Shepperton Studios - putting Surrey at the heart of cinema since 1931

Shepperton Studios was founded in 1931 and ever since has been a centre of filmmaking in Britain.

Shepperton Studios was founded in 1931 and ever since has been a centre of filmmaking in Britain. - Credit: Alexander Williams / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

For almost 80 years, Shepperton Studios has been at the heart of British cinema, through the good times and the bad. Matthew Williams pays a visit to the studios near Walton-on-Thames to learn a little more about how all the magic happens

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2011

There are enough complaints about parking charges and traffic congestion in the real world that you’d think a visit to a film studio would provide a little escape. No such luck.

“That’s the problem when you get two massive productions in at once, with their cast, extras and crew, they’ve all got to get here somehow,” laughs communications manager, Mark Hamilton, who splits his time between Pinewood Studios’ sites at Shepperton, Teddington and Pinewood itself. “It becomes a bit of a nightmare at times, to be honest.”

When productions can easily reach the size of 1967’s Oliver! – the Victorian street scenes of which were all created at Shepperton Studios  – it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s the occasional headache or two.

Indeed, the glamour, the glitz, the warm sandy beaches, science fiction scenes and old-world cityscapes aren’t always quite as they appear in the movies, as I’m about to discover.

Behind the scenes Today, we meet at Shepperton, just a short drive from Walton-on-Thames and found in the middle of a housing estate. At first glance, the studios appear to resemble a series of fenced-off aircraft hangars – with some very crowded side roads, of course.

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The home studios of Sir Ridley and Tony Scott, Shepperton merged with the perhaps more widely celebrated and much larger Pinewood Studios in 2000 (Sir Ridley affectionately refers to Shepperton as the “shabby uncle”).

While the legendary American director Martin Scorsese is on-set as we speak, regularly making the journey between the two sites in his camper van during filming for his first UK undertaking, Hugo Cabret (an adventure film based on Brian Selznick’s best-seller, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, starring Jude Law and Christopher Lee), this is not quite the red carpet experience you might imagine.

“People are sometimes a little surprised by what they find here,” admits Mark, as he leads us on a tour of the facilities.

Very much a working studio, while there may not be a gift shop here, the majority of Disney’s world-dominating film emporium does find its way through the renowned sound studios before heading out into the international market with freshly dubbed localised lingo (apparently, actors around the world do very well off the profiles of Hollywood greats – i.e. there’s a Norwegian ‘Michael Caine’ on hold, ever ready to re-record the great Leatherhead actor’s work).

“When you get the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean, which was – pardon the pun – one of the most ‘piratable’ movies of all time, the security was so high, the film was delivered in sections; I don’t think we ever saw the film in the right order until it was in the cinemas,” says dubbing mixer Gavin Shepherd as we enter his studio, before showing us a scene from the new Elton John and David Furnish creation, Gnomeo and Juliet.

Back to the beginning But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, though. First, you may be wondering what twists of fate could possibly have led to Hollywood greats camping out in this unassuming corner of Surrey?

Well, the British film industry has peaked and troughed over the best part of 80 years at Shepperton Studios; it was back in around 1931 that Norman Loudon purchased Littleton House – the 17th-century mansion still at the centre of today’s 60-acre site of state-of-the-art studios and stages.

In fact, debate surrounds the exact date that Sound City Film Studios (the studio’s original incarnation) was launched, but while some reference books claim 1931, the 80th birthday celebrations are on hold until next year – possibly due to the advanced planning that has taken place for Pinewood’s 75th this year (Royal Mail stamps and all).

A bargain in its time, the site Loudon bought for just £5,000 would be sold for £35million some 70 years later, but it could have all been so different from the ‘simple’ production hub we see today.

During the 1930s, almost two decades before Walt Disney opened his first theme park in America, Loudon announced plans for ‘Wonderland’ in the studio grounds – 15 themed areas and a huge zoo. Then Germany invaded Poland. After the war, Loudon attempted to rejuvenate his idea at Tite House in Runnymede, although that never saw the light of day either.

They were ambitious plans that may yet come to fruition in a revised form. Unfortunately, for us here in Surrey, however, it will be our Buckinghamshire-based cousins who will reap the rewards.

“We’re hoping to create something very special over at Pinewood,” says Mark. “The idea is that films like The Bourne Identity, which have until now had to jet their crews and cast all around the world for location filming, will be able to do it in one place.”

Currently battling its way through the planning system, Project Pinewood is a planned live-in film set featuring permanent world backdrops, such as a Venetian canal, a Roman amphitheatre, a Tudor marketplace and street scenes from downtown New York and French Quarter New Orleans, among other curiosities.

“It was initially rejected because it’s on green belt land but we believe that the benefits are strong enough for it to get special dispensation,” he continues. “If that happens, it will be very exciting for the UK film industry and obviously Shepperton will be working alongside the development all the way.

“At the moment, there’s not really any potential for further expansion here but a lot of films spread across all of our studios, so Shepperton is certainly not going anywhere.”

Making dreams a reality Popping our heads inside one of the filming stages, we’re greeted by a huge green screen – the CGI backdrop that enables a hangar in the north of Surrey to be transformed into an Egyptian desert – and workers dismantling the last remnants of the Scorsese flick. The scale is phenomenal. A clock that plays a central role in the movie looks like it would give the Big Ben clocktower face a run for its money.

