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7 December 2018

Behind the Scenes at WLFS

This little-known film studios in Hayes turns out some of the UK's biggest film and TV hits.

Nestled in a no man's land off Uxbridge Road, you probably haven't heard of West London Film Studios but it's rapidly becoming one of the UK's hottest spots for film and TV makers.

We went behind the scenes at the studios where season one of BBC America's assassin hit, Killing Eve, the final series of Peep Show and Idris Elba's directorial debut film, Yardie, were all made.

There's a lot more than meets the eye to what could easily be mistaken for soulless storage units. From a fully functioning hospital set (the only of its kind in the UK), to star dressing rooms which have kept the likes of Bradley Cooper, Renée Zellweger and Colin Firth happy, the Hayes location has a more than a touch of Hollywood about it.

WLFS was bought and renamed by entrepreneur Frank Khalid, 50, in 2005. South east Londoner Frank runs successful catering and cash and carry businesses, but taking over a film studios was a childhood dream come true.

Frank said: "Since I was a very young boy I’ve been very passionate about films and it was just one of those things, I just wanted to get involved. If you can’t be in the film at least you can be part of it. And this was my way of being part of the film industry-by owning a film studios."

The studios were previously used by Sky and The Racing Channel to film programmes but went into administration after the tenants moved elsewhere. Since its 2005 purchase Frank breathed new life and money into the place and says a massive refurbishment and new management has seen it go from strength to strength.

Frank's proudest projects at the studios include season one of Killing Eve and 2014 Oscar-winning film The Imitation Game. It starred Benedict Cumberbatch as maths genius Alan Turing whose machine helped decrypt German intelligence code in WWII.

A massive replica of the Turing Machine was built on set and remains Frank's favourite prop to this day, he said: "When I walked onto the set and saw the Turing Machine there it was incredible - it was huge, so much work must have gone into making it. I was gutted not to have got a photo."

So what's the secret to making a successful film studios? According to WLFS general manager Matilda Wiley, a lot of its to do with its west London location.

She said: "West London is known as the film cluster. A lot of the productions prefer being in west London because of the airport, and it’s an easier commute for a lot of the talent, who live in west London. They can get straight to the West End from here as well which they like. Lots of the film studios are in this area, so production companies can come here and use other facilities."

The bigger the better

Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire and Ealing Studios are just two of the big names WLFS is competing with. It has a steady stream of business but Frank is keen to expand to attract bigger productions like Disney's Marvel projects who have turned WLFS down because of lack of space in the past.

Frank said: "I want to expand - the space we have is not big enough at the moment- we’ve got the likes of Marvel and Netflix approaching us but we don’t always have the space they need. So we want to make another bigger studios in Hillingdon, hopefully in the next 12 to 15 months - very soon.

"Most of our people who work here are local but it’s not just us the productions who come here also employ local people. The whole community benefits from us being here - the businesses and local caterers too."

Behind the lens

We took a look around west London's up and coming film studios to see where the on screen magic is made.

Several hit shows are currently being filmed there which WLFS said we can't mention for legal reasons - but trust us, they're big.

On the day we visited one of the most talked about series of the year was on set filming its second season. But secrecy around the show is so high that we weren't even allowed to set foot in the part of the building it was being filmed in, let alone reveal its name to you.

The studios

WLFS has six stages of varying sizes which are kitted with all the necessary elements, including sound reduction and adjoining prop workshops.

A tour around Stages 1 and 2 revealed totally different sights. Stage 1 still housed half dismantled sets from BBC comedy series "Hold the Sunset," which stars John Cleese and has its second series due out next year.

WLFS' stages are generally used for indoors scenes as most production companies will film on location for outside action.

Mobile home-esque cabins kitted out with kitchen sideboards, living room furniture and even wallpaper filled most of Stage 1.

Suburbia had been recreated inch for inch in the middle of a massive warehouse. Cables strewn across the floor of a kitchen where a plywood sideboard had been moved off the wall clearly showed it was a constructed domestic scene.

Production companies dismantle the sets once shooting is over which sometimes means spectacular props being completely destroyed. An entire 1940s hotel was built at WLFS to film ITV series the Halcyon. It cost £3million to make and was built to last five years but was destroyed after season one of the series flopped.

WLFS sometimes gives materials left behind by production companies to nearby schools and colleges, Frank said: "We sometimes give left over wood and materials to the workshop at the Guru Nanak Sikh Academy opposite, and the flats (the porter cabin-like sets), go to Uxbridge College’s drama department."

While stage 1 contained sets, in stage 2 there was nothing at all. The massive 5300sqft room had also been used to shoot "Hold the Sunset" but was now completely empty having recently been cleared out.

A charity called MADE is one of the many tenants at WLFS and gives tours of the studios to disadvantaged London school children and students.

