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Taking creative license

Recently, I gave in to the urgings of a friend (and my father, who’s been after me for years) and started watching Season One of the Fox drama 24. I had never seen an episode, but had been using my past experience with Fox television as a reason not to watch—the only thing on the network that I’ve ever liked was their football broadcasts. Nontheless, I gave in and asked for the first season of 24 for Christmas.

After I got home, I fired up the first show, and…was hooked in about 20 minutes. Since then, I’ve been staying up later than usual, and waking up even earlier than usual, and have managed to work my way through the first season and part of the second. But this post isn’t really about 24; it’s about ‘artistic license’ as applied by directors of TV shows and movies. In particular, one of the opening scenes in Season Two really caught my eye (click for larger image):

Shot of Lake O in 24 opening

You see, Lake Oswego, Oregon is about 10 miles from where I live, and I guarantee you, it looks nothing like the above image.

First and foremost, there aren’t any mountain ranges like that near Portland. Yea, we’re part of the Cascade range, but we have precisely one large, local peak — Mt. Hood. (Mt. St. Helens is close, but further north and it’s not much of a “peak” any more.) As you can see, there aren’t any other peaks close to Mt. Hood:

Mt. Hood

The mountains in the background of the shot in 24 strike me as unlike most anything I’ve seen in North America, too—most of the Rockies aren’t that jagged, until you get further north. If I had to guess, I’d say it might be somewhere around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or perhaps somewhere in the Canadian Rockies. But the Alps might be just as good of a guess. Anyone have any ideas?

The second big issue is that Lake Oswego isn’t nearly as rural as it was depicted. Yes, there’s a lake there, but it’s a mostly-human-made private lake surrounded by multi-million-dollar homes. There’s even a big commercialized lagoon at one end:

Lake Oswego lagoon

Here’s another shot of the lake and the downtown area:


As you can see, while it may be a smaller town, it’s clearly not a middle-of-nowhere spot with nothing but trees, water, and mountains. A quick trip to Google Maps reveals that Lake Oswego sits about seven miles south of Portland, midway between two interstates. Hardly the rural escape depicted in 24.

I know directors take creative liberties all the time. But in this case, why go so far to make a real town look completely fictitious? They could have either used a fictitious name to begin with, or just chosen a more-realistic location. By my measure, it’s about 820 air miles from Los Angeles to Lake Oswego. It’s nearly that exact distance to Denver, meaning they could’ve used nearly any town in the Utah, Colorado, or southern Wyoming rockies without even altering the show’s timelines. Anything other than Lake Oswego would have worked better as far as realism goes. Quite strange. It doesn’t change the fact that the show is interesting and engrossing, but it does make me snicker each time the scene shifts to the “Northwest Operations Center.”

I realize that this probably only bothered me because I know what the town should look like. But still, why go to the trouble of creating an entire mountain range where none exists, when the location doesn’t seem to figure into the actual plot in any way (other than being remote from Los Angeles and DC)?


  1. Rob, first of all, welcome to the disease known as 24. When my friends and I rented the whole first season we went on unplanned all nighters. You watch one...and then just one more...and then just one more, until it is 5 in the morning. Season one is the best....followed closely by season 3.

    On the the point ofy our post, I know how you feel. I live in Las Vegas and this city seems to be really popular in recent years. Alot of the times, I see inaccuracies. Either it is not our city at all...or it is not logistic. FOr instance, in the movie "Pay It Forward", the little kid rides his bike from his school to his mom's work. I live by that school. They filmed it there before the high school was opened. But that bike would have been a 25 mile bike ride.

    Little thinks like that bother me.

  2. I'm working in Japan now. There was a Japanese movie called "Christmas in August" that came out last September (Christmas in August in September??? Anyway…) and it was filmed in my city. Except the geography was absolutely mangled! All my friends were laughing at it when they'd walk from the mountain to downtown to the mountain in a single short clip. Also, no one in the film spoke with a regional dialect, which struck as being as odd as setting your movie in Boone, North Carolina but not having a single "y'all" in the whole script. I guess the point is, no matter what films and TV shows and books and everything else will screw up what they depict. Plato complains about the same thing (in different terms) in Book X of the Republic, so this has been an issue for a while. There's no much to do about it but grin and bear it, I suppose.

  3. Tastes vary, but in the case of '24', well, let's just say you've lost a bit of my respect.

  4. I live in the Phoenix, AZ area. A film made back a couple decades ago (car chase type, don't remember the name) used a local garage in most of the scenes. They even kept the name. Cool.

    I watched the famous car chase scene and was flabbergasted. I recognized each of the locations used in each scene. They went from east central Phoenix in the first frames to a bridge 12 miles away in Tempe. Then the autos magically transported 25 miles to North Phoenix where, at the time, a canal was in construction, and drove through the big concrete ducts. Next they were in another part of the valley (60 x 60 miles square). All this was in the space of a few minutes in an area where, at that time, it took 30 minutes to get 20 miles.