“It takes two or three months to build and then they shoot for two or three days and tear it all down,” says Mark. “It looks impressive and the craftsmanship is amazing: generally everything that looks permanent in films is timber-framed structures, plastered over and with painted detail. It’s incredible what can be achieved.”

There’s a strong legacy for behind-the-scenes-creation at Shepperton. When Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s movie-making son, was shooting his debut film at the studio, the critically acclaimed Moon (2009), many of those doing the sets and effects had also worked on Alien at the same location. Last year’s Clash of the Titans would undoubtedly have tested their skills, too.

“If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010), that was done here,” says Mark. “They built the Tower of London and a village on our back lot – it was huge. For Love Actually (2003), they recreated Downing Street, and tennis scenes for Wimbledon (2004), starring Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, were also filmed here.

“We don’t actually make any movies ourselves,” he adds. “We operate as a shell for the production companies to use and a base for a lot of the skilled craftsmen to operate from. So, when the Harry Potter teams, for example, were looking for outside locations, they’ll have had their own location scouting teams – Bourne Woods and Virginia Water are popular locally because they’ve been proven to work rather than because we recommend them, per se.”

From Hollywood to Surrey Hollywood movies have flocked to the UK in recent years, and as well as Hugo Cabret and Captain America, which have both recently finished shooting at Shepperton, a sign I spy hints that Clash of the Titans 2 is set to start there, too.

Reports suggest that US studios spent a near-record £728.5m on film production in the UK in 2009, with 2010 predicted to come in close to that, and I wonder what has instigated this crossing of the pond?

“The reason why a big Hollywood picture like Hugo Cabret comes to Shepperton is that the exchange rate works in their favour at the moment and the tax relief system in place in this country is attractive,” says Mark.

“Films have to pass certain cultural tests and depending on the number of local employees they use – British actors to animators to accountants etc – they get points. When a film reaches a certain level, it’s eventually classed as British. So, ironically, Captain America is, on the face of it, actually a British film! They also come here now because of the skills and facilities we have; we do movie making very well.”

While the government’s decision to axe the UK Film Council has been deemed as the funeral bell for many of the professionals who keep the film industry going, Mark suggests that companies like the Pinewood Studios Group should be able to take the slack and, in fact, with lottery funding getting increased to coincide with the chop, it’s more a case of a different model than an amputation.

“The UK film industry is very healthy at the moment,” he says. “Across our Shepperton, Pinewood and Teddington studios, we’ve got 300-odd companies based on-site that range all the way up from one-man bands. The creative industry’s side is something we’re really trying to encourage: you should be able to walk into one of our studios with an idea and walk out a couple of months later with something in the can.

“They say that for every one pound the UK spends on film, we get £14 back and if you look at it like that, it would appear to justify the tax breaks. The effect on the tourist industry cannot be underestimated either.”

Walking on ice It’s not only the film industry that studios like Shepperton support, either. While I’m shown around, Dancing on Ice rehearsals are taking place in one of the large stages usually reserved for movies. Modern TV’s huge productions have outgrown their old sets and film studios are becoming increasingly appealing.

They do, however, throw up their own set of challenges: just the thought of a few hundred screaming reality TV fans turning up as the likes of Johnny Depp prepare for a key scene is enough to raise a wry chuckle: “It could get a little problematic,” says Mark.

We leave Shepperton Studios in the knowledge that the “pipeline is looking very good” and there are a few biggies on the horizon – one is mentioned, but the threat of being run over by Scorsese’s camper van means I can’t mention its name. Yet. Watch this space…


Lights, camera, action!

It isn’t all famous stars and directors at Shepperton Studios, but it’s certainly not your average day at the office either, as we discover here from some of the people who spend a large amount of their time there...

“Shepperton has some of the best artisans and craftsmen in the industry and so when I came to make Gladiator (1998), there could only really be one place from which I sourced all the props,” says Sir Ridley Scott, director. “We filmed a great deal of Gladiator in Malta, but every piece of armour and sword, chariot and tent, furniture and Roman column, came from Shepperton.”

“I remember working as a producer’s assistant to Ronnie Shedlo on the 1995 film Carrington,” says Ann Runeckles, group corporate responsibility manager. “It was directed by Christopher Hampton and starred Emma Thompson, Jonathan Pryce and Rupert Sewell. Watching the final cut in the David Lean theatre at Shepperton, alongside Emma Thompson and her mother Phyllida Law – also an actress, was a real privilege. Unfortunately, the film never made the high street cinemas but went straight to DVD!”

“We see many funny sights here in leafy Surrey, ranging from warriors sitting on milk floats, relaxing in animal furs and listening to their iPods, to Colin Firth in his shorts and t-shirt having a body cast made while drinking a latte,” says Mark Inkster, who runs Applause catering on-site. “My two sons, Archie and Maxwell, love to hear about all of the people that come to the studios and were very impressed last year when Doctor Who was here for a wedding reception.”

Further reading:

Surrey Film Locations

Robin Hood filming with Russell Crowe in Farnham

Surrey's film sets: War Horse, Snow White & more

Alfred Hitchock, Shamley Productions and the director’s Surrey connections