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They rule the school

Times Staff Writer

You MIGHT expect the set of “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”:-senior-year to be a bit like summer camp, with a bunch of young actors running around in shorts and T-shirts. And to a certain extent, it is. During a recent visit to a night-shoot set in a junkyard here, the preternaturally familiar cast members are surrounded by the colorful rusted-out carcasses of cinematically groomed classic cars and are killing time between shots doing what any group of high school or college kids might do between classes.

Zac Efron, 20, who plays alpha dog and basketball star Troy in the series, nuzzled the neck of his on-stage and off-stage girlfriend, Vanessa Hudgens, 20, who plays the lovely brainiac Gabriella. She then bumped shoulders and banged fake swords with Corbin Bleu, 19, who plays Troy’s best friend, Chad. At one point between takes, Efron and Bleu threw themselves into the canvas chairs recently vacated by director Kenny Ortega and cinematographer Daniel Aranyo and requested a playback, watching the scene they just shot the way any other guys might review their Grand Theft Auto IV scores.

“Did you think about asking the director if it was OK to sit in his chair?” Ortega said, looming suddenly over the two for all the world like a high school principal. Efron grinned sheepishly and leapt from his chair, but everyone, including Ortega, laughed.

After five years of working with this cast, Ortega is clearly a director who rules through love, not fear -- and it’s hard not to love a man who walks around orchestrating an extremely complicated dance number with his teacup terrier Manly (yes, the same one owned by the scheming Sharpay in the movies) carelessly cradled in his arm.

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But don’t be fooled. The minute the cameras and lights are ready, everyone is all business, and if something -- a light, a car, a line -- is not the way he wants it, Ortega’s displeasure is expressed in clarion tones.

For all the playfulness, high spirits and collective chorus of “we really are one big happy family” that infuses the set of Disney’s bullet train of a film franchise, the folks involved in the third “HSM” are focused. Because there’s a lot at stake. The little movie Peter Barsocchini wrote as a simple paean to his own high school experience, that Ortega took as a way to get back into films after spending years choreographing dance numbers at mega-events like the Super Bowl, that was cast with kids previously known only to Disney Channel devotees, has become an international multibillion-dollar industry.

All over the world teens and tweens jam to the soundtrack and scarf up the merchandise. It has become one of the most popular plays staged by real high school drama departments; there’s a traveling show, an ice show and a new reality series called “High School Musical: Get in the Picture.” But even with its built-in audience, “Senior Year” is a very big deal. This one isn’t being shown free on TV; this one will be headed Oct. 24 for the multiplex, where families must shell out roughly $9 each to see the cast sing and dance. And as Efron, Hudgens, Bleu and the rest of the cast continually mention, it’s the last film that this particular group will do together.

So although no one seems nervous exactly, the terms “high energy” and “110%" are used a lot. Even Efron, who expressed impatience with his Disney fetters during the filming of “HSM2,” has, as one insider puts it, put his game face on.

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“Let’s do it again, just better,” he says at one point after Ortega has pointed out a few ways in which he could improve a scene.

Gracious and friendly, Efron, who stretched his wings last year in “Hairspray,” seemed clearly in his element here. Yes, there were problems with the paparazzi earlier on, but now it’s all about the work. And as with many young men, home always seems sweeter after you’ve been away for a bit.

“You definitely appreciate it more,” he says between takes. “I feel lucky to come back. With other projects it was just scene work. Here it’s more like fun and music.”

“Everyone came egos checked at the door,” Bleu says. “We were all ready to work, even more so than on the other films. We know this is it, so we have to enjoy the moment.”

“I really do love these guys,” Hudgens adds.

The scene being shot on this night is a much-anticipated dance number featuring Efron, Bleu and a coterie of male dancers tricked out in junkyard chic. By the time the sun goes down and the lights go up, a crowd of nonparticipatory cast and crew are huddled together in jackets and sweaters.

As artistically ambitious as the previous two films were, the transition from television to feature film has meant many changes -- a larger budget, for example, that no one will discuss in detail, though Ortega says it is half that of most musical features.

Laying the groundwork for at least the possibility of a “High School Musical 4,” new and younger characters will be introduced, including a Sharpay protege named Tiara (Jemma McKenzie-Brown) and two Chad devotees: Jimmie “the Rocket” Zara (Matt Prokop) and Donny (Justin Martin), while some established characters, like composer Kelsi (Olesya Rulin) and uber-thespian Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) will be given new chances to shine.

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But the most noticeable and most remarked-upon difference is the dancing. There’s more of it, 17 numbers compared with 10 in the first “HSM,” and it’s much more complicated. So complicated the cast had a five-week rehearsal just for the choreography.

“The numbers are harder and more intricate,” Hudgens says. “We’ve definitely had to step it up. In a way, it feels like the other two movies were all a run-up to this one.”

The junkyard scene is a perfect example and will probably be one of the most talked-about. “Look at us,” says Ortega, motioning to the stacks of cars, some smashed, some almost drivable. Across from the set, a machine steadily grinds cars into mulch (the sound drives Ortega crazy, but there’s nothing to be done). Behind runs a railroad track; it is the cinematographer’s dream to get a take in which a train rumbles by.

“We’re in the middle of a real-live junkyard. The boys are dancing on cars. It’s challenging -- there are rough edges, hard cement, and we want everyone to be safe. But we wanted a back-lot feel in an actual location, and we got it. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he says, taking a moment to step back from the upbeat professionalism that fuels the production and looking around like a kid who took a wrong turn and wound up in the middle of a movie set.

“It’s going to be so great on the big screen,” he says, back in director mode. “The best one yet.”

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Character issues

So maybe your kids weren’t old enough to get swept away by the first two “High School Musicals,” but now they want in on the hoopla. Here’s a primer to get them started.

Troy Bolton (Zac Efron): As captain of the Wildcats basketball team, Troy has spent the last two movies coming to grips with his penchant for singing, his love of Gabriella and his loyalty to his teammates.

Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens): A transfer student to East High in her junior year, it was soon revealed she was not only a science whiz, she also could sing. Loves Troy but in “HSM2" made it clear she will not put up with coming in second to his ambition.

Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale): Rich and bratty, she was queen of the drama department until Gabriella showed up. She also has eyes for Troy and few scruples when it comes to competition of any kind.

Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel): Sharpay’s equally dramatic brother, he has recently revealed himself as a top-notch baseball player and choreographer. (He still wears those silly hats though.)

Chad Danforth (Corbin Bleu): Troy’s best friend and teammate, Chad has acted as both antagonist and conscience. With any luck, he’ll get more of a life in “Senior Year.”

Taylor McKessie (Monique Coleman): The hyper-organized Taylor is Gabriella’s friend and fellow science team member and, when last seen, Chad’s girlfriend.

-- Mary McNamara


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