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Lights, camera, action - please stand clear of the closing doors. Huh? Yes, you heard right. That's the type of direction you can expect to hear in the New York City subway system, where film makers and television producers have come for decades to add depth, texture and realism to any story that takes place in New York.
With its sets and soundstages, Hollywood can pose as anywhere U.S.A. but only New York City can pass as, well, New York City. And if a film is shot here, there's a good chance that there is at least one scene set along the tracks and stations of MTA New York City Transit's immense and scenically diverse subway system. Add to that the impressive number of music videos, television commercials and shows lensed in New York City, many of which require at least the occasional subway shot.
The responsibility of overseeing special events at NYC Transit falls to the Film and Special Events Unit of Strategy & Customer Experience. NYC Transit offers an invaluable resource to the film industry and by extension provides an economic benefit to the city.
Both Eddie Murphy (in Coming to America) and Paul Hogan (as Crocodile Dundee) proposed to their brides in the New York City subway, presumably living happily ever after. And who could forget King Kong, Fay Wray in hand, wrecking the Sixth Avenue Elevated in preparation for his climb to the top of the Empire State Building? Well, technically, it didn't really take place in the subway; it was a scale-model set of an elevated railway but everyone got the idea.
The very first motion picture shot in the system was the Thomas A. Edison film of 1904. The cameraman mounted a camera on a train and followed the Lexington Avenue Local along its route. The grainy film was absent sound and short on plot, but it started a tradition. And the camera has been in love with New York City's subway ever since.
More recently, Jennifer Lopez boarded the No. 4 train in
the Bronx and rode to her job in a swank midtown hotel in hit film Maid
in Manhattan and
a few years earlier, she, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson teamed as Transit
cops in Money Train. Harrelson returned for an encore when he
and fellow cowpoke Keifer Sutherland transferred from horseback to a Brooklyn-bound
B train as it pounded across the Manhattan Bridge in the climatic scene
of The Cowboy Way.
All shooting in and adjacent to the New York City subway system is overseen by the Film & Special Events Unit (FSEU), which was created in order to facilitate filming on New York City Transit property. Headed by Ruthie Jones , the unit handles the needs of scores of production companies from site scouting to picking a specific type of subway car.
From Motion Pictures to Music Videos
Jobs can last for a couple of hours or production crews can shoot in the system over the course of several months. Shooting a production in North America's largest mass transit system is a cooperative effort among several divisions and units of the Department of Subways, the Department of Buses and the Division of System Safety.
The process requires teamwork and coordination. Working along with the Visual Production Unit, the General Order Unit is notified that a production company wants to shoot at a particular location and time. At that time it is determined whether or not a train or station is involved, and the type of shooting they would like to do.
A technical meeting is scheduled at the desired location. Representatives from the Divisions of Stations, Car Equipment, the Department of System Safety, Contract Inspections, the Electrical Department and Rapid Transit Operations assemble to scout the location in order to make certain the shoot is feasible and there are no safety issues.
Charges are figured to the last penny and they take into account, how long the production will last, how many NYC Transit employees will be needed for the job and how long the job will take. The rental of a subway train includes the crew (train operator and conductor), a train service supervisor and sometimes officers of the NYPD.
Learning to Walk the Walk
They are also required to take a test upon class completion. Everyone who takes the class has to stand in a clearance area along the tracks as a train passes.
Of course, with safety always being a prime concern, all productions using
NYC Transit property are required to take out liability and railroad insurance
policies of at least
As important as it is to make the system accessible to producers, the
primary role of the subway system is to move people. If a production calls
for shooting in a normally busy location, that project will be done during
the overnight hours when impact on the public is minimal.
It's a complicated process to set everything up to the satisfaction of all sides. After all, while NYC Transit does its best to accommodate the industry, the authority also has 4.7 million subway riders to move each day. Does everything always roll smoothly? Well, no. At times Transit has to put its collective foot down and say no to a project.
Filming in the New York City subway system will always present challenges and opportunities. The next time you see a film, television show, commercial or music video that includes shots of NYC Transit's subway system, remember a lot of work went into making it look just right.