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New film industry springs up in East Bay
Oakland Tribune, Oct 2, 2005 by Cecily Burt, STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND -- Given enough time, Sean House can build, replicate or fix just about any mechanical thing, which is good, because box office stars such as Will Smith are using his realistic props in big- budget movies shot on location in the Bay Area.

House, founder of Outhouse Productions, has yearned to work in the film industry since he was a kid. And he's living his dream, not in Hollywood, but in Oakland, as his is one of 29 companies at the Oakland Film Center, a business incubator inside a 100,000-square- foot warehouse on the former Oakland Army Base.

All the companies provide services of some kind for motion pictures, videos, television series and commercials shot in the Bay Area.

Need it to snow on a beautiful sunny day? Need a slew of directors' chairs? Cameras? Or 10-ton gaffers, lighting and grip combos? The center has become a one-stop shop designed to make a production crew's life much easier, House said.

Ami Zins, director of the Oakland Film Office, was trying to woo more filmmakers to Oakland a few years ago when she realized that many of the companies that support the film industry had located to outlying areas such as Suisun City or Brisbane or Petaluma to find affordable rent.

She knew about the warehouse and thought it would help the businesses reduce overhead if they were all under one roof in Oakland. It also didn't hurt that she could point to a ready supply of businesses to support a production crew's every need.

The companies started moving in last spring and the space filled up by November. Now there is a growing waiting list. Eventually, when the base turnover is complete, the film center will have to relocate. Zins is already looking for bigger space, either on the former base or somewhere else in West Oakland. She's also launching a new ad campaign to educate out-of-town crews about the resources available in Oakland.

The center is filled with generators, props, machinery, scaffolding, cameras, chairs, trailers and just about any piece of equipment needed to make a movie. And if a production crew wanders in to shop for props or special effects, it's likely they'll need a generator or two, or maybe some cameras or lights.

"It's helpful to be in this environment, to get support from other businesses," said Dave Ketchpel, gaffer (lighting director) for Arthur Freyer Lighting. "The film business here in the Bay Area is still small enough so we rely on other vendors all the time. If I run short (of equipment) I can rent from neighbors and I can also refer business to my neighbors."

House, a former Navy aerospace engineer, has fabricated 52 models of a bone-scan machine for the movie "Pursuit of Happiness." The ones Will Smith uses are fully functional.

He was asked to create a special "stunt" arm for one scanner that helps light up the set to aid in filming the scene. The small light he used was so bright and hot he had to figure out how to install a tiny computer fan inside to keep the Fiberglas from melting.

"It's constant research and development, and problem solving," he said. "And I love it."

He's worked in various capacities on "The Bee Season" and "Rent," both of which should be in theaters soon. He helped sculpt the massive Zion set for "Matrix 2," and he created phony dynamite sticks and dead fish for "The Darwin Awards," a motion picture send- up of the Internet Darwin Awards, where stupid people die in spectacularly stupid ways.

House also formed the nonprofit Bay Area Film Alliance to bring together professionals and unions involved in filmmaking to explore ways to attract more work to the Bay Area after the dot-com boom and bust all but decimated the industry here the past three years.

He thinks the planned Wayans Brothers production studios across the street from the film center will enhance Oakland's image as a production destination and bring even more business their way.

They have been plenty busy lately, Ketchpel said, what with major motion pictures and a steady stream of Independent films.

"It's crazy busy right now," Ketchpel said. "I'm short-handed. I need more people in my shop right now. Unfortunately, the film business is completely unpredictable. ... Who knows what causes it to happen? All I know for sure is there is nothing the two weeks after Christmas and New Year's."

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