 85 years, Elstree Studios has continued to play a vital part in the history of filmmaking – and long may it continue to do so.
You can find out more about Elstree Studios here.