Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bang for the buck

LOCATION: San Bernardino and Riverside counties
DATE: 03:01 PM PST on Thursday, March 11, 2010
DETAILS:  Some Inland Empire officials believe explosions, fire and mayhem can go a long way to giving a boost to the local economy. At least, when it comes to attracting movie and television productions.

About 60 employees from fire agencies around San Bernardino and Riverside counties attended a three-day training program at the San Bernardino Regional Emergency Training Center that culminated with a special effects demonstration on Feb. 26. When finished, local fire officials will be certified as safety officers, who can supervise special effects for movies, television productions and concerts.

Part of the training was seeing a lot of stuff get blown up, shot and set on fire.

Juliane Ngan/Staff Photographer
Pyrotechnic operators use a mortar box filled with combustible materials to deomonstrate a large explosion.

"This is very dangerous," said Veronica Forst, a city of Riverside fire inspector who was also a student in the course. "It's dangerous not only for the people around it, but the extras, people who come to watch, it's important to make sure everyone's safe."

Movie and television making has provided a significant economic boost to the region, but the number of productions has dramatically declined since 2006, and that's why the training session became critical.

"When a jurisdiction, city, county state or federal (agency) understands how pyrotechnics work and they know how to work with companies to manage these shoots, it makes them more film friendly," said Dan Taylor, deputy director of the Inland Empire Film Commission.

In 2009, filmmaking made a $33.7 million economic impact in the region, Taylor said. The number was down about $12 million from 2008 figures and is down by half of what it was in 2006. The dramatic drop was due to the economy and film incentives offered by other states, such as New Mexico, where they were offering a 25 percent tax incentive.

A $500 million film and tax credit program administered by the California Film Commission went into effect July 2009, and Taylor said it won't be until next year that the state begins to see any change in the numbers.

"The incentive program didn't come into full swing until mid 2009 so we haven't had a full year to see how it works. This year will be the big tell tale for us to see how this will impact us. For now we'll have to sit back and see what we can do to continue to market the area," Taylor said.

With the training complete, the officers will make sure all special effects procedures are conducted in accordance with state laws.Few get to see the amount of work that goes into creating a 20- to 30-second special effects scene.

Eric Elias, a Los Angeles-based pyrotechnic operator, explained the afternoon's basic effects took 10 people nearly four hours to set up, and that's not including the time operators need to build effects into a set.

"You are bringing people in very close proximity to very dangerous materials and effects, and safety is always paramount," Elias said. "That is why we are happy to volunteer our time to demonstrate and let them see what things we are supposed to do so they are not surprised."

Students watched as pyrotechnic operators showcased a variety of effects - pyrotechnic and non pyrotechnic -- from a small flame bar, to bullet hits and large explosions.

Forst said she was asked to become a fire safety officer in response to the number of motion picture productions that were asking to shoot movies in Riverside. Although she had been to many shoots to do basic fire safety checks, she wanted to have a better grasp of what to expect on a shoot.

"It gives us a better perspective out there," said Forst. "We're watching the filming, and we know what questions we didn't ask or we can go over when they're setting up - what kind of smoke will it put out? How loud will it be?"

Ramiro Rodriguez, a deputy state fire marshal III, who is one of two instructors of the course, said he will host these fire safety courses as often as needed in the region. They aren't held often, especially not in the Inland region where the last one was held in 1996.

He said he hopes to hold more of these training sessions in the region in the future, with hopes it will make the area more attractive to motion picture productions. He's not the only one.

"Riverside is so beautiful, we've got the Mission Inn, and just so much to offer," Forst said. "We're hoping to get them to come to our city and do a lot more filming."

Reach Juliane Ngan at 951-368-9625 or jngan@pe.com.


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