Many Hollywood films have shot in Mexico over the last couple of years, including The Avengers, Haywire, Act of Valor, John Carter and the upcoming sci-fi drama Elysium (starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster), and the overall number of productions has been growing steadily since the ProAudioVisual (ProAV) Fund was put into effect in 2010. The Mexican Film Commission has formed a partnership with ProMéxico, the agency in charge of bringing investments into the country, to manage the ProAV Fund. Both are currently working on a strategy to have their foreign offices act as an extension around the world to make production recruitment efforts more effective and productive.
Some of the country’s more prevalent filming locales have been Chihuahua, Sonora and Durango in Northern Mexico. Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic shot primarily in Mexico City, Sonora and Baja California (the northwestern peninsula of Mexico just below San Diego), and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s film Babel was filmed partly in Sonora, Tecate and Tijuana. The central states of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Jalisco are also very popular, while Mexico City is widely used for both national and international commercial shoots. “Each of these states has a uniqueness to them that is very attractive for audiovisual productions,” says Carla Raygoza, coordinator of the Mexican Film Commission. “Aside from their beautiful and natural locations, it also has experienced crew and competitive postproduction facilities.”
Of all of the variety looks that can be found in Mexico, probably the most unique is the pyramids — and, for U.S. productions, a Mexico shoot is a lot more convenient than traveling to Egypt. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto made good use of the ancient Aztec pyramids in Veracruz to give the film a truly authentic and historic look. And for the world’s largest water tank, it’s just a quick trip (under three hours) from Los Angeles to Baja Studios, where the iconic film Titanic was shot as well as other features requiring extensive underwater and floating-vessel scenes, like Pearl Harbor, Jumper and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
VFX Supervisor Bret Culp has worked in Ireland on “The Tudors” and “Camelot,” and he was on location at Baja Studios last fall for the Alejandro Monteverde film Little Boy for Arc Productions. Culp was really impressed by the local crew — and local sometimes meant crewmembers coming in from Mexicali, Tecate and Ensenada. “The skill level of the arts and crafts people and the technicians as well was amazing,” recalls Culp. “Little Boy has a Norman Rockwell look to it, so all the sets were built with that in mind. There were a lot of hand-painted signs and interesting colorings and weatherings that were done expertly by the crew with a great work ethic and attitude.”
There has been recent violence in some parts of Mexico, and that has deterred some productions from filming there, but Culp felt comfortable in his surroundings while on location. He hopes that the dry spell is over because he found the facilities to be top notch and the people first rate. “We had several soundstages to work with at Baja Studios, and the water tanks ended up coming in handy for us,” reports Culp. “We utilized the drained outdoor tank for our Hiroshima set. Some leftover prop debris from Titanic even made it to our set. Actually, in my office on the lot there was one of the couches from the staterooms aboard the Titanic set.” Culp and the production crew also ventured outside of the studio lot to film at two locations for the three-month shoot. “We were able to drive 20 minutes to find a set to re-create a Philippines jungle,” explains Culp. “And we built an ‘Old West,’ Sergio Leone-style town just south of Tecate. Anytime we needed something built, it was my experience that the crew there just gave us double what we needed. It was spectacular.”
According to the Film Commission, more than 70 feature films are produced in Mexico on average, with over 60 being Mexican-based productions. Approximately 270 productions were shot in Mexico in 2011, over 100 of which were commercials and around 50 were TV series and documentaries for National Geographic, BBC, History Channel and Discovery. While there’s no exact figure, the estimated direct spending for all productions made in Mexico is over $133.5 million, of which close to $100 million is from domestic production. The veil of the recent dry spell seems to be lifting: The upcoming film All Is Lost, a maritime journey featuring Robert Redford, is currently prepping to shoot at Baja Studios. And with other productions on the horizon, Mexico’s myriad locales may once again enjoy high production levels.