Matilda said: "When the kids see it they’re in awe of it - they don’t know what goes into production, so when you get the tour you see how things are built. You see all the set and props and think 'well somebody makes these'- and think about all the different jobs in set construction. You may think ‘I love film’ but I don’t want to be an actor or a camera an - but I can do something else."

What became clear looking a this vast empty room was the scale of imagination and sheer graft that goes into building the backdrops we see but barely notice in our favourite films and series.

The hospital location

The Hospital Location is a tenant at WLFS and does exactly what its name suggests. It's the only UK film set designed specially for hospital scenes and was set up by people from medical backgrounds who have got its authenticity down to a tee.

It has a fully-equipped operating theatre which has all the relevant terrifying instruments, including medical scissors, forceps and scalpels.

There is also a heart monitor and bulkier electronic equipment whose flashing lights and whirring were unnerving to say the least. Part of the series Autopsy: The Last Hours of was filmed there.

Frank said: "All the equipment is real, the guys who run the company are all from a medical background so it’s genuine. It’s even creepier when we show you where they keep the dead bodies."

Next to the operating theatre there's a morgue which is home to two dummy corpses. One appears to have had its head sawn off and the other has a long incision down its torso for surgery scenes.

The hospital set is spread across two floors and has realistic signs to different medical departments as well as A&E waiting room and an examination room where Gary Lineker donned a hospital gown to film a Walkers crisps ad.

The prop-makers

There are hundreds of props in films and TV series which help to bring the on-screen magic to life. But what you might not know is that most lot of them are painstakingly put together by teams of talented designers. We popped into one of the three prop workshops at WLFS and met some of the team putting stuff together for a historical TV show (we're prevented by WLFS from naming it because of a non-disclosure agreement it has with the production company).

We met art director and freelance prop designer Jo Marshall who was busy making a space robot out of cardboard for an upcoming episode.

She said: "I usually work with the same team of designers, there are four of five of us who make props."

Asked what the strangest thing she’s ever had make is Jo said: "God, so many things - I’ve had to make some elephant legs, some iron railings that a suffragette had to wear over her head, so many things!"

"Building space models like this one is pretty intricate, they have to come into pieces in the scene, so we have to make the props work for whatever the action is in the scene - so you have to build them so the actor can use them in a way that fits the scene but is also historically accurate - it’s tough but good fun."

There are different roles within the prop-making team, Jo explained: "I do all the graphics, banners and signs - all that stuff and the small, little prop makes so anything like letter opener with and then we have two chippies who do all the woodwork for bigger things so we’ve got some exercise equipment that they’re making which is all woodwork and stuff- I do more cardboard. Some of them build the sets and things - I don’t do much of that."

According to Jo there are hundreds of props made for each episode of the series she's working on, let alone the entire season, she said: "Every scene in every production has props which need to be made - in the series we’re working on at the moment there are probably about 30 props per scene which means hundreds per episode."

Hair and make-up

The hair and make-up team, who are also working on the unnameable, historical series, are pinning together intricate hair pieces onto polystyrene heads when we walk in.

"Once they're glued, they have to be baked in the oven next-door to set," explained trainee Lydia Noble.

Head of hair and make-up Siobhan Harper-Ryan wasn't giving anything away about celebrity divas she may or may not have worked with, she said: "Mostly everybody is lovely to deal with. Sometimes they can get a bit tired if they have to sit and wait for hours."

Asked what the hardest job she's ever done was Siobhan said: "The toughest make-up I've ever had to do was a film for National Geographic, we were at the top of a mountain in Scotland, we had donkeys taking our equipment up and I had 15 supporting actors in full-face prosthetics as Neanderthals. We had to do their makeup down at the base and get them up the mountain without it coming off."

She added: "I would definitely encourage people to work in hair and makeup. I love the constant changing and the research, the history. What we’re doing here is a historical production at the moment so we’re always constantly on the internet double-checking we've got stuff as authentic as possible."

Secretary to the stars

Receptionist Caitlin Davies has been the front desk receptionist at WLFS for nearly four years and is the first port of call for TV and movie stars when they arrive at the studios.

Caitlin, 28, said: "It can be hard work sometimes, I’ll just put it out there coz there’s everyone coming in but it’s enjoyable getting to talk to everyone. Some days I’m even in the dressing rooms with some of the people just chatting and getting to know them.

"Everyone, the film stars included, just wander around quite leisurely here."

As well as being asked to test drive a Fungus the Bogeyman costume, Caitlin's is regularly roped in as an extra on productions.

She said: "Everyone likes to get involved in different things, I was a nurse in Killing Eve, I’ve been in Horrible Histories, I’ve been in loads."

Source: MyLondon