Film set signs specialize in misdirection

JCL Barricade Co. in Los Angeles makes as much as 80% of the yellow signs by film and TV production companies in the L.A. area. Above, a sign for a movie shoot at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena.
(Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

Many people in Los Angeles know that those bright yellow rectangular signs that pop up periodically in their neighborhoods mean a TV show or movie is being filmed nearby.

What they may not know is that the production information on those signs is often misleading — a usually successful attempt to prevent rabid fans or ardent paparazzi from discovering that the nearby production is a big feature film or popular TV show.

“The names are completely different to throw people off,” said Lori Balton, a location manager and president of the Location Managers Guild of America. “It’s just easier to fly under the radar.”


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The name that appears in big block letters on those yellow signs might be the same as the production company used to get its filming permit.

But on recent Los Angeles shoots, “Magnus Rex” was actually the “Batman” reboot “The Dark Knight Rises,” starring Christian Bale, while “Rasputin” was the big-budget sequel “Iron Man 2,” starring Robert Downey Jr.

The sequel to “Captain America: The First Avenger” that filmed in L.A. this year did so under the code name “Freezer Burn,” a reference to a scene in the movie in which the title character, played by Chris Evans, was frozen.

The original production title for the 2009 movie “Star Trek” was “Corporate Headquarters,” said location scout Kathy McCurdy, who also worked on the 2007 film “Transformers.” When fans blew the film’s alias, “Star Trek” became known as “Walter Lace,” the name of McCurdy’s late grandfather.

McCurdy said it’s hard to keep a big film’s title a secret.

“It’s in the course of doing business,” she said. “There’s always somebody who leaks it.”

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As much as 80% of those bright yellow signs are manufactured in Los Angeles by JCL Barricade Co., which has offered the signs since 2001.

Before that, it was common for location managers to make their own signs, sometimes by stealing L.A. city “No Parking” signs, flipping them over and writing their production names on the back, JCL Barricade owner Jim Morris said.

“Everything used to look really sloppy,” he said.

JCL Barricade, which employs 20 people at its downtown Los Angeles headquarters, sells the signs for about $10 each. A typical movie shoot will start with 20 signs and add more as additional shooting days and locations require. Signs tell the crew where to park, or the drivers of equipment trucks where to set up, or the cast or extras where to gather.

JCL Barricade provides signs for TV commercials too.

It’s a good business. Barricade provided more than 10,000 of the 18-by-24-inch signs for productions across the U.S. last year, said Morris, who expects to meet or exceed that number this year.

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That’s despite the increasing number of productions leaving Los Angeles for other cities and states that offer more attractive film and TV production tax incentives. Losing business to Louisiana and Georgia hasn’t hurt Barricade, though.


Morris ships nationwide and has even produced signs for productions filming in foreign countries.

Morris said that many productions use fake names to hide from obsessed fans.

But J.J. Levine, spokeswoman for the Location Managers Guild of America, said that unions play a role too.

Although the vast majority of local shoots are covered by union contracts, sometimes nonunion shoots use fake names as a way to keep union representatives from trying to get crew members to join their guilds.

“We’re a union town, and a nonunion movie sometimes tries to fly under the radar,” Levine said.

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Despite the subterfuge, many fans figure out what’s shooting and are able to sneak onto a set by blending into the often large crowd of actors, extras, grips and production assistants.


Another location manager, W. Harry Fortuna, who worked on the 2012 Will Farrell comedy “The Campaign” and the 2011 movie “The Muppets,” said that it can be easy for fans to sneak onto a set because security doesn’t always know everyone who is supposed to be there.

“Once you show up at a set and act like you’re supposed to be there, you might be able to stay for a while without anybody realizing,” Fortuna said.

As a result, he added, some productions now issue crew members special car decals that enable them to park at or near the location.


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