Verbinski selected some seldom-seen New Mexico locations, such as the moonscape rock area of Plaza Blanca and the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a 12-mile-wide grass valley in the heart of a volcano. The train scenes were shot at the Gilman Tunnels, N.M. while Arizona’s Pajarito Mountains were used for a Comanche warrior battle scene. Always on the move, the film’s cast and crew ventured into the mountains of Angel Fire, N.M. where Special Effects Supervisor John Frazier and his team engineered a spectacular crash with the use of the alpine train road rig work. The final two days of filming took place on a Comanche camp set in Lone Pine, Calif.
For Production Designers Jess Gonchor and Mark “Crash” McCreery, the film’s challenges included constructing several massive sets on which the story’s action could play out. There were 12 full-sized structures comprising the fictional town of Colby, built in the real Rio Puerco, N.M. The four-walled structures included a train station, livery stable, saloon, boarding house, bank, sheriff’s office and various shops, all surrounded by miles of railroad tracks. Promontory Summit was another town that was built adjacent to the Colby set. It was a re-creation of the historic site where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific trains met to complete the Transcontinental Railroad.
Gonchor and McCreery also designed “Hell on Wheels,” a moveable tent town inspired by similar towns following 19th-century workers. This bizarre set was prefabricated in five weeks in the art department warehouse in Albuquerque. It was later assembled over another six weeks in the rolling hills of Lamy, N.M. Another impressive set was the “Sleeping Man Mine,” which was constructed in Creede with the town’s actual silver-mine buildings. It also featured a 200-foot train tunnel with a mile of railroad track and trestles for the ore carts.
Bruckheimer reports that the talented crew constructed whatever was needed, and all the sets were made to accommodate the cameras. “We built them,” he says. “It’s the real deal.” The film’s impressive effects were the result of separate but collaborative efforts between Frazier and Visual Effects Supervisors Tim Alexander and Gary Brozenich. And Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, ASC captured the Old West in all its natural glory, making The Lone Ranger a spectacular visual success.