A scene from "Transformers" is filmed on the Los Angeles River. (Paramount Pictures )
About 150 crew members, supported by three motor homes, a giant crane and 10 semi-trucks, huddled under downtown's 6th Street Bridge to film a "winter scene" on the Los Angeles River.
Tampering with the river, which is regulated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, was off-limits. So producers of the "Batman" sequel "The Dark Knight Rises" built a platform over the riverbed designed with a special surface to make it look like ice.
The sequence for the movie -- which is scheduled for release in theaters in July -- was part of a nighttime shoot that lighted up the industrial area, complete with fake snow, fireballs and plenty of billowing smoke.
The elaborate film shoot this month was the latest example of how the L.A. River, which runs nearly 48 miles from the Simi Hills in San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, remains not only an enduring character of the city but also a meandering back lot for Hollywood.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 30, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. River filming: An article in the Sept. 28 Business section about the popularity of the Los Angeles River as a film backdrop said the river runs behind Culver Studios. The waterway behind the lot is Ballona Creek, which was once part of the L.A. River but is now considered a separate watershed.
"In other parts of the country you don't have concrete riverbeds, but in L.A. it's kind of symbolic of the city," said Tony Salome, former location manager for "24," the defunct TV series that once had a fighter jet fly over the 6th Street Bridge to take out a van sitting in the riverbed. "With the L.A. skyline around it, the river is very dramatic."
This month alone, along with "Dark Knight Rises," the L.A. River was the backdrop for key scenes for another Warner Bros. movie, "The Gangster Squad," about the Los Angeles Police Department's anti-mafia unit during the 1940s and '50s. That production filmed a scene with some vintage cars parked beneath the 6th Street Bridge alongside the river.
The river is also getting the star treatment in the current movie release "Drive," starring Ryan Gosling, who plays a Hollywood stuntman who takes his girlfriend on an unusual date by driving into the L.A. River.
The river's appeal
Although location managers say it has become more difficult in recent years to secure permits to film along the river, it remains a popular location because of its downtown vistas and ample industrial space, especially downtown where it is easier to perform stunts and set off explosions than in residential neighborhoods. The numerous bridges, some dating from the 1920s, also are a big draw.
"The bridges are pretty great," said J. J. Hook, key assistant location manager on the 2007 action hit "Transformers," which had a memorable scene with helicopters flying through the tunnel of the Olympic Boulevard bridge, where Optimus Prime, the leader of the autobots, was hiding out.
"They are very photogenic, and you can get quite a lot of control at night over the use of those bridges." Over the years, the L.A. River has proved remarkably versatile, serving as a gritty urban setting for the classic 1967 film noir movie "Point Blank" starring Lee Marvin, who carries out a killing below the 4th Street Bridge, and a battleground for aliens in "Transformers" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," the 1991 film in which a young Arnold Schwarzenegger rips through the river on a motorbike with his shotgun at the ready.
The river also was the site of John Travolta's drag-racing scene in "Grease" and even served as a nest for giant ants in the 1954 horror movie "Them!" local film historian Marc Wanamaker said. "There are just so many films that have shot out there, I can't even begin to tell you," he said.
In fact, the L.A. River has been a fixture in Hollywood since the silent-film era, when it benefited from its proximity to the major studios.
The historic Culver Studios used the L.A. River behind its Culver City back lot to stage battle scenes for the 1930 war epic "All Quiet on the Western Front," constructing a French village connected by a bridge over the waterway that came under siege by the Germans.
Universal Pictures also filmed a number of western movies in the river, decades before it was covered in concrete in the early 1950s after a series of devastating floods and when it still looked like a natural waterway.
"When Universal settled in the Valley in 1912, the river was a major part of their operation," Wanamaker said. "They used it to save money."
Times staff writer Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.