    Of course, I have no problem with the physical sequences in any movie based in a non-AZ community. 8^)

  5. Re #3:

    Ah well, that's why there's so much on TV to pick from, I guess -- tastes do vary :).


  6. Some years ago I watched an american movie which had drug smuggling in Africa. In particular, they filmed a portion of it in Harare, Zimbabwe (I recognized the hotels and streets). They went to a lot of effort to Americanize the place. Firstly they had left hand drive cars driving down the wrong side of roads. Zimbabwe is RIGHT hand drive and people drive on the LEFT side of the road. Then the cabs they had in the film were the New York style, nothing like the little Renaults and Peugots which were/are actually used in the country.

    I wonder why they went there to film in the first place.

  7. I too have a story of seeing creative licence in a movie shot near where I lived. Chevy Chase's "Snow Day" was shot in the neighbourhood where I grew up. As I rode home from university one day in February or March, there were multiple unfamiliar cars parked on the streets with tons of snow on top of them. Edmonton was experiencing a warm Spring and the imported snow was almost the only snow on the streets. The crowning touch was the plastic icicles hanging from our basketball hoop. I should have swiped them for a souvenir.

  8. Having worked in TV production, I can tell you that the reason for this license isn't creative, but rather because of limited budgets. Even a show like 24 will run on a pretty tight budget for what they do, and while Lake Oswego may not look like that, it might as well, as I doubt 99.9% of their target audience knows what that town is like. In TV, good enough for 99% is good enough.

    Look at it this way: the producer can spend hundreds of dollars in Research Assistant time to find the perfect small northwestern town that fits the directors vision. Or they can take a smallish town that nobody knows and use some canned footage. And Lake Oswego even has 'lake' in the name. So it's a town by a lake that's vaguely near some mountains and not too famous. Perfect.

    Regardless, the actual town probably didn't fit into production schedules. Given TV drama budgets (even for season 2 of a hit show) I doubt it would have made sense to shoot on location. Location is so expensive that it would be cheaper to shoot in california and have the video people edit the mountains into the shot.

  9. Yeah, a seires was shot in my village too, it was supposed to be winter, but they shot it in the summer, and they cheated on the locations...

    Speaking of 24, it ruuuuuuuuules!

  10. same thing with CSI series. CSI: Miami, and CSI: New York are all shot from Los Angeles, yet they make it seem like it is all shot on location. Production companies are always trying to save money due to tight budgets. I'm sure that's the reason why.

    Like you said, it is also about creativity. If the entire show is fiction, then why not use fiction locations. It is all part of the television story to make it as compelling and exciting as possible.

    It's art.

  11. Watch the dvd extras and you'll find out that's exactly what they did - filmed the scene local to LA and then added in all the mountains etc digitally. In reality it's not even a big lake, just a little pond all dressed up. Looked great in the episode though.

  12. A buddy of mine is from Vacouver. He finds it positively WEIRD to watch Smallville. Nearly the entire thing is shot there, including in his High School. They re-painted the lockers to match the supposed Smallville HS colors and not their own, but its the same school.

    He also notes that they "blew up" their public library in Independance Day.

    Welcome to the world of 24. The new season started this week, and its positively SICK. A new season is like crack - you'll never want to miss an episode.

  13. I live in Vancouver, BC now, and they're filming stuff all the time in my old-time/touristy neighborhood (near Gastown for those who know). It's odd to walk out and see a dozen huge white trucks loaded with gear and crew. It's even odder to see New York taxi-cabs up and down the street and realize you've walked into a shot set in another city in another country.

    Overall the work seems pretty tedious; lots of people standing around with radios for hours waiting to be told what to do, which usually involves holding back pedestrian traffic for a few seconds of shooting. It's also amazing how much they must be spending to have a hundred crew-members out all day for a few seconds of a commercial.

    Finally, a few months ago we saw a bunch of extras dressed up as "homeless" people for a scene of a fair-housing demonstration in a local park. They hired still other people to remove the folks who actually live in that park for lack of housing—could have had all the extras for free there and saved paying for costumes too. Not realistic enough maybe?

  14. I am from Lake Oswego, and I just had to laugh and laugh and laugh and get the picture. The picture they showed was SO unlike reality that it's almost embarrassing! It seems ridiculous that they used a real place name and fabricated the appearance instead of just making up a fictitious place! I work at a grocery store and people are always coming in and asking how to get to the lake, they saw it on TV, or they just assume it's a beautiful natural area, and I have to tell them there is no lake access for non-residents, and it is not a beautiful natural area by a far cry anyway! It's more like a private bathtub for rich people to boat on. well, that's enough ranting...

  15. I saw this episode just tonight and had to go to Google images to see more of that beautiful Lake Oswego!! That's how I ended up at your website! Thanks for setting me straight on the real Lake Oswego. I'm an actor so I understand their fictionalizing; I half believed it anyway. (BTW, thanks for the wooden track illusion.)

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